It is 93 years since the sudden death of British tenor Gervase Elwes led to the foundation of the Musicians’ Benevolent Fund. Almost five years to the day into his job, its chief executive talks to Toby Deller about a historic change for the charity.
When I meet David Sulkin, one Friday in January, it is his last day as executive director of the Musicians’ Benevolent Fund. He isn’t leaving, however. By Monday, the organisation will have a new name: Help Musicians UK.
‘This isn’t the first time that we’ve changed our name,’ he reflects. ‘We changed it in 1930. Before that we were the Gervase Elwes Memorial Fund for Musicians. So we’ve had the name a long time, and people love it. Making the change, we’ve been very careful to think about how people could be encouraged to like the new name as much, so we’ve kept it plain and simple.’
The renaming comes as part of a recent strategic plan (reported in CM in June) and after a consultation exercise. Did this throw up any surprises? ‘What it did do was confirm our worst fears!’ remarks Sulkin. ‘And that is somebody senior in the profession saying: “Yes I’ve seen your name around but I don’t really know what you do. I suppose it’s looking after people when they can no longer walk or are in care homes?” And of course right from the beginning we’ve helped people throughout their careers. Sometimes you get that feedback and you go: I wish it wasn’t like that. But if you’re getting a message about a lack of clarity, what do you do but try to make the message clear?’
From what Sulkin tells me, it seemed to be that all three words in the organisation’s name came under scrutiny, for one reason or another. ‘People didn’t get “benevolent”. Although it means “wishing well” it has become synonymous with “old and frail”. I realised that although it’s a noble word, it was time for a change.’
As for ‘fund’: ‘One person said to me, it sounds like a building society. But what we do is not necessarily about money, it’s about help. So often, people come to us with plenty of resources but they don’t know what the next step will be, so help is what they want, not money.’ He gives the idea of a helpline as an example the kind of initiative they are looking to put in place: ‘Not an “I’ve-got-a-financial-crisis or somebody-didn’t-pay-me” helpline. This is: “I feel my standards are slipping and I don’t want to discuss this with any of my colleagues or anyone I work with. But I’d like some advice because I’d like to regrow my confidence. Who can I talk to?” ’
There may even have been misperceptions about the kind of musician they look to help. Sulkin points out that 56% of beneficiaries in 2012 came from non-classical genres. ‘Going back to the beginning of this organisation, we used to support people who played in dance bands and jazz clubs ‒ there’s a notable story from the thirties when somebody was given help and then was discovered working in a nightclub. Another man wanted a rail fare because he couldn’t afford it to join a band at a circus, only to find when he got there they had moved! People don’t think of us as always having done that kind of work.’
He puts at 70,000 the number of professional musicians that Help Musicians UK could potentially reach. ‘We’re really proud that this is not a membership organisation. You don’t have to belong. If you’re a professional musician and you’re in any kind of trouble, this is where you should come. This is why the name Help Musicians should help: it’s encouraging people ‒ musicians ‒ to think of us as a resource for them.’
Not only is the new name more obviously descriptive of the work it does, but it is also a clearer invitation to donate: ‘please help musicians’ as well as ‘we help musicians’. ‘There are some people who feel they can take or leave music, but for most people it’s a huge driver in their lives. If we get the message right about the challenge of maintaining a quality professional career in whatever genre, then we have to match that with messages to people who love that genre. So many people in this country follow music of different types, why couldn’t they just occasionally put their hands in their pockets for musicians?’
That might mean musicians at any stage of their careers: the organisation administers various awards and runs its Emerging Excellence scheme as a way of helping performers at the start of their careers. The aim is to be an organisation that is, if not exactly cradle to grave, then at least one that is there to help people into the profession and out again, whenever that may prove to be, and at every stage in between. ‘We’re going to do a lot more work with people we support at postgraduate level or in the development of their skills and talents to try and create a family ‒ a Help Musicians family ‒ so they know throughout their careers that we are here.’
As the Musicians’ Benevolent Fund, Help Musicians UK provided assistance to more than 2,000 individuals in 2012, including violinist Mandhira de Saram, who received help following treatment for thyroid cancer. Separately, her group the Ligeti Quartet has been recently helped through one of the organisation’s funding schemes.
Was the MBF/HMUK an organisation you knew about?
Yes, because they helped my dad when we moved to England when I was a teenager, and helped my sister get a new violin when she was really young. So I knew about it, but didn’t really think of contacting them.
Any reason why not?
I think the main reason I didn’t contact people at first was just because I knew I would be fine [financially]. I had the quartet and they would have helped out unless I got worse. What surprised me was they were so ready to help. I expected hours of forms to fill up and then probably them saying, ok we’ll give you 200 quid and see how you go. But they basically paid my rent.
Like getting a wage?
Exactly, like getting sick pay. Help Musicians basically supported me for a good six months almost for everything.
How did you get in touch?
I just sent an email. Within a few hours, Joe, the guy who helped me out, called and said, we’re going to put £500 in your account. So within about two days I had £500 in my account. By then it was a few days after my operation and he came and visited. It was actually really nice to have someone care because I hadn’t really told many people.
How did the help come to an end? They didn’t just suddenly pull the plug?
No, that’s another thing that was really nice, they didn’t just leave me by myself. Actually, even when I said I didn’t think I particularly needed it they gave me another couple of months, just to keep me going. Because it did take time to start up again, especially with the quartet.
The Ligeti Quartet also got help?
Yes, for coaching and performance. It’s all over Europe so we’ve been to Vienna, Prades, Romania, Florence. It’s completely worth it. For each of those trips you need some kind of funding because you can’t pay for all of it. Flights and accommodation, that’s what we need the money for.
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