Thirty years ago, a Harpenden mum had an idea on how to introduce her baby daughter to music which has since expanded into Monkey Music; a celebrated programme for young children…
When Angie Coates came up with a plan to introduce her baby to the joys of music, little did she know it would form the basis of an award-winning UK business that has gone from strength to strength over the past 30 years.
Graduating from London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama, classically trained musician Angie took to the road, touring and performing and embracing her passion for music as a pianist and oboist. ‘I loved it,’ she says, ‘but I fell pregnant at the relatively young age of 26 and felt life on the road as a musician no longer worked for me.’
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Keen to share her love of music with her daughter, Millie, Angie searched for baby music classes, but failed to find anything suitable. ‘At the time, there was nothing where I lived in London to take my baby along to for music,’ she explains.
‘Any music classes were very formal, but I wanted something fun to learn to. I decided to write my own curriculum, for my own use and for friends and family, and it’s ended up being what it is today – Monkey Music.’
Founded by Angie in 1992, Monkey Music offers a progressive curriculum split into four stages – Rock ‘n’ Roll from three months, Heigh Ho for toddlers, Jiggety Jig for two and three years and Ding Dong for three and four year olds.
‘I actually wrote the second stage first, as my own baby was coming up to one,’ says Angie, who grew up in Harpenden and raised her children there, after a spell living in London. ‘I had five children over a 15-year period, so Monkey Music has grown with my own children.’
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The focus is on making music fun, while being educational.
‘I trained as a classical musician on oboe and piano, which is good training to have, but it can be restricting, so I had my eye on making music less formal and more fun for my own children.’
Angie’s passion is also driven by a clear childhood memory. ‘In your life, you have key moments that make you who you are. When I was very young, I was naturally very musical, but I hated playing the recorder. I was about seven and my mum said I had to carry on with it because I’d only given up Brownies the week before.
‘I went on to learn the clarinet. If I had given up the recorder then, I probably wouldn’t be in music now. It was sheer luck I carried on, and I’ve had the most wonderful life in music. I don’t want anyone else to risk giving it up, and I think that is my motivation for making music fun.’
To celebrate Monkey Music’s 30th anniversary, Angie is keen to organise a reunion of those who took part in her first ever class, saying, ‘I can remember them all very clearly. When I started out, I was teaching with cassette tapes and then the internet came along, and now we have downloads, so teaching is very much more agile.
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‘There came a time when I had 500 customers a week I was teaching, and my brother said I needed to franchise it as a business. I was a musician and didn’t know what it meant.
‘He left his career as a lawyer to be Monkey Music’s director and, between us, we were able to make it accessible to parents and children, and to people wanting to run their own business. It enabled me to grow and extend the reach of the business.’
Monkey Music now has 50 franchises and 150 teachers across the UK, with 700 hours of classes taught each week.
‘To start with we grew organically, because I was testing it out, and our teachers became franchisees,’ explains Angie. ‘We grew slowly, which was good because it gave a sound understanding of what we were trying to achieve.
‘We have a very long, thorough recruitment process because it’s really important to recruit the right people, and we insist on high levels of training. I always interview everybody, and I’m involved in the training. I’m a stickler for quality and not quantity. I don’t think you can rush growing a really sound reputation.
‘We take people from all walks of life because the curriculum is written so it can be taught by non-musicians, but they need a love of music and to understand it’s importance in child development.’
So what is music’s importance to a child’s development?
‘Linguistically, singing is important for children, and there are so many different things we do to support those early stages of speech development. Even with tiny babies, it’s about physical, social and emotional development. It’s at the heart of what we do together as a group.’
Monkey Music classes are jam-packed with musical and sensory activities, using props, instruments, bubbles and more. ‘We don’t place any demands on the children,’ says Angie, ‘and one of the things people often say to us is that they can enjoy the company of their own child without feeling they have to make conversation.
‘It’s a privilege to be in a relationship with our customers at a very special time in their lives, and we respect that. I wouldn’t enjoy running a business that didn’t have that genuine heart.’
Angie is celebrating her brainchild being named the number one children’s music franchise in the UK and making it into this year’s Elite Franchise Top 100, competing against household brands such as Subway and Vodafone to take 39th place.
The prestigious franchising list ranks businesses in the sector according to a broad range of criteria, including financial performance, heritage, innovation and contribution to the community.
‘We’re incredibly proud, and we have finished in the top 50 every year since the Elite Franchise Top 100 began in 2017.’
Angie says that Monkey Music is all about sharing precious time together and while the pandemic has ‘taken its toll on many of our Monkey Music families across the UK’ music has helped promote a general sense of wellbeing.
‘We are constantly raising the standards within the children’s music sector and believe this ranking will set us apart once again. It is a welcome boost for the year ahead.’
Looking to the future, she adds: ‘The driving force has always been to extend the reach of what we do, so the aim is to continue to expand and grow.’
By Richard Young