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Interview: Millicent Stephenson, saxophonist

18 February 2022

‘I always wonder why people pull up the ladder when they get to where they want to’

I didn’t set out to be a musician. In secondary school, I saw older girls playing a gold and shiny instrument. I asked my teacher if I could learn, and he said no, start with the clarinet. So I played in the school orchestra, and eventually their steel band.

I was around 18 years old when my church was having a march.
My friend who was leading the music side of it was struggling to decide whether to play his saxophone or trumpet in the line-up. He said: “If only I could get someone to play one of these. . .” I replied: “I play the clarinet. It’s the same family as the saxophone; so I can play that one for you.” I don’t advise anyone to do what I did next — I borrowed his saxophone and mouthpiece, and started to practise. I did music grades after I left school, and was pottering in a church band. I was asked to play at an event, and another.

It wasn’t till I was 42 I really had a strong spiritual compulsion to do more.
I ignored it, because, though I was having lessons with Andy Hamilton, his band played in wine bars and clubs. My church was very strict: we didn’t go to places like that. Two Christians who worked for the BBC helped me a bit, but, really, I was stuck. I said: “O God, what am I going to do with this?”

At my church’s prayer and fasting event, I asked for help.
“This doesn’t make sense, I’m a Christian — what am I doing?” They prayed with me and for me, and, at the end, they said: “Go.” Four weeks later, a Christian friend asked me to play in his band. He taught me so much about PA systems, stage presentation, and all the skills that women often don’t have. I was asked to play for a black-tie charity event attended by the Governor of Jamaica, and that was the beginning of my solo career.

I’m booked for various types of events:
weddings, funerals, fund-raisers, corporate events, festivals. And I play a range of genres: jazz, gospel, reggae, blues, soul, and pop.

Writing music is a journey for me.
My first recording was funky, upbeat “It’s All Good”, and slow R’n’B “I Will Go On”. My other numbers are more romantic jazz/blues: “My Love”, based on the Song of Solomon; “I’d Be Blue If I Didn’t Have You”, a vocal track with sax about relationships; and “Oh Ageing, What A Thing”, a take on getting old.

I’m very much self-taught on the business side of things,
diving into manuals and books. Years ago, I completed a computing degree; so I’m really comfortable with tech, but it’s still a steep learning curve to learn how programs work.

I set up Time for My Music as an online community of female musicians to connect, share, learn, and advance themselves.
The aim was to get them gig-ready, and online concerts give them something to work towards. I give them information about the technology they need in order to broadcast online; how to do sound-checks, talk effectively to DJs and sound engineers, deal with the patronising man in the church group who puts women down. . . We’ve had a consultant to advise on clothes, colours, and a psychotherapist to talk about the mind and performing in public.

My journey to where I am now wasn’t straightforward;
so I want to help others achieve their goals. I always wonder why people pull up the ladder when they get to where they want to. If the person asking for help does not have the correct skills, they can be guided or referred elsewhere rather than be met by silence. The world’s a big place, and we can all find our fans and market ourselves and do music.

My weekly podcast Success Beyond the Score trains people in how to develop their performance skills,
and everything they need to know to become successful musicians.

I’m very keen to see a better balance of females in the music industry.
We’re not even 50 per cent of it. In time, parity can be achieved. The more female role-models are promoted, the more little girls will grow up knowing a career in music is possible.

When I was little, my parents listened to ska and reggae.
At school, it was hymns, and classical music for assembly. But, when my mum came home with the Jackson 5’s album and the Osmonds, well — that was another level to music. I wanted to marry Michael Jackson — but that didn’t happen.

It’s funny, but all the awards I’ve won for my work are equal for me.
I don’t think of them much, and certainly not in a bad way. I just get on with the work in front of me. They are for different things; so they have different meanings.

My parents came from Jamaica to Birmingham in the early ’60s,
when people of the Caribbean were requested to come to the UK to build the economy. They met a lot of racism. We were seven children, and money was short. Many evenings, I went to bed hungry.

In the winter, I was cold going to and from school,
as the uniform was all we had, and my parents couldn’t always afford coats. The coats we did have were worn until they could no longer fit. Things got better by degrees.

My husband, Michael, is an electrician,
a pastor, and he’s started to play the guitar again and works with Street Pastors now. Our grown-up children are still at home. My son got into writing music, and he’s very good with mixing desks and lighting. My daughter plays the double bass.

I remember hearing my parents talking about Judgement Day when I was five or six,
and it’s was a very scary experience when I realised it could come at any point.

I attended a Methodist church until I was 12.
I went to Sunday school, and was so impressed by the youth leader that I concentrated more in the services and read my Bible. I eventually became a Christian at 15 years old through the example of a schoolfriend.

My faith is central to me.
Prayer, meditation, and understanding the Bible keeps me going.

One day, I would like to conquer my fear of heights and climb a mountain,
not just watch others do it on the TV. And, of course, I’d like to write a chart-topping song.

Injustice makes me angry,
and unkindness.

Sunshine, warm weather, and time to soak it in makes me happy.
My favourite sound is my husband’s voice, and the sea.

My computer’s been the most important thing during the pandemic.
I was struggling to work online because my machine was old: still on Windows 7. I came across the Black Arts Grant, and, coupled with what I could scrounge together, I was able to get an up-to-date machine to do what I needed to do.

If there are opportunities, then there’s still a lot to play for;
so there’s a future. List the problems, potential solutions, and pray. Eat something healthy and nice and sleep. The next day can bring a change. If it doesn’t, repeat. Get help. Speak to someone. Solutions come that way, too. And sometimes, just sometimes, you have to wait it out. Learn in the waiting.

I’m part of a prayer WhatsApp group;
so items for prayer come from there. I pray for my family and friends. I pray for the Government when things get a little pear-shaped.

I’d like to be locked in a church with John Wesley.
I heard a great sermon about him recently. He was instrumental in reforms, schooling, the early union movement, the English labour movement, and opposing slavery. It would be a great chance to discuss the matters of his heart and calling.

Millicent Stephenson was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.


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