We’ve got another exciting day for us here at RSL, as we announce our newest RSL Honorary Fellowship, celebrating the marvellous Deirdre Cartwright.

A fellowship of RSL is currently the highest honour that RSL can bestow. Fellowships are presented to acknowledge practitioners who have contributed to the development of their art form and inspired the students of RSL qualifications to achieve their best, whilst promoting good practice within the music education sector itself.

Guitarist/songwriter and Co-Founder of jazz organisation and jazz club “Blow the Fuse”, Deirdre has undoubtedly made a truly impactful contribution to the music industry in the UK. During the ’00s, Deirdre was commissioned by Chard International Women’s Music Festival to devise an original performance and educational piece. ‘Flight’ has since been performed for the London Jazz Festival and also included appearances at the Barbican and Queen Elizabeth Hall with an international band.

A first encounter with RSL many years ago resulted in a long lasting collaboration. Deirdre, as Head of the Guitar syllabus development at RSL Awards, developed one of our groundbreaking, flexible Electric Guitar syllabuses! This has meant that we’ve had the pleasure of seeing Deirdre’s dedication to music and drive to deliver a more accessible way of learning for all guitar students worldwide!

Deirdre Cartwright and Norton York at RSL Honorary Fellowship Awarding Night

Chairman of RSL, Norton York, had the absolute pleasure of presenting the RSL Fellowship award to Deirdre. She also gave us a bit of her time to discuss some of the cornerstone moments that impacted her life and her involvement with RSL Awards. Read on to find out more about Deirdre's wonderful and thrilling musical journey, and how she now uses her experience to give back to other fellow musicians.

1. What was the biggest reward for you when working on the Rockschool Electric Guitar syllabus?

Deirdre: It was really helpful because it enabled me to codify and think about everything that had been important for me as a guitarist. I’m mainly self-taught, so I've always made notes and written charts, and written things down, and tried to work things out. I think working with Rockschool enabled me to really put it into a structure and to create levels as well. Say you've been playing the guitar for six months, what would be good for you to be able to do, and what to focus on? Now maybe you've been playing for two-three years, so where are you heading? What's your focus? What's your goal?

An important difference for Rockschool from the more traditional awarding bodies is the freedom in the learning process. I played the piano as a child and I did take exams, but a lot of the time, it felt divorced from your personal experience of how you felt about playing. There was no room for improvisation. There was very little room for any creative play. And with Rockschool, even from that very first syllabus that I was involved with, we wanted to try and include aspects in the exam that were part and parcel of practically being in a band.

2. What advice would you give to young musicians today who are trying to make their way in the music industry?

Deirdre: Contacts are the most important thing. Make sure you have a website, make sure you've got some aspects of yourself playing put up, just put yourself out there! Whether it's Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, or whatever it is, just put little bits and pieces up so that people can find you.

But I think that personal contact is still really, really important as well, so that's what I would say - just hang around and offer to help. So many times jobs in music don't tend to get advertised quite like that, it often tends to be who you know, or some personal recommendation. I think taking some music courses and doing the exams are also good because you meet teachers, you meet other musicians of your age, usually who will probably form the base of contacts for yourself for the next however many years.

3. Why do you think the Electric Guitar Syllabus is relevant to aspiring musicians?

Deirdre: The Electric Guitar syllabus looks at different aspects of playing. Musicians still tend to be broken down into two groups: people who are very good at improvising and people who are good at reading. If you are somebody who can read and has come from a reading background, the syllabus enables you to develop your improvising. If you are not particularly a reader, you can do an aspect of both and this can teach you to be the improviser who can read, that's the ideal thing.

These exams and the syllabuses with all the different genres included kind of take you through a process where you are developing all those different aspects, different styles, as you can learn about reggae, about rock, about grunge, about aspects of pop music through just playing through all the pieces. We're choosing three, or five, to do, but it gives you a broad sense of music and where it all comes from. You never know, you might suddenly get asked to play in a rock and roll band and you can be a young rock and roll musician doing a unique take on it, and you already know what that's all about! Then you can add ideas.

So I think the syllabus is very good for its broad approach. In music, you have to be prepared for anything.

guitar book covers

4. What did you enjoy most about writing the syllabus? Favourite song?

Deirdre: I really enjoyed being asked to write something. Often it would be: “Here are the six pieces that we're going to do in the syllabus and these are the styles. Could you do something in the ska punk genre? These are the reference bands.” and I'd go “Oh, okay. Let me reference this”. And I would learn things from having to write a piece for the syllabus. But mostly I really enjoyed having guidelines such as “it’s got to be this amount of time, these chords, these are the techniques you could use, and create something which is a bit like Jimmy Hendrix, but only with this”. I really love that, I loved the challenge of creating something powerful that was simple.

I remember doing things like a Hendrix Grade 1 piece called “Hey Joe”, and I wrote a piece called “Gone, But Not Forgotten” for my sister, a musician as well, who died quite young. I wrote a Grade 3 band piece in the style of the band Franz Ferdinand called “Not in It”. These are pieces that I remember fondly. I wrote a Duran Duran bass piece called “Barbarella”, and a piece in the style of Muse called “Amusement Park” - I think that was Grade 6. Then there was another piece called “Rage against Everything”, which was in the style of the American rock genre.

These were all pieces I had a lot of fun writing and also, occasionally, I’d get a message through, it'd be on YouTube and there was maybe a teenage boy in Mumbai playing “Barbarella” or playing “Gone, But Not Forgotten”, and that gives me such a thrill, to see young people all over the world playing the pieces, and playing them really well usually, it’s really amazing. It really makes me feel very proud of what I've done and what Rockschool has done, seeing young people over the world, playing these pieces.

5. What challenges have you faced as a woman in a male-dominated industry and how did you overcome these?

Deirdre: Back in the 70s, there was some hostility towards a woman playing an electric guitar. I remember sometimes I would get a question like “What do you play?” and I would reply “I play the guitar”, and they would go “Oh, so you sing.” and I’d be “No, I play the guitar.” and then they would say “Oh, you play the guitar and you sing”, so I’d go “No, I just play the guitar.” So it was that kind of reaction.

I think then in 1983, I did the BBC TV program Rockschool, and that was a very lucky coincidence, as they had no idea they would get a woman to present the guitar, but the guy who was the producer of the program just happened to see me busking in Covent Garden with two of my friends. It was just the chance thing. He walked through Covent Garden, saw me playing jazz and then they rang me up two weeks later. They didn't even have my number. They didn't know what my name was. They didn't know the name of the band, nothing. But they tracked it all down and rang me up at home. And they said to me “Can you play other styles of music?” and I went “Yes, I’ve played in rock bands, reggae, and all sorts, yes.”, so they were “Okay, could you come in at BBC? There's a TV program and we're looking for a guitar presenter. Are you interested?” I went “Uh, yeah. OK.OK. Of course. OK.” And when I went into the office, the producer said “Show me, how could you play a rolling stones riff, show me how you could do a funky thing.” and I did all these things showing them, and he went “Would you like the job?”, so I was like “Yeah. Great”. I was already playing in some bands, more in jazz groups, but at that time it was a great opportunity.

deirdre cartwright with guitar in her hands on jazz scene

In 1984, when the programs went out, the good thing for me personally, was that it gave me a lot of respect, mostly from men who were playing – it gave me respect. It wasn't yet accorded to all other women, but I remember finding that things started to change a bit. It was hard, because people just say funny things, but that program was very helpful to me and possibly helpful to other women, seeing there's a woman on the television playing the guitar. It was so different compared to these days.

6. Tell us a bit about your band, how it started, the prestigious awards you’ve won and other projects you are involved in at the moment.

Deirdre: I've always had my own groups and I'm still involved in groups where I lead. But the two main musical projects I'm involved in, one is an organisation called Blow the Fuse which started in 1989, just before Rockschool/RSL Awards was founded. We've been involved in putting on gigs, it was Alison Rayner and myself, she's my partner in Blow the Fuse, and we started off just because we wanted to create gigs for ourselves with other musicians. We've done touring as well with that, but we tend to be based in London. We've done seasons called “Tomorrow the Moon” which involved showcasing younger musicians, so we've given space over to younger bands and players like Nubya Garcia and Laura Jurd, or Yazz Ahmed, players that are now very well known within a young jazz scene, so we gave them their first gigs at “the Vortex Jazz Club” where we were working. We’re just doing another season now, so we tend to do half a dozen, maybe 6 to 10 gigs a year.

And then I play in a band called ARQ (Alison Rayner Quintet), and we're just creating pieces for our fourth album now. We’ve done three albums, and they've been very, very well received. We were in the Parliamentary Jazz Awards, as the Band of the Year in 2000, we were nominated for the British Jazz Awards. So within the jazz scene, we're fairly well known, but the jazz scene is a very small scene and you can be well known in one scene and people won't have heard you.

One thing is, after all the years that were difficult, I think that I never lost my love of playing music. And I think that it's been one of the most important things for me to help me to retain that kind of joy in life and joy in playing.

We hope you can join us in congratulating Deirdre and we’d strongly encourage you to check out her website here, to keep up with the amazing work she’s doing in the jazz and wider music community.