Energetic Educator  

Composer, educator and producer, Chris Passey, 35, believes passionately in taking and making every opportunity which comes his way. Susan Elkin talks to him.

Chris Passey has always written songs on piano, but it wasn’t until he sat in the audience at Sister Act in London that he was so deeply moved by the music that he left the theatre thinking “If I could write just one song like that …”

He recalls: “And somehow it all snowballed from there. I cheekily approached a West End star and then co-wrote a song for Chloe Hart called ‘Stagey and Proud’. Then suddenly there was a call from West End Stage Awards saying that Sheridan Smith wanted to sing it at the ceremony”.

Chris found Sheridan “inquisitive but nervous” and therefore in need of a lot of coaching. “I think it was working with her which led me to teaching” he says. 

After A levels Chris had done one year at university before mental health problems kicked in and he left. “But then I landed the part of Benjamin in the national tour of Joseph, so it worked out rather well” says Chris who had by then been a National Youth Theatre member and worked part-time for NYT. Thereafter working as a peripatetic music teacher (singing) helped pay the bills and he’s led singing workshops in various training institutions.

Then (he tells me rather ruefully that he was in a toilet when the life changing call came so he had to let it go initially to voice mail) came an offer from Josh Groban. It was a Wednesday. Could Chris get a choir of 20 young singers together to do a show for the following Sunday? Yes, he could and would. 

“Then we were offered the contract for the UK tour which led to lots of top-level contacts such as working with Raymond Gubbay. But it cost me my peripatetic teaching job which was, I think, a bit short sighted of the music service” he says. 

Now freelance with quite a lot going on, Chris’s next adventure was spotting a thread on Facebook about Kimichi School, driven by music and founded in Birmingham by Sally Alexander who was awarded an MBE for services to education last year. She needed an English teacher for years 4 and 5 and every staff member has also to be a musician. Sally herself is principal cello in the Birmingham Philharmonic. Not only did Chris get the job but a year later he was deputy head. His lack of qualifications didn’t matter because it’s an independent school, although he is now doing a Masters in Education Leadership which will be completed next year. Chris is currently nominated for a Teacher of the Year award. 

“We have 45 students who spend around 20 to 30 per cent of their time on music and every lesson is somehow linked to music. Everything in Year 7 and 8, apart from maths and English, is topic based (National Disasters, for example) and we start GCSE in Year 9 so that they get a full two-year course and Year 11 is less pressurised.”

The school’s strapline is “Rethinking Education” and, Chris tells me, they don’t do anything they don’t have to. So there are no SATs or statistics. The school attracts, and succeeds with, a number of students who don’t fit in elsewhere such as school refusers and those with autism. “I’m delighted too that a student I’ve taught since Year 6 is now 16, leaving us and going to music college this year. I’m really going to miss him”, says Chris who tells me that it’s a very hands-on school where all the staff work very long hours.

So how does that fit in with his other work such as conducting his choir, Birmingham Voices and composing songs for musicals? “Sally is a very enlightened boss. She wants the staff to be active musicians. If I get a good tour offer, she’ll just look at me and say ‘Off you go!’. She thinks it benefits the school as well as being good for my personal development.”

Chris wrote, with Verity Quade, the songs for a musical called The Good Enough Mums Club which has been in development for some years and opens at Birmingham Hippodrome in 2023. I have twice (in 2014 and again last month) seen previews of the songs in taster shows and I’m pretty sure the finished product is going to be good. 

“And I’m writing musical called Saving Grace with my brother, Nigel. It’s a modern ghost story about the power of friendship” says Chris.

As if that weren’t enough, Chris is writing a book about Kimichi School’s unusual (unique?) way of working to be published by Bloomsbury. There’s a children’s story, Milly’s Socks, coming later this year too. “A mother came into school and apologised because her autistic daughter had refused to allow the socks she was attached to, to be put in the washing machine so she was wearing the same ones as yesterday. It triggered the idea for this story” says Chris.

I seems a bit banal to ask this engaging energetic, portfolio man if he ever sleeps … but I do wonder.