Spreading the joy of making music around the world

Robin, left, and Jody Ashfield

Jody Ashfield, co-founder and CEO of Percussion Play, tells SME the story of the company – a family business that has won a Queen’s Award for Enterprise

The story of Percussion Play goes back to the 1990s when my father Robin, an entrepreneur, set up and owned a playground company. The experience of building playgrounds and creating sensory gardens for communities led him to identify a gap in the market for outdoor musical instruments that looked beautiful, were high quality, weather-resistant, fully accessible for everyone to use, and that were tonally precise. Sensory gardens offer gentle stimulation in a therapeutic environment, and provide outdoor music works harmoniously when combined with these spaces. 

I was working with my father in the family business and, sharing in his vision, we co-founded a company together and, in 2011, went through a significant re-brand when we created Percussion Play. It’s a genuine family-run business, which I believe comes across in everything we do. 

Our instruments present schools and nurseries with an excellent way of incorporating outdoor education into the curriculum. They also make creative, inclusive playground equipment and music education resources for community hubs, such as libraries and museums. Constraints of volume and space disappear outdoors and players can experiment and explore the sounds of these large-scale percussion instruments freely. 

In the early days, people hadn’t really come across outdoor musical instruments, ones that were properly tuned at least. However, as soon as we could show people and have them play and hear the beautiful sounds that could be created, without any musical capability, they became excited and understood the benefits for everyone in the community. Effectively marketing and communicating all of this has probably been one of our biggest challenges but we now sell to over 60 countries worldwide, with our instruments installed in playgrounds, schools, nursing homes, hospitals, hospices, museums and family-attractions plus many other settings. We really feel that we’ve created a global outdoor musical movement to bring a sense of fun to playing percussion in the great outdoors, for everybody.

Last year we were delighted to be named a winner of the 2021 Queen’s Award for Enterprise – one of the highest accolades and most prestigious awards a UK-based company can win. The Queen approved the Prime Minister’s recommendation that we should receive a Queen’s Award for Enterprise in the International Trade categoryacknowledging our outstanding growth in overseas sales over the past three years. 

To say we were pleased is an understatement – we were thrilled and honoured to have been chosen. Over the last few years, we’ve seen an ever-increasing demand for high-quality crafted and harmonized instruments sales have increased by 85 per cent, and our international orders account for 72 per cent of total saleswe can really say that we’re flying the flag for British-made products. 

Our Cavatina  (left) is one of our most popular instruments, across all of the sectors that we cater for. It’s colourful and the notes are arranged like a traditional xylophone. It can also come with our Music Book where the notes on the instruments correspond with the coloured notes on the music sheets. Players then simply follow the colours to play a well-known song. 

Our biggest market is America because the trend for outdoor musical instruments really came from across the pond. They have a lot more outdoor space than we do here in the UK, not to mention the great weather and, as in all trends, they are usually ahead of the curve. We directly market to our clients but we also have many resellers situated worldwide who champion Percussion Play and are very much part of our team. 

Our outdoor musical instruments can benefit everyone who plays them; 

– Children get the chance of ‘free play’ where they can be creative, collaborate with peers and also learn musical tunes to practise and perform. The instruments can also help with building confidence. 

– Those with physical disabilities are often unable to take part in outdoor activities, yet our musical instruments are all designed to be inclusive, no matter what your physical disability is, you’ll be able to play our instrument. 

– People with sensory impairments can benefit from music therapy that aids cognitive, emotional, and social issues as well as the physical needs of people. It has proven to be an effective way to help alleviate symptoms and provide a sense of inner calm to patients.  

– Autistic children benefit from playing music because it stimulates both hemispheres of the brain which helps to open up an alternate avenue for communication. People with autism can often struggle to interact with others, by playing music together, children can make interpersonal connections in a way that works for them.  

– Playing our instruments needs no musical ability, meaning that literally anyone can play together, and they do! We’ve installed our instruments in many senior living centres and it is a great way for older people to interact with the younger generations who come to visit them- they’re intergenerational. It suddenly makes visiting time even more exciting and fun for everyone! 

– In general, playing music is a great outlet for anyone suffering from mental health issues. It helps to lift the spirits and is a positive outlet to express feelings, that might not usually be able to be communicated. 

We are involved with projects around the world. Most recently we’ve worked with Sharity Children’s Museum and Resource Lending Library in New Mexico to create a music garden. The children really took to the instruments but I don’t think that they expected how the garden transformed and promoted intergenerational play opportunities within their community. 

Another really fun project that we were lucky enough to be a part of was in the snowy peaks of Blue Mountain Village in Canada. The instruments were installed in Ontario’s largest alpine ski village resort along a spectacular light trail in the ski village. The mix of lights, snow and our musical notes ringing out along the trail have really captivated visitors to the area. 

Looking ahead, I hope that we’ll still be spreading the joy of music worldwide – we already ship to 60 countries, but it would be nice to see this increase. Our product range continues to grow, so seeing more innovative instruments coming through from our designers to help people play and learn about music is really important. Winning The Queen’s Award for Enterprise was such a highlight last year, so continuing to be recognised for our work would be the icing on the cake!