Quest for growth rocks on after 35 years

Issue: Volume 102, Number 13

Posted: 5 October 2023
Reference #: 1HAce4

When New Zealand’s rangatahi get involved in the arts, other areas of their lives see the positive benefits: relationships improve, there is a strong feeling of belonging and tūrangawaewae and there is optimism for the future.

The Jehts, a classic rock act hailing from Christchurch, performing in 2022.

The Jehts, a classic rock act hailing from Christchurch, performing in 2022.

One organisation, and one event in particular, has provided more than 150,000 rangatahi across the motu with an opportunity to nurture and develop their creative flair over the last 35 years. It is Smokefreerockquest.

The first Smokefreerockquest was held in 1989, running out of Christchurch. The event now hosts more than 20 regional competitions, with the top regional bands progressing to a national final. At that national final, the competing bands are given eight minutes to perform on stage and are judged by industry professionals. 

As the event grew in size during the early years of its inception, Glenn Common and Pete Rainey co-founded Rockquest Promotions to manage and grow the event into what it is today. 

“We had decided to run the event because we saw the benefit that students gained from performing on a large professional stage in front of a proper audience. The motivation that it gave them to want to do more, to keep going, was where we saw the benefit,” says Glenn.

By the second year of Smokefreerockquest, Auckland, Dunedin, Wellington and Rotorua were added to the competition. 

“The schools in the four new regions caught on really quickly, and we realised this could be big and sustainable in the long term,” says Glenn.

“This year we held events in 21 regions, from Whangārei right down to Invercargill, and with an online option too.”

Alongside Smokefreerockquest, there are now six other major programmes run by the company, including Smokefree Tangata Beats and Rockshop Bandquest. As the demand for mentoring and opportunities in the creative industry grew, the company launched Showquest (a new drama/dance event commissioned after the departure of Stage Challenge), Toi for wearable art, OnScreen for film and Stills for photography. 

But growing the company into what it is today has not been without its challenges.

Glenn explains during the late 2000s, when “big screen TVs” were on the rise, there was a trend for people to stay at home rather than go out. This affected audiences. 

“Different challenges come at different times,” he says.

Julia Deans performs as a guest in 2000 (she was a participant in 1991). Photo: Chris Trail.

Julia Deans performs as a guest in 2000 (she was a participant in 1991). Photo: Chris Trail.

“Social media has challenged us with where our audience can be found. It is not only the people who physically attend our events anymore, but also those on social media platforms who interact by watching the webisode series, sharing either our content or their own content from an event, or even watching our National Final live streams.”

Covid-19 affected audiences again but luckily live audiences are now returning.

“We have learned to adapt to the times. As audiences change, one thing stays constant: that students want to perform their own music live,” says Glenn.

“Arts in education play a huge role in helping our young people to face the future with a set of skills that give them flexibility, creativity, ability to cooperate and work in groups. Skills they can apply in life wherever it takes them,” adds Pete.

Mentorship and a place to grow

A key benefit for rangatahi taking part in the programmes is industry connections, plus the mentorship from professionals working in the careers they aspire to.

During Toi, students receive feedback and mentorship from World of Wearable Art designers. Smokefreerockquest winners receive a coveted prize: an opportunity to record a single, release a music video and receive mentoring from a music industry professional. 

For those rangatahi participating in Showquest, the opportunities are not just based on performing arts. Interested students have the chance to learn from professional lighting technicians as they control the lighting for their school’s performance, they can work as assistant stage managers or record the shows as a videographer or photographer.

At this year’s Smokefreerockquest and Smokefree Tangata Beats, top acts attended online media training workshops with award-winning broadcaster Sarah Gandy.

Future filmmakers are encouraged to take part in OnScreen, with their “works in progress” received by industry pros from organisations such as NZ OnScreen and the NZ Writers Guild.

A platform for self-expression

A 2020 Arts Council of New Zealand Toi Aotearoa Survey found nearly three-quarters of young people now feel good about life in general when taking part in arts activities and they see the arts as something that can contribute to their wellbeing. Creativity is seen as an outlet for self-expression and exploring identity. 

The hunger for self-expression is growing. Every year, more students take part in arts programmes. This year was the biggest year yet for Smokefreerockquest, with more than 3,000 rangatahi performing in the event. Smokefreerockquest remains Aotearoa’s only nationwide youth event featuring rangatahi original music.

There’s A Tuesday are a Christchurch based duo. They won first place nationally in the Smokefreerockquest national final for 2019.

There’s A Tuesday are a Christchurch based duo. They won first place nationally in the Smokefreerockquest national final for 2019.

“Rangatahi participating in Showquest report they experience an overwhelmingly welcoming, non-judgemental and positive environment where they are able to express themselves authentically and creatively.

“They’re given a professional-level platform to build confidence, make new connections and develop their performing arts skills, whether onstage or behind the scenes,” says youth development manager Abi Penaliggon.

It is also about rangatahi finding “their people”. Smokefree Tangata Beats is a great example of this, where talented Pacific youth are brought together to celebrate their culture and creativity.

By participating in the events, rangatahi realise just how far they can go when they believe in themselves and feel supported and empowered to express themselves authentically, explains Abi. 

A career in music

Glenn says what he is most proud of, looking back on the past 35 years, lays in the future: all the rangatahi who have carried on with their passion for music and arts and forged great careers.

“It’s the achievements from those performers who have been on our stages, to see them then appear on significant and often international stages,” he says.

Pete says Smokefreerockquest is “just part of the mix”.

“Nothing gives me greater pleasure than these students kind of forgetting about Smokefreerockquest and carrying on with their careers, cause indeed that’s the most important thing,” he says. 

“We don’t lay claim to having ‘started anybody,’ or being the reason they have been successful. It’s their own ability and their own drive and own willingness to be in the industry that drives them further.”

It’s not just about winning. Kimbra was 14 when she came second at the event in 2004. The members of Opshop all met at Smokefreerockquest, although they were competing against each other at the time.

Glenn explains it has also been great to see the massive outreach of Smokefreerockquest.

“We are always coming across people who have interacted with the programme. Whether their children have been through it, or they remember doing it themselves, the fact that it’s had such a large impact is something we never saw coming. That is a huge success,” adds Pete.

Music is not an academic subject where you sit at a desk and read a textbook. Glenn believes music is about art, performance, creative interaction, expressing ideas and emotions. The events provide a safe and encouraging platform for rangatahi to experiment with that.

“It works as an addition to what students are learning in their school environments. It gives them an opportunity to take the basic skills that they have learned and apply, develop, and hone them in a real-life situation.”

Nesian Mystik perform in 2000. Photo: Chris Trail.

Nesian Mystik perform in 2000. Photo: Chris Trail.

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 11:50 am, 5 October 2023

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