Community Musician Training with Britten Pears Arts and Spitalfields Music

“I want my music to be of use to people… to enhance their lives”
Benjamin Britten, 1964

I’m really happy to have been selected as one of 14 musicians in Suffolk to participate in 4 days of paid Community Musician Training organised by Britten Pears Arts, a new charity formed by the unification of Snape Maltings and the Britten-Pears Foundation in April 2020. The training is taking place across March 2021, delivered by guest tutors from Spitalfields Music in East London.

I’m writing up the sessions into blog posts as I go along both to help cement the learnings, and to help share the information more widely to help BPA’s Community Music mission.

These four in-depth ‘day by day’ posts will be followed in late April with a final post with my reflections on how the sessions relate to my existing practice and what I can change or switch up immediately as a result.

Day 1

Our first day was led by James Redwood – an award-winning composer and music leader who regularly leads CPD and training sessions for Spitalfields Music. As a performer he sings, plays violin and devises music with ground-breaking alt-folk band, Firefly Burning.

As a starting point, James gave us an introduction to the history and ethos behind the practice. We heard how the ambitions of Community Music emerged from the counter-cultural movements of the late 1960s, co-evolving from the tradition of the animateur, as well as in reaction to mainstream cultural hierarchies of popular versus high art; how these practices seek empowerment for people of all abilities and backgrounds through their participation in the creative process of music-making. A skillset has developed gradually over the years, opening new space to enable and support music participation beyond the classroom walls.

(I have Professor Liz Hudson to thank for first introducing me to the term a couple of years back in the context of her work with Yorkshire Sound Women Network, and I’m really happy to be benefitting from some in-depth training in the practice as it fits with my existing participatory music-making ethos really closely.)

James has a passion for observing and responding to energy and room dynamics during workshops. Watching him speak I felt like he’d developed an instinctive feng-shui-for-people, which I really appreciated. We spoke about the responsibility for facilitators when taking participants on any kind of energy journey – how to manage this through using warm-ups, activities, breaks and cool-downs. We talked about the importance of disinhibition for promoting creative flow into a workshop. We looked at the role of The Circle – how hierarchies can form and then morph depending on the placement of people in a room: standing, sitting, circles, semi-circles, rows, one person being in the centre, and so on. Using circles for turn-taking is great for helping people know when is their turn and be able to manage their anxiety and prepare, as well as giving participants a chance to see how others approach something. We looked at ways to move people into certain configurations in a room, and we also realised that sometimes a music leader might need to deploy a sense of status and how to do so respectfully.

We talked about the importance of being really alive to what kinds of approaches work for different groups, which could be categorised as anything from age to neurodiversity, communication ability, confidence level or prior musical knowledge; as well as different types of setting: care home, prison, primary school, community choir to name a few.

Our first guest tutor was Sam Chaplin. Sam is musical director for the Choir With No Name for people affected by homelessness in London, as well as having led song-writing weeks with The Orpheus Centre for young people with disabilities for over 15 years. He has a masters from the GSMD in jazz performance and leads his band Jazzbomb.

Sam took us through an example song-writing workshop he might run in a SEND context (special educational needs and disabilities).  He opened by showing us a white board with the session activities listed out in really plain English, using only one or two words for each one. For our practice session we used the format:  Hello, Names, Warm Up Song, Making Song Words, Break, Warm Up, Making Song Tune, Goodbye. Sam stressed the importance of articulating the structure of your sessions really clearly to drive down anxiety. We looked at ‘hello’ songs and ways to say our names as a group, which gets everyone to participate in easy ways from the off, and using ‘copy-cat’ games to work in voice and body warm-ups. Sam introduced us to the concept of an ‘options board’: a fabric board with Velcro-sticky words or images, which can be used by participants to choose ideas, give feedback or ask questions. When it came time to get creative and start writing some lyrics, we put the options board concept to good use: Sam had handily come armed with a blank A4 piece of paper, some cut-out some pictures from a magazine, a sharpie and a gluestick! After about 5 minutes of creative prompts and questions from Sam, the group had chosen a broccoli floret, a dalek and a slug, which were glued to the paper and annotated with participants’ comments – metaphors, similes, answers to questions – to create a brilliant kind of ‘mood board on acid’.

At this point, we took a break, which would be a chance for the music leader to take 5 minutes to write a couple of lines using the images and words that have come out of the ‘Make Song Words’ exercise. We learned about the importance of breaks for SEND participants: it’s normal for some settings to close the curtains, dim the lights, and for participants to lie down; an opportunity to use music to create a relaxing background atmosphere.

Post-break we had “exterminate the broccoli / the slow slinky slug thinks it looks so good” as our lyrics. We then looked at ways to generate melody by giving these lines a narrative, ‘the day the daleks tried to exterminate the broccoli but the slugs saved the day!’ and using this to start off ideas for a riff, then breaking up the riff to lengthen it out. Sam talked about how songwriters ‘think in syllables’ and how this could help. We talked reassuring and helping participants to sit with the angst that is a natural part of the creative process. Getting participants to sing whatever comes into their head out loud into a voice notes app so you have a record is really helpful.

Our final tune incorporated atmospheric C minor piano stabs and soulful sung blues, broken down with repetition of phrases and lots of space so it could become manageable for participants who have issues with verbalising. We looked at ways we could switch it up, using key changes or instrumental harmony to change the feel while the participants are still singing their original melody, and building up different parts, such as body percussion or vocalising a faster iteration over the top of a slower one. We talked about using movement to help learn the song by pairing words with actions, which could be theatrical gestures or using the Makaton commumication system. All through the workshop Sam was giving us really helpful resources, such as songs or games he’s invented or modified using ideas he’s seen at work elsewhere, as well as sharing his experiences of different music settings over the years. Sam championed a magpie approach to community music: sharing resources and ideas with others, and in return taking and re-shaping resources and workshop ideas that catch your eye into activities that work for you and your practice. It was a really enjoyable session and, for someone like me, who’s neither a pianist nor a songwriter, provided an interesting challenge: in what form will Sam’s song-writing insights end up in my toolbox for instrument-building, devising or performance workshops?

We finished off the day with James Redmond, learning some workshop warm-up exercises and ice breakers focused on body percussion and rhythm. Sam had shared his experiences earlier of ‘hello’ exercises more suitable for SEND settings or adult settings where esteem might be an issue – how felt ‘copy-cat’ games for example might bomb if participants feel ‘caught out’, or triggered negative feelings. James spoke about using embodied exercises as a way to get groups to disinhibit as they may not be as exposing as singing or vocal work, and the joy in watching groups naturally improve as the exercise goes on, resulting in better group esteem.

We concluded the session with break-out discussions in small groups where we considered the following prompts: what a community music facilitator brings to a session, what a community music facilitator gets from a session, what a participant brings to a session, and what a participant gets from a session.

Day 2 coming next!

Day 2

Our second day was led by Abimaro Gunnell – a singer song-writer and music leader who leads projects for organisations including The Roundhouse, Spitalfields music & The Albany.  In 2020 she became a Local Producer for AYM & Lewisham Music, providing access for young people to free instrumental tuition and other musical opportunities. We started off the day with an informal ‘morning coffee’ sessions in small groups, with Abimaro bouncing in between smaller groups to introduce herself, bringing great energy and positivity for the sessions ahead. It was also good to have a space to debrief about Day 1 after having had had a few days to digest on our own.

Our main morning session was with Amina Hussain – Principal Flute of the Manchester Camerata with an international stage career, who holds a Masters in Music Therapy with Nordoff-Robbins and qualified as a music therapist in 2019. Amina is in the unique position of being a music therapist resident within an orchestra, allowing her roles as a performer, a community musician and a music therapist to develop and inform each other.

Amina began with her own ‘hello’ song, accompanied by keys, incorporating all our names and a friendly greeting one by one, switching up her style and bringing in variation as she went round the group. She was really expressive with her body language, making a real effort to connect with every person in a meaningful way. I’ve now seen this idea in action twice in a week, having never come across it before, and am excitedly thinking, “How could an Atari Punk Girls workshop / noise instrument / modular synthesiser ‘welcome’ song look and sound?!” This idea has FUN LEGS!

Amina explained how a hello song has a few different jobs. First, to make participants feel seen and acknowledged, providing an opportunity to respond (join in, wave back).  Secondly, it’s a chance to see the whole person and get an immediate idea of a participant’s personality, pathologies or needs. It’s also a valid choice for a participant not to engage. Amina mainly works with older people, in particular dementia sufferers, and has done projects mixed with Dalcroze Eurhythmics. She has a max. of 15 in a group, and will normally be accompanied by another musician, as well as carers for the group. Sessions last 1 hour and are weekly; usually a programme in a care setting lasts 30 weeks.

We spoke a lot about the “culture of care” in our society: systems designed around tending to people’s physical needs (washed, dressed, fed, medicated, safe from harm). Spiritual, emotional and musical needs tend to disappear quite quickly from the framework. We talked about the natural musicality in all human beings, and how to bring that out. Amina feels her role over course of a 30-week programme is to create a community of musicians in the care home.

Looking at dementia in particular, there are over 100 types, with huge variation in symptoms and presentation across multiple stages. All create ‘cognitive breaks’, ie breaks in the chain of cognition. The ability to relate to other people is gradually lost. A sense of flow is gradually lost. We considered how music is a language that people instinctively know; how we could enable people using a different language, a different context. A language that could give people the opportunity for choice, or a chance to shine; how setting up short melodies with instinctively comprehensible patterns of turn-taking and interaction can instigate a lost sense of flow for people.

As an example, Amina set up an octave of handbells that can be tapped to make a sound. She sang ‘Over the Rainbow’ which is underpinned by a descending scale; a different bell goes to each person; each person only needs to make one ‘ding’ during the whole song, and each ‘ding’ falls on the same beat in every phrase, so it’s very manageable in terms of cognition. With their natural understanding the rhythm of the piece, a person can wait for their turn, and press the bell at the right time. This is flow! It actually sounded really good 

We talked about how a full landscape of emotion can be expressed, vented, connected with, reflected on through music. Amina doesn’t plan anything for her hour with a group beyond her hello and goodbye songs: she uses a process of conversational improvisation, going on a musical journey with the people in the room; whatever comes up, you can do. She also doesn’t speak during the hour: the only verbal communication will be through sung vocals. Amina treats music as communication: improvising on what people in the room are doing: Amina spoke about really using your ears – hearing patterns, holding up a mirror to reflect, build, add, tweak, ask a question with music – see if you get a reply! If people are verbalising or moving around, listen for shape, pitch, pace, timbre/texture, articulation, where are they breathing (phrase length). Can you take what people are saying and doing and turn it into music? What do people love? Where are the inroads?

We spoke about sounds that might feel awkward, disruptive or distracting – maybe shouting or crashes and bangs. Amina encouraged us to draw these into the sonic environment, to actively re-frame these sounds; include them, build new music around them, so they start to become part of something beautiful; remove ‘should’ and ‘shouldn’t’ from the vocabulary. We talked about how important it is to be aware of your own responses and reactions: interrogate yourself! Why are you doing what you’re doing? Are you imposing? How would you feel if you were a participant? Would you go spare if someone came at you with a guitar and tambourine? (erm …. yep!)

Amina sees a magical point at about 80% way through each programme (24 weeks) where a group will make a huge leap in cohesion and interaction. In summary: “There are 12 to 15 inputs of musicianship in a room: it’s my job to bring it out!”

We then broke out in small groups to do two exercises. The first was in pairs and demonstrated the difference between left and right brain cognition, gradually replacing spoken numbers with sound actions in an alternating pattern – a kind of physical and mental tongue twister that revealed how a sound naturally acts as a prompt, without any level of verbal ‘understanding’. We then swapped to new pairs for a listening and improvising practice: one person with an instrument, one with voice; and then swapping round the dynamic. This one was really challenging for us all, as of course, as Amina had probably predicted, we all ended up performing with (ie ‘improvising a new tune’) rather than dialoguing with our opposite number. Amina then demonstrated with one person how it’s done: being with someone with ONE note, maybe 2 or 3 notes tops! Tiny steps, super expressive face and voice, connecting up a person’s ability to relate to you with sound: leave spaces, will they finish it? Rushing in and being ‘really good’ at your instrument can make people feel they should stop and ‘leave the music to the professionals’.

It felt like the session with Amina really unlocked something. Her warmth and welcoming energy, as well as her magical approach, was really special to have been in the presence of! I think a lot of us felt quite emotional by the end of this one.

Our second session of the morning was with lead tutor, Abimaro Gunnell.  Abimaro’s community music skills have been honed over the course of hundreds of song-writing workshops with young adults. She pointed out the key distinction between her approach and Amina’s: one is process-led and the other is goal-driven. Abimaro’s groups of 16-25 year-old participants have outputs or projects in mind which gives her workshops their shape and keeps participants motivated and engaged. Abimaro’s simple (but very awesome) guiding principles for participants are: writing a tune, expressing themselves, and doing it together. The groups she works with have an interest in music, and lots of music knowledge, but not necessarily any formal training. They are young people who may have been shut down in the past and have confidence issues when it comes to self-expression.

Abimaro took us through her go-to ways to generate lyrics and melody during a workshop: the cut-up technique, and melody dice. She explained how multiple choices can be really helpful as a tool: limiting choice makes the process less scary as there’s fewer opportunities to overthink stuff, and in terms of self-expression, multiple choices can help give participants words if they’ve been shut down before. “Do you feel like this, or like this?” 

Starting with the cut-up technique, Abimaro places a selection of words cut out of pieces of paper in a silver envelope, gives one envelope to each group, and ask them to write 3 lines on a given theme. This method is all about arranging. Groups can add their own words, and they don’t have to use all the words. If they’re really stuck, she suggests doing a David Bowie impression, throwing them all in the air and seeing how they fall to the ground.  We talked about the need to keep up the pace and keep the exercise moving as a way to stop motivation dropping. When people are feeling vulnerable, they’re not able to connect creatively and will give up easily, so keep verbally encouraging them. Abimaro advised asking participants to keep saying anything they come up with out loud, with you repeating it back to them in affirmation. Just making noise can combat the ‘fear of the blank page’.

Abimaro then led us in a Zoom version of the exercise using the chat window. Our theme was a storm; we all wrote one storm word in the chat to generate our cut-up words: electricity, darkness, lightening, jacket, madness, rumble – after a couple of minutes of shouting out suggestions we had written: the darkness of the night is filled with electricity / we need the lightening / the madness covers me like a jacket / protects me from the rumble. She then builds in time for an edit. “Do we need an edit? Now’s the time to ask!”, we added a repetition to create a chorus. 

Abimaro showed us her melody dice (C Maj, one note per side with C repeated). We talked about how getting kids to roll is a nice way to help them feel part of the process, providing a good entry point for the first four notes or so.  After a couple of rolls of the dice to decide the first four, we then generated the rest of our melody out loud by singing out whatever came into our heads, repeating it over and over with everyone together so it cements in the mind, and moving onto the next line when we were ready. Abimaro recommended bringing some tuned instruments to every workshop with labelled note names, then handing one to each group to give them a reference point for key so you don’t end up needing to do a lot of transposition when everyone regroups.

We then broke into smaller groups to talk about how we would develop the piece in different ways for three different groups: a primary school class, a community choir with some musical training, and a group of 16-25 year-olds with a music practice but no formal music training. When we regrouped and shared our ideas.

Looking at the primary school class first: slow it down, make it clear, lean into them wanting to shine and have a moment, “Does anyone wanna try singing that line by themselves?” and use that to work solos into the performance; split them into groups, one developing body percussion, another given an image and asked to think about verse 2, “We’re still in the world of the storm, but look here’s a dragonfly!”; another adding actions to the words.

The choir would be good for group improv, getting everybody up on their feet to just vibe it out; breaking into smaller groups to add harmonies, and develop percussion break-downs. Add a conductor: take turns to lead using hand signals, bringing parts in and out.

For the young adults, we talked about how your set-up is the organism: accompanying instruments, any music tech you’ve brought along – set up a workstation and ask the smaller groups to come one by one to share what they’ve done alongside your accompaniment to see how it all works together. Abimaro suggested handing out tuned instruments with note labels and asking one group to try being a band, or putting a group of drummers together to develop the phrasing, alongside the groups developing the song-writing.

Abimaro’s energy was fantastic. She was a great example of how to create a safe atmosphere in a creative workshop. As well as being super encouraging and positive, she was dropping in sung vocals from the word go – her ease with singing and noise-making inspired our confidence and trust on a subconscious level, leaving us mentally free-er to blurt out our lyrics and melodies as we went along. And finally, her fast pace left no time for overthinking. We spoke about the importance of mixing things up to keep things feeling interesting: big group work, small group work, individual work; and asking participants to lead sections, “They lead, you lead, they lead each other”.

The beginning of our afternoon session with Abimaro was focused on vocal warm-ups, involving the group in creating their own, as well as looking at different warm-up styles for different genres. She recommended keeping a pulse out loud to keep the group working together as a whole, using ‘follow my finger’ to show pitch changes, and asking different participants to lead, “Kristin, can we follow your finger?”  A good warm-up should leave everyone looking smiley, with their shoulders dropped, and mean that everyone has made some funny noise.

We then broke into smaller groups, each group was given a colour, and asked to grab something from our house in that colour. We were given 10 minutes to use this item to prompt a few words in the zoom chat, then use the cut-ups technique from the morning to write three lines. We then took the 3 lines developed out of our small group and went to work as individuals for 25 minutes on a 1-minute response of any kind – could be a loop, a scale, more lines. We closed the session by regrouping and performing our responses, holding the energy by using a seamless handover with no speaking in between. It was really wonderful to be introduced to everyone’s practices!

For me personally it was the perfect opportunity to use this genuine time-pressure followed by a couple of minutes of performance-time in front of a Zoom audience to road test the handheld PO-33 samplers donated by Teenage Engineering to the Atari Punk Girls project. I recorded me speaking the 3 lines out loud using the inbuilt mic, created a melody set and drum kit, came up with a quick loop, and finally managed to fight my way through the PO-33 operating instructions I’d written last year to figure out how to save it and use the keypad to play live and add some FX over the top. Phew! It was awesome to have a realistic, pressurised setting in which to run through the process at speed – as I’ll be asking young people to do the same.

Thank you, Abimaro!

Day 3 coming next…!

Abimaro Gunnell returned to the fray to lead our third day 🙂 After an informal morning coffee in breakout groups we joined into the main session which was led by Rosie Adediran, founder and music leader of early years music project London Rhymes. Rosie has been the lead practitioner for Melodies for Mums, a post-natal depression singing project led by Breathe Arts Health Research. Rosie is a recipient of the Paul Hamlyn Foundation’s Ideas and Pioneers fund, and conducts research into music provision across the UK for families with Under 3’s.

Rosie began with her own ‘hello song’, accompanied by ukulele.  She then showed us 3 songs that were good as early years ice-breakers – one good for bouncing babies on knees, and two ‘copycat’ songs. Rosie talked about the importance of ‘mirroring’ for babies and toddlers, for neurological and emotional development and how communicating this way comes naturally when adults and young children are interacting.

Rosie talked about her own journey into Early Years – about dispelling her own preconceptions of the realm, how being a mum has informed her practice, and how her experiences led onto her wanting to research the area further, as well as innovate and shake up the ‘genre’ of children’s music.

Rosie’s research into early years provision in the UK has shown a few key things. Where music happens for young children is largely in mother and baby groups, breastfeeding groups and other support groups; these take place in libraries, children centres, churches, village halls and so on. We felt as a group it was almost a rite of passage of parenthood to have sat through one of these sessions! The sessions are not normally led by music leaders, and many of the ideas about what early years music is will have come from watching videos on YouTube. This is a disconnect that has a material effect on quality – not helped by the stripping away of investment in children’s centres and libraries in the UK since 2010. This has resulted in a divide in provision between those parents who can afford to pay for specialist early years music groups, and those who can’t.

Rosie talked us through some fascinating research about the effects of good early years music provision on maternal mental health. We spoke about how post-natal provision is focused on returning a parent to work: not on nurturing the bond between a parent and child in their early weeks, month and years of their lives. We looked at headline findings from Helen Shoemark’s paper How Music Fosters Intimacy and heard how communication between mothers and babies is very akin to a musical improvisation. Research shows that music specialists going into neonatal units and mimicking that kind of natural mother-child behaviour three times a week with newborns had a significant effect on infant neurodevelopment, ie an effect an infant’s physical development. We then looked at research to show that regular group singing speeds recovery from post-natal depression.

We then turned to discussing the challenges of the Early Years setting – firstly, dispelling any preconceived ideas about EY being fluffy or sweet as an area of practice. Rosie nailed down the major challenge as being one of meeting the needs of (and managing) a double group: parents and children. We talked about the fact that a primary reason for parents being at a session may not be music: for example, music provision may be tacked on to other services and so happening quite literally in the same room as housing, legal or financial advice; or a group may be more about meeting with other parents with children of the same age in a local space so hard to engage in the activity. Parents will likely be tired, anxious, and may be feeling emotionally overwhelmed at times – as those of us who’ve had young children can attest, it’s often been a struggle to get out the door all the way to the venue.

Rosie talked about the importance of being alive to the sensitivities of your groups. Much like the other music leaders we’d been hearing from over the last few day, we talked again about the importance of a music leader creating a certain attitude or space before people (in this case, parents) feel they can relax, join in and be creative.

Rosie encouraged us to let go of attempts to ‘control’ a room: whether it’s people talking amongst themselves or children’s background noise. We talked about the length of projects having an impact – go for longer periods if possible. Short 10-week bursts are hard! One of the groups Rosie has been leading has been meeting for 3 years.

If one of the reasons parents are there is to socialise, then set aside a proper chunk of circle time to doing that; don’t fight it, even if this feels counterintuitive (e.g because the whole session feels short enough as it is!) Rosie talked about giving power where you can, and making space to listen.

Parents may not have English as a first language, so you may have mixed language groups which is a great chance to learn songs from different regions. Rosie introduced us to Ekuzami (Turkish song), ‘Iyo’ (Yoruba song), and ‘Estoy feliz cuando lo canto’ (Spanish song). She mentioned adapting Sam Chaplin’s ‘hello hello woah’ song to include hello in every language in the room, and warned against rushing – getting everyone’s name and language may take 20 minutes but it’s part of creating a nice, thoughtful dynamic, making connections and feeling welcome, rather than worrying about goals and targets.

We then looked at some more songs and activities that Rosie uses. We sang Se Mama Ka, a Swahili song with actions, and looked at its variations. We then held an Animal Teaparty 🙂 Rosie recommended activities by Zoe Palmer, such as generating ideas for early years songwriting groups by drawing round your hands on paper, writing your name in the middle, and writing answers to different questions in each finger, eg earliest song memory; verb to describe something I like doing with you; a gift you could give your child for life (but not a material thing like a toy!). We then broke out into different groups to discuss ways to generate more themes. Our group discussed ‘what you had for breakfast’ with rumbling tummies for those who haven’t eaten yet or are hungry; and using a mini looper-sampler or voice notes app on phone to collect noisemaking memories and material from the room. Another group brought back ‘what can you see?’, which can work for Zoom especially well, as people are in different places. We then talked about melody frameworks and how it’s more realistic and workable to pre-write melodies to bring to the session as a starting point.

In terms of matching activities directly to stages of development, Rosie helpfully pointed us towards Nicola Burke’s Music Development Matters framework.

At points during this session (much as we had done in others and very likely will be again!), we all felt quite emotional – whether remembering the struggles of being a new parent, or in some cases new parents who are right in the thick of it at this very moment. We spoke about how music is emotional, and about things can be overwhelming and triggering – either watching people go through things or taking on problems and trying to solve them for people you’re working with. Rosie talked about needing to take time to process and digest, and asking providers you’re working for to give space for debriefing and sharing between staff.  Faye from BPA also shared her experiences of how working with different groups on music projects can affect you on an emotional level, and how important it is for providers to acknowledge that and make the necessary space for project workers to talk. On the flipside, we spoke about how EY has such potential for fun and humour and ‘cutting the crap’, making connections on a really fundamental human level that sets the basis for all the other types of groups we might encounter during the rest of our Community Music journeys.

Rosie’s journey was really inspirational: she looked at the landscape, imagined the type of work she’d like to be doing and then set about creating that. She also brought a really warm, encouraging energy to her session – which I think we’re all realising is the vital ingredient in creating good Community Music!

We were back with music leader Abimaro Gunnell for our second session. Abimaro focused on showing us how to use rounds – simple, repetitive songs which have multiple parts that are sung by groups of singers starting at different times so a melody will overlap harmoniously. In particular we looked at ‘Oh How Lovely’, and the freedom song ‘Wade in the Water’. The latter demonstrating how song can help us approach very substantial or painful topics in a gentle way (in this case songs to aid the escape of enslaved people from their captors).  

Abimaro recommended teaching rounds line by line using copycat repetition, and having lyrics displayed up on a flipchart at eye level or above, (rather than having a group looking down on individual printed sheets that get shuffled around!)

We then looked at adding levels of complexity, such as developing a round by adding runs and extra lines or breaking down groups further to add more parts.

We finished the day with a breakout exercise on lesson-planning, where we came up with ideas for a 30-minute session of our own to fit different briefs that built on a ‘Wade in the Water’ theme, and then went through the plan ourselves and each presented our own small compositions as an output.

A packed and thought-provoking day. Thanks folks!

Onwards to Day 4 :-)…

Can’t believe it’s our fourth and final day of Community Music Training! Today was led by James Redwood with guest tutor Yvette Riby-Williams – singer, vocal coach & community project leader with a degree in Jazz from Guildhall. Yve has worked with the likes of Imogen Heap, Bellatrix, Jarvis Cocker and Nao, as well as being a member of beat-box and a capella group, the Boxettes.  Yvette came to speak to us about her work as a BPA music leader in prison settings.

After our morning coffee re-group, we dived straight in with Yve giving us an overview of the men’s prison system in the UK – differences between the categories (A-D), and a typical journey through the prison system, including parole and the months following release. We then talked about our own preconceptions about prisons. Yve stressed how important it is to have a strong sense of self, to know you are, before working in this kind of environment. There are some tough and awkward moments: getting used to protocols for leaving and entering spaces, being locked in rooms as standard, being sensitive to the power imbalance between people being keyholders and not, how this hierarchy changes all the usual dynamics between people. To make a worthwhile contribution, you have to lay aside your own fears and anxieties to support people going through that system

Yve talked about how the differing categories affects the behaviour and emotional lives of the residents, and the impact of low literacy rates in prisons. We spoke about giving support not judgement, and coming to terms with the fact that people sometimes don’t make it out of the system – you may see them over and over again over the years.

The starting point of every project is creating good vibes for sharing and creating. Yve’s first few exercises are often ‘misdirects’: useful for creating conversation and establishing common ground between participants rather than specifically for song writing. Yve showed us how this would work by playing us a piece of music and then asking us 5 questions about it, we noted down our answers and then shared them with each other as a sort of ‘soft landing’ exercise where we could each safely divulge something trivial about ourselves. The questions were nice and abstract “If this piece had a first name, what would it be?, If this piece was a colour…? If it was a place? Inside? Outdoors?” This got us all thinking, sharing memories, resonating on the same level, “I got that too!”. Yve mentioned how often this might spark something tender: “sharing is an act of bravery”; equally, any interesting differences in answers could be an inroad.

Yve took us through her personal tangible outcomes for success: some kind of performance or recording of a song; creating connections between people in the group; telling someone else about it “I was telling x about our session last week and …” She felt that the mark of a strong music leader is adaptability – maybe not everyone has a song in their heart? Maybe not everyone needs to sing? Perhaps it is enough sometimes for people to be in a space and be a part of something.

Yve’s usual project parameters are: 8 weekly sessions, followed by an intensive final week where the group meets daily. She is looking to generate 6 ideas over the 8 weeks, with 2 or 3 ideas being developed into something concrete for recording and/or performance in the final week.

We talked about what to do when things go wrong and ways of dealing with different types of participant who might be disruptive: ‘feet forward, mind behind’ and ‘the artiste’. Yve suggested asking participants to set their own ground rules at the start of the run of sessions and displaying these up somewhere, e.g. “if you hear sound x, be quiet immediately because some instructions are coming”. We talked about using ritual to create a sense of flow through a session so everyone knows what’s coming next, and using call and response phrases to get attention and create a sense of togetherness. Yve’s personal favourite is “hear me now”, to which the response is “I hear you”, which is something one of her groups came up with themselves. Alternatively, you could use your instrument to make a certain noise to which there is a specific response. Use volume to test if people are listening: participants will gradually join in with the phrase like a wave round the room, until you have everyone’s attention.

We spoke about typical behaviour to expect in groups of men: how adults can often display ‘teenage’ behaviour in prison because they’re stuck in a state of suspended animation with no control or responsbiliity for their daily lives, Yve talked about being tested by a group, and the role of a social alpha; and finally having zero tolerance for sexual undertones or sexist attitudes against female music leaders – Yve feels one of her key tools is cultivating big ‘Auntie Energy’ : -)

We finished off by talking about ways to close the session: even just listening to some calm music and counting down the session before releasing the participants back into the system. Yve highlighted the importance of thanking people for their participation, and acknowledging their contributions and bravery when things have been hard for them.

Yve spoke about emotional burn-out from work: the importance of talking about your experiences with other people. She had a really interesting observation about how it can be even harder when things are going well: for example, her main project ends near the beginning of December, which is parole season, so there is a lot of emotion depending on how the process has gone for different participants. The Xmas show is the highlight of the year, rather than Christmas itself, but she’s been in situations where searches have been arranged to coincide with the finish of the show so there is no time to ever feel at peace or enjoy something going well. Yve had a lovely piece of advice: “You can’t fix, but you can acknowledge”.  

Yve’s energy was really positive and strong, and she gave us all loads of food for thought about working in the carceral system: facing inner demons, anxieties and preconceptions. Yve was candid about the challenges but also shared some really tender and rewarding moments. Many thanks, Yvette!

We finished the taught section of the workshops with some final group management games with James – rounds (Ah Poor Bird), rhythm games using phased claps, composing small musical gestures and passing these sounds around a group, which can be adapted to be a name-learning game using long and short sounds.

As a close to the sessions, BPA arranged for us to meet some of their existing Community Music practitioners involved in youth work, prison work and dementia care for smaller group chats in different breakout rooms. It was great to meet some more local musicians and get even more perspectives. My own session closed with a really nice chat with James where he introduced me to John Paynter’s Sound and Structure – cheers James!

A huge thank you to Britten Pears Arts and Spitalfields Music for putting this program together. Really looking forward to the next steps…  Deciding what field(s) I want to focus on, and shadowing in-person BPA Community Music sessions when things get up and running again in the summer/autumn.

Big Love to all the other trainees, and a big hand to all the tutors for sharing their insights and experiences 👏👏