Flying solo: 5 things I’ve learnt from leading my first inclusive music project

Drum lessonFor the past 8 weeks I have been running an inclusive music workshop in a youth club in Hertfordshire. Originally, the project was a drum workshop to run for three weeks but it has now turned into a brilliant rock school session.

As a trainee, this was the first time I’d led an inclusive music workshop. I planned to use some of the different techniques to reach out to young people I had witnessed first-hand from shadowing others. I also  prepared by having multiple lesson plans revolving around the sorts of things I wanted to teach them, with the associated outcomes I wanted.

My original plan for the young people was to be able to play a beat confidently.

Throughout the project, I began to develop my own method. Below I have shown you mine, and written my examples on how I used these.

Always have a plan, and always have a plan B, C, D, E, and F

Like I said before, my project was originally a drum workshop, working with 3 to 4 young people, all from different backgrounds. I had written my lesson plans to revolve around drum technique, and how they could each play their own drum beats. However, I brought my bass guitar to play alongside the young person playing drums to help build their confidence and keep their timing.

As soon as the others saw that I had brought other instruments, they began to pick up and begin to try and play them. I realised that I could probably teach them to play these together in a band setting. As one young person had already arrived and was engaged in playing the drums, I turned by attention to helping the others with some simple guitar skills.

I used a couple of techniques I had picked up in a ukulele-based CPD to enable the participants to quickly learn some simple guitar technique: asking them to imagine throwing a ball in the air and catching it to get the correct hand position on the fingerboard and describe the plucking technique on a bass as ‘walking in the park’ where their fingers were their legs. With the acoustic guitar, I gave the young person a plectrum, showed them how to hold it and got them to have a go at playing the individual strings. I then got them both to play root notes, of C, F & G (original I know!).

I found that being responsive and flexible meant I was able to keep the flow of the session going so that everyone was included and nobody was sitting twiddling their thumbs. I also found it can help break down barriers with the young people if you can also get the youth workers involved!

Vary your approach to suit each young person

This can be quite a tough one to master. It’s all about the way you approach people and how you are seen. I worked this out when doing some work experience as a college lecturer. I realised that there can be more than one way to deal with people and certain situations, and really it’s about earning the trust of the young people.

The majority of young people who attend the session have challenging circumstances and backgrounds. At first they all seemed very hesitant to talk and were not as open as they are now. I tried to make them feel as relaxed as I could, by just talking with them, not trying to pry information from them, but just treating them like normal people and getting them as involved as I could.

It’s important to change approaches to suit people’s different social and learning needs. On a musical learning level our drummer prefers to be shown how to play something, whilst one the guitarists prefers to just work something out by ear.  On a social level, some find it easier than others to take a risk having a go at something new in a group; it’s important to recognise how far and when you can encourage people to try this, especially the more shy.  But joking about with the group can help tonnes and even partnering people together on a keyboard can be loads of fun and bring out the best in people. I did this with two girls who had never met before taking part in these workshops; the Youth Support Workers tell me they’re now inseparable when the centre is open.

But, balancing being informal with maintaining boundaries in an informal environment is important too, especially with the more vulnerable young people.


Play To Strengths

I’ve been quite lucky to have two older boys involved with the project, one of whom has been very open about his musical background (he likes to show off!). I like to use these two to help me lead the session so I can work one to one with the people who aren’t picking things up as quickly.
To do this, I usually get the two to play a progression together, one on the keyboard and one on the bass, whilst having the drummer play the beat over the top. This way I essentially create a loop for the others play over. I feel this works well as even though it’s a fairly simple progression, the two boys are extremely competitive, and try to outdo each other by improvising mini solos between the notes.

While they’re engaged in this, I’m able to give individual attention to a participant with learning difficulties, supporting him to play a solo over the top of the group, but explaining to him also that he couldn’t play too loud, as it wasn’t fair on others as they wouldn’t be able to hear each other. Balancing individual and group musical and social interests is part of the challenge of musical inclusion!


Don’t Hold Back On the Praise

There are many different conflicting opinions debating whether or not you should praise young people but personally I feel like praise is a very effective way of helping people stay engaged. I choose to be quite specific when praising, “That was a really good drum fill!” or “I really like how you made your own riff between notes.” Simple phrases like that can really help the young person and can actually help them strive to do more to actually be noticed.

Working in a youth club, you can encounter all ages so it’s best to use a different types of praise. When they’re only just learning the instrument I like to use the phrase “You’re a natural,” as it has really engaged the young people I have worked with, it can make them laugh as they don’t sometimes believe me, but reassuring them and sometimes saying “wow you picked that up quicker than I did” also really benefits their learning.

I’ve found I’ve had to tone down the praise with some of the older members of the group though, because as studies have shown, it can actually reduce their motivation. Keeping this in mind, you start to find a balance, and it definitely helps to tailor the praise to the young person!


Direct but Don’t Dictate

This one is quite simple; it’s about getting the best from the group not by telling them what to do but simply pointing them in the right direction.

After a few sessions, the young people began to realise that they could play, and they soon wanted to play their favourite songs. This is simply something they already wanted to do, and my role was to facilitate it. They would tell me what they wanted to learn, and I would help them learn it!

We started to build a mini community, where the group would bring their friends and other people would want to see what we’re doing and join in.

From my point of view, it’s been extremely rewarding to see everyone communicating and enjoying the project I was delivering. The one key thing I learned from the project is to go with the flow. Sometimes the young people don’t want to play, preferring just to listen, and the minute you try and force someone to do something  they don’t want to do it becomes a very formal conversation, which isn’t very fitting of a youth club environment. I felt like I needed to accept that not everyone would want to take part in the way I wanted them to, and that was okay. Even though they weren’t playing an instrument, they were still contributing to the session overall.

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