Time at the bar: musings from the 2nd International Convention of Community Music

Michael Davidson give a presentation on MusicNet East's work at the 2nd International Symposium on Community MusicAll the best conversations happen in the pub

It’s Sunday 13th November and I’m in a pub, the Eagle and Child in Petersgate, York. I must stress that this is unusual, and I have a good excuse. I’m at a pre-conference gathering for the 2nd International Convention of Community Music at York St John University. It is an appropriate meeting place, as in the informal music community much good work is done in the pub and I catch up with Kathryn Deane, retiring head of UK community music development organisation Sound Sense (and now honorary Visiting Professor at York St John) on the post-war origins of music services. Orchestral models were the norm then and community music didn’t feature much, but today it is becoming increasingly valued for how it can help meet schools’ need to support pupil wellbeing and inclusion. Kathryn talks about the importance of building on tradition and legacy in development ‘…The only point in having an idea is for someone else to have a better idea..!’ she quotes. She sets out how community musician Andrew Peggie’s Tuning Up (2002) offered a vision for more inclusive music education that continued through the Music Manifesto’s development of Wider Opportunities whole class teaching, and further into Darren Henley’s Review of Music Education in England and the current Music Education Hub structure that MusicNet East is building on. Kathryn led the evaluation of the early stages of MusicNet East, one of several Youth Music projects that set out to ‘bring inclusion to the hub tables’, sometimes through community music approaches

Coming in from the cold

Community music has come in from the cold in other senses too. Lee Higgins, previously a community music animateur in Peterborough, and involved in the set up of LIPA, is now Professor Lee Higgins, and current head of International Society for Music Education, whilst continuing to gig. Lee is also leading the development of community music research at York St John, where a trio of PhD students is coordinating the symposium we are all here to attend. Community music qualifications are also in development at York St. John and increasingly popular in other locations.

Dave Camlin, Head of Higher Education and Research at the Sage Gateshead, arrives and orders a beer. Dave’s keynote speech the next morning describes his long journey into academia. From being a community musician who thought formal study ‘wasn’t for him’, he found he benefitted a lot from reading theory to provide a wider framework for work he always knew had value. Dave’s inspiring description of his first readings of Brazilian educator and philosopher Paulo Freire, sets out strongly how knowledge can empower, and had us wondering how many young people feel music or indeed learning is ‘not for them’ because it’s taught in a style or about a subject they don’t relate to.

Whilst community musicians have sometimes felt theory is ‘not for them’, the best practitioners have always valued informal discussion and critical reflection as key to developing good practice. The symposium offers both this and a platform for student researchers to get feedback on their work.  It’s interesting to catch up with people developing Taiko projects, and meet inspiring organisations like Good Vibrations, who run Gamelan projects in prisons and for mental health service-users. Good Vibrations have an excellent cartoon visual representation of their project’s integration and progression that suggests that not all effective presentation is verbal, or formal.

New methods of evaluation

Ryan Humphreys, a student on the Sage Gateshead’s BA Community Music pathway gives an inspiring presentation about his research on an early years music project for foster families. The project developed a form of consensual assessment by giving blank sheets of paper to each family to write what they’d got out of the workshop, and then developing an evaluation framework from where this overlapped between participants. But Ryan’s less formal ethnographic research also captured some rich texture. The workshops combined music with chat in which several families agreed they’d felt judged in workshops where they had been participating alongside non-fostering families. They also enjoyed that children were allowed to sit out and observe, rather than being pressurised to participate as they had been in commercial workshops. Perhaps confounding funders hopes and expectations, sometimes choosing not to participate can be as valuable as joining in.

A presenter from the USA describes inviting families to draw ‘before and after’ workshop pictures of each other, and it’s a creative and effective form of evaluation with much potential, as young children draw earlier and more easily than they write.

Less chat, more participation

Sarah Fisher, a graduate of the Sage and ‘a teaching musician with a disability’ gives an inspiring and humorous presentation entitled ‘A Way, not THE Way’, about the challenges she’d faced in developing her playing and teaching career. It is a timely reminder that community music has always valued diversity and musicians informally researching and developing their own ‘ground up’ approaches over ‘magic bullet’ top down solutions. Sarah’s challenges have contributed to her development of a very engaging and effective non-verbal workshop delivery style, reminding us also that less tutor chat often means more participant engagement. Pete Moser from More Music observes how the welcome development of community music work for physically disabled people has yet to produce a proportional increase of community musicians with disabilities. Sarah’s work is very timely and offers a powerful role model.

Delegates are interested to hear about how we at MusicNet East are incorporating community music approaches within our work in Hertfordshire, Essex and Cambridgeshire, and particularly how we’re disrupting the role of the instrumental tutor to offer inclusion as an integrated, ongoing offer rather than a one-off, timebound extra. Two delegates who are currently working as peripatetic tutors for a music service are enthused by the music-based mentoring model, but comment that it conflicts with how they’ve been expressly advised not to develop personal relationships with pupils. One has a dual career as a community musician and says she uses this approach all the time out of school, perhaps demonstrating the precarious status of the instrumental tutor, and possibly also how tutors and pupils are sometimes required to take on more formal identities in school to outside. This same distinction must be particularly confusing for some pupils, and perhaps explains some of their disengagement and difficulties.

As the conference comes to a close Lee Higgins invites Kathryn Deane to provide some closing thoughts. She says that although she’s been involved in community music for 30 years she still has no idea what it is or how it works, but suggests that the growing interest in community music research can both help address this and disseminate its value.






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