Considering ethical practice in community music Practice as Research


In this section I draw on examples of my work with participants across this study to offer some considerations of ethical practice particular to community music inquiry through Practice as Research (PaR). I use this section to consider the potentials and complexities of; participation in research through music-making, issues of representation and practice sustainability. From this I suggest that ethical practice in community music PaR is a process and is situated. 

      The enactment of ethical practice has been a motivator, guide and concern throughout my research. By ethical, at its most straightforward, I mean attempting to do what is ‘good’ or ‘right’ as a community musician music-making with participants. This leads to the question, what is ‘good’ or ‘right’? What does, for example, ‘good’ or ‘right’ look, feel or sound like in community music practice? How can that be known? And who decides? Throughout this research, to consider these questions I found philosopher Emmanuel Levinas’ (1969) exposition of ethics helpful. For Levinas ethics concerns the conditions of the possibility for living a good life in the context of our relation with the other. It is in the context of the other, as we meet the other, as we come face to face – or in the workshop as we play side by side – that there is the possibility for good. To this end ethics involves connection and relationship, which Levinas expresses through the notion of responsibility to and for the other (1991). If the possibility for ‘good’ comes about in relation with the other, it follows that how one responds to the other, and the context, motivations and possible consequences of one’s response, must be included in considering what is ‘good’. For Allsup and Westerlund the issue of ‘what is good’, is taken up in consideration of music educators’ embracing of the moral good through use of social intelligence. To qualify ‘good’ in the context of music educators’ practice as it takes place in multiple, conditional and overlapping scenarios, they explain, ‘we do not mean the good as an a priori good, but a good—a situational good embedded in conduct’ (2012, p.136). For the community musician, I suggest ‘good’ as a situational good embedded in the conduct of their facilitation practice, concerns how they go about music-making with participants in a given time and place. Thus, I ask my research question, ‘how do we make music together', as a consideration of, and attempt towards ethical practice (see sections 1.3, 1.4.1 & 6.1 of the exegesis for further discussion of the research question).


        Good isn’t something that is, or can be, fixed. It is contingent, dependent on many things. Consequently, there is no infallible map for community musicians indicating a clear path to good practice. This is perhaps their biggest challenge as facilitators that make decisions amidst complexity and ambiguity in dilemmatic space (see Allsup and Westerlund, 2012 for discussion connected to music educators and Preston, 2016 for discussion connected to facilitators of applied theatre practices). However, Kathryn Deane – as consultant director to Artworks Alliance and former director to Sound Sense, the UK association for community musicians – has offered codes of practice (2014). Although as Hogan (2002) highlights through discussion of facilitation professionalization and ethics in her book Understanding Facilitation: Theory and Principles, in doing so there is the problematic of ‘policing’ such codes. For community music inquiry through PaR, alongside consideration of practice codes where available and relevant, there is requirement to follow research ethics codes. In undertaking this study, I was required to obtain ethical approval from a York St John University Research Ethics Committee. This entailed completing a proposal including details about; participant recruitment, consent, how much time they would be required to commit to the study, what they would do, an explanation of methodology and procedure, and any ethical issues that were envisaged prior to commencement of the research. The provision of detailed information in advance of the study is complicated, not least because PaR can be ‘messy’ (Haseman, 2006) and alongside this, community musician responsiveness to participants and their context is, as I understand it, a guiding principle of the work. Whilst it is important to consider participant involvement in advance of undertaking research, Brown explains, 

‘It can never be sufficient to tick the boxes on research ethics review approval forms and consider the matter finished; arguably it is only the start […] This entails seeing the ethical process in a more organic way like using a language well in real life which does not happen in isolation but as part of a conversational community (Bridges 2009)’ (2019, p.18). 

       Throughout my inquiry, I attempted an approach to ethical research practice that was dialogic, situated and reflexive. I now zoom in on moments of my inter-action with participants across this study to consider complexities, questions, and provocations that can arise through community music PaR.

Participation in research through music-making


Throughout the research, I explored the extent to which I could pursue inquiry without changing working practices with participants. See for example, the table titled Researching through music-making - working out data within section 3.5.1 of the exegesis, or section 3.5.2 Artefacts within ephemeral practice. Researching through existing approaches to practice has scope to address ethical issues with regards to what participants might do, and their research commitment, since they are active in the decision-making process. It also has potential to support transformative change through research that takes action, rather than undertaking research solely to understand or interpret the world, and to that end might be considered as an ethical pursuit. However, it can also raise problems with regards to participant consent. 


rappers with guitarist performing a gig

     My key concerns regarding participant consent included the extent to which participants a) understood that research was taking place, b) could consent to participating in the research, and c) what might happen if participants wanted to participate in the music-making but not consent to research. New to research, and concerned to follow protocol, I made consent forms bespoke to each PaR setting. For the Inclusive Summer School and Cable Street Songwriters I tried to simplify and minimise my use of words. For Tang Hall SMART (THS) projects, in line with their approach to participant representation whereby members are actively recognised and acknowledged for their music-making rather than anonymised, I included detailed representation options. On that note I would like to take the opportunity to plug Tang Hall SMART member tracks available through the Musication record label. And at the request of some research partners, the consent form was reworked into their setting format. However, associated complexities and limitations soon presented.

An ethics of care


I had worked with Lily for several months. Lily had completed the Musication research consent form and in doing so had ticked all the ‘yes’ boxes. ‘Yes’ she understood what the research was about and consented to participate, ‘yes’ for full name use, and ‘yes’ for sharing audio, photos and film. After working together for approximately six months, Lily stopped attending Musication. A few months later she returned to the sessions. I approached her to say hello and sensed a feeling of uncertainty on Lily’s part as I did. I wondered, did Lily remember me? I gently (and hesitantly as I did not want to cause any alarm) asked Lily if she knew who I was. Lily replied, ‘You’re the nice singing lady’. I went on to ask Lily whether she knew why I was there. Lily replied, ‘Because you like to sing’. I said yes and after a short conversation I began to sing the first song that we had written together. Lily started singing along – we had both remembered most of the lyrics. When we stopped singing, Lily asked if we could do some more singing together. Reflecting in this moment I was concerned. As a practitioner, and within the framework of the Musication offer, my response would almost always be ‘yes we can make more music together’. However, as a practitioner-researcher I was concerned whether continuing to make music together would be the ‘right’ thing to do. Whilst Lily agreed to understanding the process and purpose of our music-making as research at the time of our research interaction, and consented to participate, if she now could not remember this experience would it be unethical to continue to include her?

song lyrics
close-up of hands on keyboard

From feminist critique of male dominated ethical perspectives which rely on principles to highlight moral actions, Noddings put forth an ethics of care which recognises that “relations, not individuals, are ontologically basic” (2003, p.xiii). From the position of an ethics of care, consent must go beyond a one-off agreement. It must be undertaken as a process that is informed, ongoing and renegotiated between practitioner-researcher and participant. I followed this approach to consent with the individuals and groups I worked with throughout this study. My decision to continue to include Lily was informed by our longevity of music-making together, the relationship we developed from that and our conversations. Given the vulnerability of Lily’s sharing, I did however, take the decision to use a pseudonym for Lily, rather than her full name which I was granted permission to use. For others at Musication, I took the decision not to pursue inquiry through our interactions on wellbeing grounds. This raises a final point for this section – that being the benefit of undertaking community music PaR through long-term engagement within an existing project offer, alongside a facilitating team that supported one-to-one and small group work. Working long-term allowed space for the PaR process to unfold. I could take time to get to know participants, to make music without entirely knowing the direction of research travel. As relationships and connected lines of inquiry developed, I could pursue them with those that were keen to make music with me. Whilst other participants that were present could continue their music-making guided by other members of the facilitating team as necessary. Deciding not to pursue research with some Musication members did not mean that I had to say no to all requests to work together. Instead during a typical session, I made music with two or three members as part of inquiry, with available time to make music with one other member away from inquiry. Rather than see this as a detour, or unnecessary use of time, I personally understood it as an important part of my approach as a community musician in that context. It was also a gesture of reciprocity to the host organisation.

When the process of informed, ongoing and renegotiated consent just doesn’t feel right

Kellett (2010) explains that a process of consent which is informed, ongoing and renegotiated can be especially helpful where children are concerned. For two of the three participating CSS schools, this was supported to some extent by the group set-up. Offered as ‘clubs’ – one during lunchtime, and one during what was for most of the children ‘golden time’, which included a range of free-choice activities – children could vote with their feet. In this respect their attendance demonstrated that they wanted to be there. And once there, consent as a process was continued through dialogue (musical and verbal). However, for one school, the project took place during whole-class lesson time. Throughout my interaction with this school I felt uneasy about the process of consent. Again, the children had completed consent forms, and I had several conversations with the group as a whole class, in small groups, on a one-to-one basis, and with the class teacher whereby I outlined that participation was not compulsory. However, I wondered the extent to which that was understood, not least because as Morrow and Richards (1996) highlight, children’s autonomy to decline to take part in research that takes place in school is already complicated by the virtue of compulsory schooling. Alongside this were complicating factors such as possible confusion through the perception that it was a music lesson, rather than research through music-making, or the availability of instruments. In response to the children’s request to play instruments, and enthusiasm for technology, I bought my own small keyboards to the class for use. Was this inadvertently an unaccounted-for research incentive?

My concern peaked in the weeks following one child’s response to the questions:

  1. Do you play instruments, or like to sing?

  2. Do you have a favourite type of music, or favourite band?

  3. Have you written a song before? 

Bright coloured cut outs of musical instruments stuck on window. Through the window a block of flats is visible.

I asked these questions at the project outset in effort to get to know the children and their music preferences and experience. One child, Mujahid*, responded to the questions by answering, 1) no, 2) nope, 3) never did. I understood these answers (alongside Mujahid’s demeanour in the session) as a possible expression that he did not want to participate. However, when discussing these responses with the class teacher, they suggested that Mujahid should continue to participate since he had enjoyed music classes previously and was one of the children that might ‘benefit’ most. In discussion of the responses with Mujahid, he was quiet and seemed hesitant to offer his opinion. He did however, explain that he liked music with his former music teacher, especially when playing djembe. I decided to continue Mujahid’s inclusion in the project, however I felt uneasy about it (NB the school had offered alternative provision for children that did not want to participate). In doing so, there felt a blurring or tension between my working as a community musician – with a commitment to inclusion, participation, and access through processes that entailed a ‘feeling it out’ – and my working as a researcher, which has traditionally required clarity of process.

       My unease continued throughout my relationship with this class. Whilst it unfolded that Mujahid did want to participate, and in the months that followed his participation exceeded project session time, (see Mujahid’s rhyming rap within section 5.3 of the exegesis) it was only towards the project end that all children had expressed interest in participating with a certain sincerity that was not experienced within the consultation methods I had attempted. For example, as I walked back with the class to their school from the local library at which we had just performed, a group of children that I was most concerned about with regards to consent asked if I would be back next year, and what songs we could write next. Like community music practice, with community music PaR you can’t know what you are going to offer or pursue from the outset. From this experience, I am left torn. On the one hand I would suggest not working with a whole class for a perhaps more straightforward PaR project, yet if this is to the detriment of inclusion, particularly of marginalised and vulnerable groups, then this is at the same time, why they should be included.

Man playing high-hat


Many of the participants that took part in this study, and those that care for or work with them, were concerned about their representation. For example;

  • following the implementation of GDPR (Information Commissioner’s Office, 2018) one CSS school requested no visual representation of their pupils to support safeguarding (alongside the already agreed no name policy),

  • a parent of an Inclusive Summer School member sought assurance that I would not make their child ‘look silly’, and

  • Sinbad, a member of Musication and The Radical Luddites frequently raised conversation around the use of recordings made during sessions with the comment ‘she’s [Jo] selling these [field recordings] through YouTube you know’.


Sinbad’s comment, often made in jest, was important for several reasons. It;

  • highlighted that I had the recordings in my care and therefore a power to adapt, use or discard them, which in turn was a power to represent the group in a certain way. Whilst this could be addressed by creating a shared storage space whereby recordings could be accessed by all on the recording, this too could be problematic. For example, the sharing of recordings that include considerable tuning or tempo difficulties could reduce the participant’s developing confidence, particularly in the early stages of music-making together.

  • supported dialogue necessary for ongoing consent. As I responded to the comment, a brief conversation often ensued and served as a ‘check-in’ with regards to whether it was ok to record in that moment.

  • was demonstrative of a different understanding of participant representation through music-making research. In suggesting that I might ‘sell’ the recordings, there was suggestion that Sinbad (and potentially other participants) might perceive their inclusion in the research as a possible source for artist representation of some kind.

Issues of representation


Participant anonymity in the THS context was considered counterproductive to aims of recognition, particularly recognition of vulnerable or marginalised groups for their music-making. For other PaR settings, anonymity was an important part of the safeguarding process. This can present a challenge to the practitioner-researcher, not least when participant representation is present within artefacts created through practice, such as recordings, films, or blogs. Editing the artefact to support anonymity can raise significant ethical questions. Nutbrown for example ‘argues that the pixilation of photographs of children, may represent a further “crisis of representation” and is an example of the “Othering” of young children in research’ (2010, p.3). I too share this concern. However, in response to the CSS school that requested removal of all images, I did use blurring techniques because in this instance I thought it most appropriate in light of new GDPR regulations and the school’s concerns. I was also able to continue to include audio recordings of the children, which for me, was most significant since their voice was present through their music-making. How to proceed with participant representation depends on the people concerned, the situation and context, which should be considered through a process of informed, ongoing and negotiated consent. Blum-Ross (2013) explains that ethical challenges can be associated with digital artefacts through lack of awareness of the product’s ‘digital afterlife’. This raises the question of how long a process of informed, ongoing and negotiated consent should go on for – should it be perpetual or time limited (Brooks et al. 2014; Young 2013)? As GDPR introduces ‘the right to erasure’, whilst this right does not apply if processing is necessary ‘for archiving purposes in the public interest, scientific research historical research or statistical purposes where erasure is likely to render impossible or seriously impair the achievement of that processing’ (Information Commissioner’s Office, n.d.), to what extent should the practitioner-researcher go to lengths to make erasure possible? This is a complexity that I continue to reflect on. For now, as one response I have provided participants with an email address that I can be contacted with, and intend to keep this account in use. Although I appreciate that given the vulnerabilities of the individuals and groups I worked with, this might be somewhat a gesture.

Girl playing guitar
Practice sustainability


When and how to stop music-making for research with the PaR setting groups was something I took a great deal of consideration over. Having built relationships, working practices and trust, I was reluctant to stop practising. My reluctance was also connected to my concern surrounding the problematics of practice that parachutes in (Hope, 2011), and my confusion regarding the PaR process. I naively thought that stopping practice might equate to the inquiry no longer being PaR. However, practice must pause otherwise a) there could be the false assumption that all practice, all music-making, is research (Schippers, 2007), and b) there would be little time for dissemination. Brown points out that ‘The effect on the researcher of exiting from the field, if indeed this is possible for those researchers living, working, or immersed in the context or setting of their research, is one that receives little attention’ (2019, p.17). My ‘exit’ from the PaR settings in the context of this study, in one sense was made easier, or at least definitive, by my pregnancy at the time. Recognising that I did have something to share from the practice, alongside the issue of completing the PhD within the permitted timeframe, I acknowledged that it was time to pause.

     Once I had established ‘when’ to pause, ‘how’ to pause was the next concern. For Musication and the Inclusive Summer School, this was less problematic. As pre-existing projects, they would continue in the way they already had. The Holiday Music Project also felt less problematic as a pilot and discrete engagement. However, for Cable Street Songwriters and The Radical Luddites my pausing meant my leaving and likelihood that the project would end, which led me to reflect on the possibilities of sustained practice. In conversation with a CSS school headteacher we had discussed succession planning. The headteacher associated succession planning with responsible practice. For community music, whilst I appreciate that succession planning could, for example, support organisations with ongoing community relationships and projects guided by long-term leaders (whom are often the instigators of the practice), I also worry that sustaining practice in this way could perpetuate practice that becomes more about the leader than their working together with participants. Where succession planning entails identifying others to ‘carry on the work’, a deficit model is implied since practice sustainability is associated with the ability to maintain practice, which seems counter to community music as fluid, dynamic, situated and constituted in relation. In this regard, searching for a ‘replacement community-musician’ that could continue CSS in its current iteration did not seem quite ‘right’. Instead I stopped CSS practice at the end of a school year, which felt appropriate as it coincided with a period of transition for the children. I do however continue to maintain contact with the schools, and two of the participating schools have maintained a relationship facilitated by their music co-ordinators.


      For The Radical Luddites however, succession planning of sorts – or what I prefer to consider as a formal period of practice sharing, whereby sharing is a two-way exchange – did feel appropriate. I had co-led The Radical Luddites with Graham Rogers, a former THS participant that is now a facilitator for the organisation. As a new offer, together we had developed practice approaches bespoke to this group, both in response to, and in collaboration with participants. Moving from co-facilitation to solo facilitation required a period of adjustment. A period of formal practice sharing felt appropriate since 1) Graham was developing in his confidence as a facilitator, 2) Graham had expressed that he would find practice sharing helpful, and 3) the format of the group had changed (see critical incident Identifying as a band for discussion). Over a 10-week period we set time aside to share and reflect on possible session activities and approaches, through explicit discussion of; rationale for inclusion, intentions, possible ways to adjust activities in response to participants; session reflection and feedback. From this I understood our working together as critical friends. Finally, I suggest when and how to stop research through music-making warrants significant consideration from practitioner-researchers, especially when working with vulnerable or subjugated individuals and groups, since both can take time to unfold through a PaR process.



For discussion across diverse perspectives and projects see The SAGE Handbook of Action Research, Bradbury, 2015


*Mujahid is a pseudonym



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