Looking out on the seaside
During the 2017 Inclusive Summer School, the group split into breakouts to work on instruments of their choice. Scott and Matthew expressed interest in singing and Sue asked if I would join them. Since the full-size keyboard was free, we went over to that as a place to sit and start. I asked Scott and Matthew if they had something in mind that they would like to sing, or if they would like to write a song. Scott said that he liked Robbie Williams’ Angels and suggested that we could do something like that. I recalled that Angels features a slow and repetitive keyboard accompaniment and played the track briefly through my phone to check. Keen to respond to, and to affirm Scott’s suggestion and positivity, I wanted to be able to instantly play the Angels keyboard part as a prompt launch to sound making. Although as a beginner keyboard player I could not play the chords by ear quickly enough – I sensed that even a few minutes could divert this moment of energy and connection – so instead I began to improvise something similar. I did this with a view to play a few options and to then ask Scott and Matthew what they thought. However, Scott immediately began to sing. He sang what felt like a full song with cohesive lyrics and beautiful imagery, in a tender and gentle manner that was befitting to the accompaniment. I was surprised. However, this was not at Scott’s improvising (whilst I was impressed, I had heard Scott freestyle lyrics before), rather I was surprised by his keenness to sing a ballad and his choice of lyrical content. During our 30 minutes together we went on to set some lyrics as a chorus that we could return to in unison, explored a keyboard improvisation section, and Scott and Matthew took turns at freestyling solo verses. Again, I was surprised. I was surprised that Matthew also wanted to solo since in previous sessions and projects Matthew was often quiet, did not contribute to group discussion much, and seemed unconfident with speaking.
A field recording of Matthew and Scott sharing their song with Sue
Photo by Michael D Beckwith on Unsplash
In this moment, whilst accompanying Matthew and Scott, I was alerted to assumptions I thought I did not hold. Around the time of the 2017 Inclusive Summer School I was reflecting on tacit judgements that can be made about participants and their music-making when planning workshops. For example, with concern about the framing of young people as vulnerable, at risk and in need of social rescue (Turner, 2016), I wondered to what extent that might also frame assumptions about the types of music they might like to make.
For instance, the expectation that young people in ‘challenging circumstances’ will want to make ‘urban’ music. This is problematic since genre has fixed socio-cultural associations. Hip Hop executive Sam Taylor for example, criticises the term urban music for its negative connotations since “it’s letting me know that you think it [the urban neighbourhood, hip hop or R&B] needs to be rebuilt” (Taylor in Ingham, 2018). Practically, I could see the advantage of anticipating genre at the workshop planning stage. As community musicians embark on music-making with participants from their experience, listening to and playing genres they anticipate might be well received by the individuals and groups they are to work with (particularly if they are less familiar, or new to the genre) can be understood as 1) an attempt to connect, 2) a starting-point resource, and 3) a potential broadening of the community musician’s music experience. However, since ‘[…] hospitality predisposes us to welcome those we have yet to meet’ (Higgins, 2012, p.146) I continued to reflect on the othering that can be at play in this process. And in practice, through my recent interaction with Musication member Bob (in which Bob had a job for me and wanted to play bossa nova), I was aware that even when working with participants for a period of time, you cannot assume to know the next music pathway they may want to pursue.
Given my reflective process through experiencing and reading, which led to conscious awareness of the possibility to judge and Other participants through music-making expectations, I assumed this would be something that I would not do. However, my surprise at Scott and Matthew’s genre choice, lyric content and approach, showed me that assumptions about participants and their music-making continued to be embedded in my practice. Specifically, I thought that Scott would want to rap lyrics with an ‘edge’, from the perception that rap is ‘cool’, and furthermore, by rapping he would present as ‘cool’. This line of thought was perhaps shaped by Sue’s framing of genre through Tang Hall SMART provision – with preference for punk, grime, and rap as opposed to ‘bland and accustomed renditions of Beatles covers’. The premise being that because a person has a learning disability, it doesn’t mean that they can’t do hard hitting stuff (conversation with Sue Williamson, 2017). However, in a sense, here ‘judgement’, whilst believed to be well-placed and is well-intentioned, remains judgement.
Listen and listen again
Whilst the interaction I describe with Scott and Matthew may appear unproblematic with respect to my response as a facilitator in the moment – I followed their music-making suggestions and attempted to enact practice through responsiveness – it does highlight complexity. Namely that although applying a critical perspective through reflective practice can make assumptions visible, this awareness does not automatically ensure that any such assumptions will be removed from practice. Rather it might serve as the threshold to listen and listen again. I had made music with Scott and Matthew in previous projects, however this did not mean that I could know what music they would like to make in this interaction. Thus, this critical incident alerted me to the significance of presence in the encounter – to not take for granted that I may know what participants want, or what might be ‘good’ for them – but rather, to listen carefully to the participant(s) in that moment, and to work from that. This feels particularly pertinent when working with vulnerable individuals and groups with for example; limited confidence to articulate preferences, differing communication styles or modes, or in instances where the enactment of an ‘inclusive’ practice leads to the perception that the work is done.
For discussion of repertoire in community music see Brown, Higham and Rimmer, 2014; Tapson, Kit; Daykin, Norma; Walters, David M., 2018.
Brown, T., Higham, B., & Rimmer, M. (2014). Whatever Happened to Community Music? Arts and Humanities Research Council. https://www.uea.ac.uk/documents/429551/0/AHRC+CM+Network+-+Final+Report/9d84cb3e-0099-48ab-8166-6095cede47e5
Higgins, L. (2012). Community Music: in Theory and Practice. Oxford University Press. https://doi.org/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199777839.001.0001
Ingham, T. (2018, August 12). ‘Urban music’ under fire as senior industry execs voice unease over widely-used term. Music Business Worldwide. https://www.musicbusinessworldwide.com/urban-music-under-fire-as-senior-industry-execs-voice-unease-over-widely-used-term/
Tapson, K., Daykin, N., & Walters, D. M. (2018). The role of genre-based community music: A study of two UK ensembles. International Journal of Community Music, 11(3), 289-309. https://doi.org/10.1386/ijcm.11.3.289_1
Turner, K. (2016). Regenerating Community/Regenerating Self: Reflections of a Community Musician on Working within a Process of Social Regeneration. In M. L. Cohen (Ed.), Innovation and Change in Community Music, Proceedings of the XV International Seminar of the ISME Commission on Community Music Activity, Edinburgh, Scotland (pp. 209-215). ISME Community Activity Commission International Seminar. https://www.isme.org/sites/default/files/documents/2016_Proceedings Commission on CMA_FinalB.pdf