My Heavy Heart
After establishing themselves as a band through gigging covers at The Orb Feva Festival and York Barbican (see Upcoming Gigs), The Radical Luddites wanted to work on original material. Band member Malcolm said that he had a song he would like to work on, and the group agreed to begin with that. At the next session, Malcolm arrived with printed lyric and chord sheets for My Heavy Heart – a comprehensive song that he had written, comprising of an instrumental introduction, five verses, a bridge, and chorus variations including counter melodies, harmonies and differences in chord progressions. This presented a lot of learning for the group and was different to what I had envisaged when discussing the development of original material together. I was concerned. In working on a ‘finished’ song with the band, would we lose the openness to possibilities, sound sharing and development, and processes of negotiation that co-creating original material can afford? And what if the parts were too difficult for band members in their current instrumental proficiency? Could this lead to disengagement amongst them, alongside disengagement from Malcolm should his song not be performed? Whilst this was not my preferred approach to group music-making, I did not want to reject Malcolm’s song offer. The Radical Luddites was a participant-initiated band, and we worked towards it being participant-led as far as possible. Saying no to the inclusion of My Heavy Heart, would be counter to the ethos and aims of the group.
In the early stages of rehearsing the song, my concern grew as Malcolm was very clear in the way he wanted parts to be performed. He laid down a guide vocal for ‘homework’ with the expectation that band members would listen to it, and learn from it, outside of sessions. Again, I was concerned. My assumption was that in learning a ‘complete’ song, potential for band member ownership would be reduced. And moreover, that the recorded guide might be taken as prescriptive of performance interpretation, reducing capacity for ownership further still. I wondered, what was the scope for ownership through learning someone else’s song?
Notions of equality in music co-creation
Creating original material can increase a felt sense of ownership (Baker & MacDonald, 2013; Baker, 2015). However, reflecting on my reaction to Malcolm’s presentation of his song, I realised that embedded within my belief that making new music supports ownership, was the assumption that everyone in the group should contribute equally to the creative process. This startled me. I was surprised that notions of equal contribution were embedded in my beliefs because I had read, reflected upon and discussed the presence of hierarchy in interventionist frames. And from this I recognised that as individuals with diverse experience come together to make music, their contributions will invariably differ. This led to further reflection about why and how such beliefs could remain deep-seated within my practice. One explanation I offered myself, was that underpinning my assumption, was concern surrounding the privileging of some voices over others during the creative process – usually the more competent and confident. However, in this I was confusing equal contribution with an equality of opportunity to contribute.
The Radical Luddites rehearsing My Heavy Heart.
Gregory points out some pitfalls of attempting to ensure equal contributions from all in workshop practice:
These ‘laboratory’ environments can sometimes be seen as little more than an artistic, educational and cultural meltdown, reducing collaboration through facilitation to little more than a ‘warm-up to nothing’. Individual ideas get compromised for the sake of inclusiveness, with the quality and effectiveness of workshop practice being measured solely on the level of group ownership in relation to the creative process and its final product (2010, p.387-388).
Attempts at creative equality can amount to a policing of participation. In working towards creative equality, who decides what counts as participation? And furthermore, who decides what constitutes ownership? My experience of working on My Heavy Heart with The Radical Luddites led me to a more nuanced understanding of participation and ownership in participatory music-making. For example, as we rehearsed Malcolm’s song (My Heavy Heart was referred to as ‘Malcolm’s song’ by band members in sessions), there was the sense that this song belonged to the band. During rehearsals, band member suggestions such as;
A field recording of an early rehearsal.
The Radical Luddites performing at Ways to Wellbeing Festival.
‘I think you should sing the bridge Malcolm’
‘the flute should be louder’
‘I think the Cajon will be better than the Kit’
‘I’ve been working on my part’
contributed to a collective shaping of the piece demonstrative of a felt sense of ownership. Rolvsjord (2005) explains that through the songwriting process there is the development of musical skills which can be considered part of cultural capital, and can be important for self-esteem, self-efficacy and participation in communities. Although My Heavy Heart was presented to the group as a complete composition, band members were still able to engage in such processes. Furthermore, through doing so for one member this presented the opportunity to begin to learn a new instrument within the context of a band. For all members, there was the opportunity to develop ensemble and performance skills, and through playing together a connection that might be considered as a form of social capital. That My Heavy Heart could be both Malcolm’s song and the band’s, was indicative of the relationship band members had developed through working together. Malcolm offered the song as a Radical Luddite and in doing so it belonged to his fellow Radical Luddites, his friends in the band. Malcolm’s offering of a song also guided the group’s working process as other members went on to lead their songs in their way.
Finally, this critical incident highlighted several points of interest for me; 1) creating new music, which can increase a felt sense of ownership, need not necessarily manifest through traditional notions of authorship. Creating new music collaboratively can also come about through processes of learning, rehearsal and performance, 2) as participants bring songs they have composed to community music contexts, whilst there can be challenges in navigating this with groups, there is also the possibility for participants to share their expertise, and 3) a ‘complete’ song does not necessarily mean complete. For Malcolm, My Heavy Heart was not finished, it was the start – a coming to life in the context of others.
For discussion of community music and social capital see Langston and Barrett, 2008; Jones and Langston, 2012.
Baker, F. A. (2015). Therapeutic Songwriting Developments in Theory, Method, and Practice. Palgrave Macmillan. https://doi.org/10.1057/9781137499233
Baker, F. A., & MacDonald, R. A. R. (2013). Flow, identity, achievement, satisfaction and ownership during therapeutic songwriting experiences with university students and retirees. Musicae Scientiae, 17(2), 131–146. https://doi.org/10.1177/1029864913476287
Gregory, S. (2010). Collaborative approaches: Putting colour in a grey area. International Journal of Community Music, 3(3), 387–397. https://doi.org/10.1386/ijcm.3.3.387_1
Jones, P. M., & Langston, T. W. (2012). Community Music and Social Capital. In G. E. McPherson, & G. F. Welch (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Music Education Volume 2 (pp. 120-137). Oxford University Press. https://doi.org/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199928019.013.0009
Langston, T. W., & Barrett, M. S. (2008). Capitalizing on community music: a case study of the manifestation of social capital in a community choir. Research Studies in Music Education, 30(2), 118-138. https://doi.org/10.1177/1321103X08097503
Rolvsjord, R. (2005). Collaborations on songwriting with clients with mental health problems. In F. Baker, & T. Wigram (Eds.), Songwriting: Methods, techniques and clinical applications for music therapy clinicians, educators and students (pp. 97–115). Jessica Kingsley Publishing.