Rewritten in the stars
The first holiday music project session began quietly. There was anticipation in the room as nine young people that had not met before, sat in a circle and waited for the start. I began by introducing myself, explaining the scope of the three days and I asked the young people to introduce themselves. After leading discussion and icebreaker activities to learn about the young people’s interests and what they would like to do during the project, alongside warming-up and getting to know each other, it was time to make music. But how should we start?
Holiday music project: young people’s responses to my question ‘what would you like to do during the project?’
When planning the session, I ideally wanted to follow an approach to practice that I was introduced to by Music in Prisons’ (MiP) whereby the group are invited to play the available instruments – to sit at the instruments without instruction and to freely explore. Here play is embraced in the sense of try it out, have-a-go and test the sound. To this end a novice might get a feel for the instruments and trial the available sounds, an experienced player might play their favourite song. I arrived early to set-up the drum kit, guitars, bass, keyboards and vocal mics in advance of the young people’s arrival. From previous experience of working with MiP, I was aware that instrument free play offered an openness which supported facilitators to enact creative collaborative music-making practices guided by participants. However, in this moment, reflecting-in-action (Schön, 1983/1991) I felt that free play was a step too far for the group, both in terms of current confidence and anxiety levels, alongside facilitation logistics. Through the icebreaker activities a sense of trust, confidence and fun was building. At this early stage, I did not want to jeopardise the significant position we had reached. From project planning meetings with social workers that supported the young people, I was aware that some in the group had negative experiences with school and associated feelings of failure. Working with this quiet group, I was concerned that instrument free play might either result in contribution to a felt sense of failure through young person perception that they could not play, or were not ‘good enough’ to play the instruments before peers they did not know. Or alternatively, a cacophony in terms of sound and group dynamics, since unlike MiP I was not working within a team of facilitators which is conducive to guiding this activity with groups. Free play at the instruments felt a step too far in this moment.
Instead, I decided to offer to play for the group first. This was counter to my usual facilitation practice. I picked up a ukulele and asked the group if they would like to hear a song. I offered a choice between a few songs and the group chose Written In The Stars by Tinie Tempah. Whilst playing the song (and trying to ignore my discomfort as a novice ukulele player), as I sang the chorus some in the group joined in. This soon became a whole group singalong – and a good one at that! I was surprised as members of the group sang out with confidence and smiles. We had gone from a very quiet space to resonant sound making together. After the group singing we moved to free play at the instruments, before pausing for lunch.
We went on to produce a remix of Written In The Stars and performed it at the project end to an audience of carers and friends. To the right is a field recording of the group’s performance of Rewritten in the stars, introduced by a participating young person. Reflecting one year on, offering existing repertoire as a first step to music-making was supportive of developing a sense of group with individuals that had not met before, (many of which had not played instruments previously) across a short space of time. This challenged previous assumptions I held as a practitioner, in particular, my thoughts around the question of whose music?
Field recording of The First Order’s performance of Rewritten in the stars at The Forum Theatre, Northallerton, August 2016.
Whose music, was a question that was at the forefront of my practice. It is also a question that is pertinent to the field of music education with regards to curriculum content and pedagogy. Hess for example asks, ‘If “every child can do music,” whose music do we mean? Which traditions? Which instruments?’ (2017, p.24). She points out that asking these questions over the last twenty years has supported significant changes in music education, however ‘we must continue to ask who is not present in our classes, our programs, our curriculum, our pedagogy’ (Ibid).
Whose music ?
Holiday music project: Lyric writing for a Written In The Stars remix.
In making new music with participants I understood the question of whose music to be implicitly addressed as participants actively created the material. And as they made music from their experience, expertise and enthusiasms – from their culture – there was potential for a felt sense of ownership that could lead to greater confidence and self-esteem. Furthermore, given the benefits attributed to participants making their ‘own’ music (addressing the problematic of ‘whose music’ being one benefit alongside others including for example, participants being able to play parts they create regardless of instrumental experience) I believed that ‘best practice’ was to work on original lyrics and music, rather than changing the lyrics of a pre-existing song, or learning pre-existing repertoire. Early research into differing forms of songwriting practice within therapeutic contexts corresponds with this. For example, through study of therapeutic songwriting experiences with university students and retirees, Baker and MacDonald have demonstrated that the experience of a sense of ownership through song creation is greater with original songwriting than song parody (2013). However, as a persistent troubling to my practice, a complication remained. Namely, how can participants be supported to make their own music? Or rather, how could I facilitate participant music-making without my music, for example the sonic contributions I make or my preferences, dominating? My concern was that in bringing pre-existing repertoire to the workshop, be that the work of an other or something I had created for the group by way of a creative scaffold, that I might inadvertently get in the way of the participant’s ‘own’ music. Prior to this critical incident, in my practice this resulted in a search for creative scaffolds that might maximise potential for participant contribution and minimise mine. I explored the limits of not offering music in the sense of rhythmic, harmonic or melodic reference points, or at least not offering them first. Instead I played with images, words, or themes as starting points for songwriting. However, this was to feed into a repertoire/no-repertoire dichotomy, that was both simplistic and counterproductive to practice. As this critical incident shows, working from pre-existing repertoire does not automatically equate to a limiting practice.
In exploring music co-creation with people with a dementia, Zeilig et al. (2018) suggest using repertoire as a starting point for structure, whereby structure is characterised by malleability. In practice, this could be to present repertoire to groups with the option to use or adapt it in a variety of ways – including using it as a resource to shape working processes – or indeed, to reject it. Thus, repertoire malleability is guided by the community musician as they facilitate through responsiveness. Key to this, is attentiveness to context. I offered Written in the stars as a song I could play for the group a) because I was introduced to the song through working with young people, b) because it was a relatively ‘old’ track that didn’t require young person knowledge of the current top downloads, yet at the same time the artist Tinie Tempah was making a comeback, and c) because I could offer it alongside other songs, presenting options for the group. Whilst this critical incident has changed my approach to repertoire, I am mindful of the possibility that participants (particularly those most vulnerable) may have the perception that ‘this song must be good’, ‘or we must do it’ because an ‘expert’ is offering it. Consequently, working from repertoire requires considerable thought in order that it is not inadvertently given importance over participants.
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
Hess, J. (2017). Equity and Music Education: Euphemisms, Terminal Naivety, and Whiteness. Action, Criticism, and Theory for Music Education, 16(3), 15-47. https://doi.org/10.22176/act16.3.15
Schön, D. A. (1991). The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think In Action. Ashgate Publishing. (Original work Published 1983)
Zeilig, H., West, J., & van der Byl Williams, M. (2018). Co-creativity: possibilities for using the arts with people with a dementia. Quality in Ageing and Older Adults, 19(2), 135-145. https://doi.org/10.1108/QAOA-02-2018-0008