We all like different things
Today was Cable Street Songwriters’ first school meet. It was the afternoon that sixty children from three neighbouring schools would come together to pursue joint songwriting. With the intention of supporting a space for the children to become acquainted, begin the process of writing a joint-school song, and to have fun, I planned for the session to include; playing games, having a snack together, song theme discussion as a whole group, and breaking out into smaller mixed-school groups to work on lyric ideas. Documentation of the event can be seen on the schools’ joint blog.
Setting song themes
School meets could only take place termly as off-site trips were at a premium (see discussion under Process on the Cable Street Songwriters PaR setting page). Therefore, time set aside for the afternoon workshop was valuable. To maximise the time that we had, I decided to set a theme for lyric writing in advance of the session. In my professional practice, I found that working towards a shared theme with large groups supported the generation of cohesive pieces. I also found that choosing themes through group negotiation took time.
In the weeks leading up to the school meet, teachers at each school had asked about my research progress. At the time, I had been reading philosopher Emmanuel Levinas’ Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority (1969). As part of my response to their question, I talked about the resonance I felt with Levinas’ discussion of the otherness of the other as connected to my experience of teaching, living and growing up in the area, and my initial rationale for establishing Cable Street Voices (the precursor to this project). This was met with interest by the teachers. They drew connection to intercultural understanding which, for two of the schools, was a curriculum focus. Subsequently they asked if I could explore some of these ideas with the children. I was hesitant to do so, especially since I was new to Levinas’ work, however at the same time I did not want to dismiss the teachers’ interest. As a tentative attempt towards this, for the first school meet I set a lyric writing theme of similarities and differences. During the session, after a whole-group discussion, the children were asked to consider the theme through the following questions in small mixed-school groups;
In what ways are people the same?
In what ways are people different?
Can people be both same and different?
After the initial buzz of the warm-up games, this part of the session was met with a distinct drop in energy, enthusiasm and engagement. The children did consider the questions, but this was laboured and required support of participating teachers. In this moment I had to make a call. Reflecting-in-action (Schön, 1983/1991) I understood there to be two options. 1) Change the activity with the possible benefit that this would be understood as an act of responsiveness to the children’s wavering enthusiasm and energy, which might therefore support their participation as they are tangibly listened to. However, with very little session time left, alongside working as a large group, this was risky. How should or could I go about changing the activity? If I were to ask the sixty children how else we might start our joint song, I could for example open a lengthy process of negotiation. Alternatively, if I offered a different activity, or tweaked the current one, that might also be rejected. Or 2) continue the activity in the hope that through doing it the children would gain interest. With 20 minutes remaining before the schools had to leave this was most straightforward. It had the benefit that we could possibly end the session with a tangible collective starting point for the song in the form of written lyrics which all three schools would have contributed to. It would however, be counter to my belief in, and aims of, enacting a ‘highly flexible pedagogy’ (Howell, Higgins & Bartleet, 2017). I reluctantly went with option 2.
As each small group shared their ideas at the session end, what did become clear was a recurrent response; ‘We all like different things’. In that moment, I understood the emphasis on difference present in each group’s lyrics, the children’s demeanour, and the sound of the room as confirmation of a palpable disinterest in the theme and process. I left the session feeling deflated. In the moment of making the choice between changing the activity and continuing it, I felt that continuing was problematic, yet I went ahead anyway.
A disempowering practice?
Reflecting on this session, and the appropriateness of setting lyric-writing themes and creative frameworks for music-making with groups as a facilitator, led me to a difficult re-evaluation of my practice. I had questions; Should I set themes? And what or who’s agenda does this serve? To what extent did my albeit well-intentioned practice amount to a democratisation of culture model as the children were required to opt into creative frameworks and practice structures, rather than determine them? And did this amount to a disempowering practice? Through further reflection on what led me to choose option 2 in that moment, I realised that my belief in the potential of music co-creation to support participant’s felt sense of ownership, and from this the possibility of empowerment, led me to position the aim of writing a song together before how we go about writing the song together. As Henley (2018) highlights in A Challenge to assumptions of the transformative power of music content (such as curriculum) is often problematically positioned before form (pedagogy).
Cable Street Songwriters: interschool small group annotated ideas in response to lyric theme – similarities and differences
Since ‘We all like different things’ was written as a phrase on two of the six group’s documenting sheets and came through as a theme on all, at the next individual school sessions I asked the children if they would like to write a song about all the different things they liked. At each school this suggestion was well received. Subsequently the words ‘we all like different things’ became the main feature of the song. To the right is a field recording of a performance of We all like different things at a local community library.
Footage from Cable Street Songwriters school meet 2
Drag & drop the children's song contributions below (click to enlarge)
A field recording of Cable Street Songwriters’ performance of The Real and the Imaginary at Idea Store Watney Market, June 2018.
A field recording of Cable Street Songwriters’ performance of We All Like Different Things at Idea Store Watney Market, June 2018.
Variety of contribution
For the next joint school song, I changed my approach. I asked the children what they would like to write a song about (whilst this was not new to my practice, deciding a theme together with sixty children across three schools took some reckoning). To facilitate this, during individual school sessions each child could contribute ideas individually on a post-it note. The responses were grouped into corresponding themes and voted on. The top three songwriting theme suggestions across the schools were imaginary worlds, gaming and dreams. This led to the development of the song, The real and the imaginary. Facilitating the development of a joint schools’ song with sixty participating children across three schools resulted in a large volume of contributions – including variation in contribution form as some children responded to the activity through drawing, script writing, lyric writing and accompaniment material. Following my experience of the first school meet, I embraced this in a heightened way. I was wary of enacting practice that fosters ‘participation in the wrong way’ (Hope, 2011) and sought to support the children to participate in the ways that they wanted to.
Henley, J. (2018). A challenge to the assumptions of the transformative power of music. Royal College of Music. https://learn.rcm.ac.uk/courses/1240/pages/a-challenge-to-assumptions-of-the-transformative-power-of-music
Hope, C. S. (2011). Participating in the ‘wrong’ way? Practice based research into cultural democracy and the commissioning of art to effect social change [Doctoral Thesis, Birkbeck, University of London]. Birkbeck, University of London. https://sophiehope.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/SH_PhD_Final.pdf
Howell, G., Higgins, L., & Bartleet, B. L. (2017). Community Music Practice: Intervention Through Facilitation. In R. Mantie, & G. D. Smith,(Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Music Making and Leisure (pp. 601–618). Oxford University Press. https://doi.org/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780190244705.013.26
Levinas, E. (1969). Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority (A. Lingis, Trans.). Duquesne University Press.
Schön, D. A. (1991). The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think In Action. Ashgate Publishing. (Original work Published 1983)