The first year of our Youth Music funded Exchanging Notes project was ambitious, involved many unknowns and experiments, yet was a real success in terms of participant enjoyment, learning outcomes, and developing new ways of working both with the students and between organisations.
Of course, the staff and students at Belvue must take most of the credit for this, but Drake Music (DM) as an organisation has played a crucial role, from writing the initial bid, liaising with the multiple organisations involved, troubleshooting, and providing staff for delivery.
As a freelancer who works for a host of arts organisations, I know that all organisations have their strengths and weaknesses.
Looking towards our project’s stated goal to ‘support a culture of innovation and excellence in music making’, and perhaps to start a conversation on the matter, I would like to outline some of Drake Music’s strengths.
I don’t know who the first Associate Musicians (AMs) at DM were, but they must have been excellent practitioners, because the assumption at DM is that all of their staff are at the top of their game, consistent innovators and outstanding musicians (whether with traditional or non-traditional instruments), and we are treated as such.
This results, of course, in us as AM’s rising to the challenge and making sure we are indeed top notch.
We are not micro-managed, and are judged solely on our output, the feedback of participants, and the strength of the music.
In the context of the Exchanging Notes project, this has allowed me to be flexible around the needs of the class and teacher, work to our collective strengths, introduce new methods as and when required, and take a front or back seat in the planning and delivery process depending on what felt most useful.
As is normal for a new member of the DM team, my first couple of projects at DM were as a ‘support musician’, assisting senior AMs like Gawain Hewitt and Gary Day.
I learnt more in each hour long workshop session than I would of in a whole day of training, and I was being paid! Jackpot.
Amongst other things, I came to understand the nuances of group dynamics – making sure all voices are heard and the balance between individual freedom and a sense of group purpose is maintained.
I observed the different approaches that different practitioners have to specific bits of technology. For example, I have seen the Soundbeam used with bubbles, bouncing balls, eyelashes, electric wheelchairs, batman costumes…
I learnt how get shy teachers and passive LSAs excited and confident.
I learnt to embrace my inner techie geek as I fiddled with Makey Makeys and Raspberry Pis.
I learnt the power of humour and warmth.
This sharing has been built-in to the Exchanging Notes project, both in terms of my relationship with Steven, but also through Gary Day’s peripatetic tuition.
Throughout the year we have been able to, literally, exchange notes on students, our plans, what is working and not working, the idiosyncrasies of the school etc.
I was also able to attend his staff training on the Sounds of Intent framework. Our sharing culminated in an ‘ensemble day’ that saw students from his strand and my strand come together for a high-energy day of ensemble work and performance.
I strongly advocate this process of ‘learning through assisting’ as beneficial for both staff and organisations.
I first came to Belvue in 2013 when the school was using the Drake Music’s Introduction to Music , a fully accessible music course created when nothing else could be found that was suitable for the needs of some DM participants.
This is one example of responding in a pro-active way to barriers faced by disabled musicians.
Another is the DM Research and Development team, whose mandate is to ‘inspire, support, agitate and share ‘.
They design instruments to meet specific needs, and re-imagine and re-programme commercially available technologies (e.g. games console controllers) into accessible musical instruments.
Being around this work, and being able to deploy the results in workshops, in turn encourages innovation in our activities and methods.
One of the most exciting strands of Year 2 of the Exchanging Notes project will be when the students help to design their own instrument with the DM R&D team.
Attitude to disability
Having worked with young people in SEN settings for a few years now, my current conclusion (which may have been influenced by Kurt Vonnergut’s Breakfast of Champions) is that the body in general and the brain in particular are incredible and unknowable pieces of engineering, and that the difference between any two people, regardless of their status as disabled or non-disabled, is the same: we all have different chemical compositions and memories, and these create different thought patterns, actions and tastes.
Any differences beyond these are created by society.
It is up to us as free-minded individuals to mitigate the inherent discrimination that disabled people face, learn from these different ways of being, and not be shy about facing up to our own pre-conceptions, some of which are buried pretty deep down in our psyches.
I feel that this understanding is one that is shared by others within the organisation, and robust disability awareness training provided by DM, and working closely with musicians and colleagues who are disabled (including on the recent Sonic Vistas project), allows me to work more effectively in Belvue and other workshop settings – the bottom line being that there is often more laughter, groove and honest communication than I have in my ‘other’ life with professional musicians.
This may sound more like a love letter than a reflective blog, but I think it is important for organisations in the same field as DM to hear from a freelance practitioner about what is important to their delivery staff.
The strengths outlined above build a highly skilled and flexible workforce that displays loyalty and trust in their organisation, all of which are consistently reflected in project outcomes.