Honesty and dialog: learning from Exchanging Notes at Belvue School


This reflection was originally written for a presentation I gave at the last annual Exchanging Notes partner’s meeting, hosted by BCU in March this 2018.

Over the last few years I’ve been co-delivering music classes and working on one-to-on and small group peri sessions at Belvue School. This has been my first long-term school project; I’ve grown a lot through this process, and these experiences have helped me get to a kind of practice I’ve seen exemplified by other music leaders, and a depth of understanding that I aspired to when I first joined Drake Music.

Learning in dialog with the school’s teacher

I’ve been reflecting lately upon what I’ve learned from working with Chris, the school’s music teacher. I’ve sometimes found that question quite difficult to answer, in part because we’ve developed a lot of ideas together.  Some of the biggest benefits have been in developing a better understanding of how to collaborate with specialist SEN school teachers and getting a feel for the school dynamic as it has been around what we might call the delivery itself.

I think it’s also important to recognise that this has happened in a feedback relationship with co-delivery on other projects. While working on Exchanging Notes I’ve worked on several school projects with a very similar format, including a new collaboration with Ealing Music Services. I’ve found it very useful to bring ideas back from these other situations and discuss them with Chris, and to try them out within our sessions. If I had to sum this up in a couple of words, they’d probably be “honesty” and “dialog”.  Honesty in my role – recognising the differences in approaches, and being aware of both of our experience levels, as well as how that fits into the dynamic of playing together with the young musicians. And dialog throughout – keeping it as musical as possible, recognising the preferences of the young musicians and in turn how to push them to reach their full potential.

With this in mind I’d like to start by talking about a few more practical outcomes and get a bit deeper as we go on. I’ll look at four core themes: our work in the sessions, pacing and sustainability of the project, evaluation, and learning from the young musicians.

In the session

At the start of the project I was struck by what a tight ship Chris runs during his classes.  Chris lays out a clear structure in the sessions, and is very realistic about what he feels can be achieved.  My experience prior to working on Exchanging Notes was largely community music-based, with an aspiration that everything in the session should happen in response to the young musician’s interests; often this meant more facilitation than direct leadership.

With this in mind, while the approach in the classroom might have seemed a bit more formulaic than I was used to, I’ve come to understand that Chris is able to work on a more direct level with the young musicians and recognise “soft outcomes” precisely because of these solid foundations.

It was clear that we had quite different ideas of appropriate space and time early on, while I think I generally appreciate a more fluid and responsive approach in terms of play, and this can involve a bit of silence. Chris sometimes felt like this got in the way of making sure everyone was engaged and doing something musical.

Through exploring compromises on this front, and examining the benefits of ostensibly unstructured free time in the peri sessions, we have started including much more non-verbal music-making activities.

In these sessions everyone in is asked to focus on the music leader and copy their actions; the teacher will then start imitating others in the room, until it becomes clear to some people in the room that anyone can take control, and this shifts back and forth for a while. Any cues to stop are given musically if at all possible. The results feel quite magical at times, as the group starts to regulate themselves and develop their own activities. It feels like more of a space for musical jokes, a way to respond to each other with our instruments, to bring in ideas that don’t fit into the structure of the main session. We’ll try to talk about it to make sure it’s accessible to everyone, and I like to think that if we have a good opener this will carry through to the rest of the session, and there’s more of a sense of shared ownership.

A lot of inspiration has come from beyond the music room – being embedded in the school it’s been invaluable to see how the young people interact elsewhere, and to see Chris’s interaction and degree of formality in his different roles as a science teacher and a form tutor. It’s helped me understand a kind of holistic approach that I can take to other projects, and I generally feel more confident talking to non-specialist teachers about how they can bring in ideas from other subjects.

Evaluation and reflection

We have found the Youth Music Quality Framework invaluable as a tool for reflection and for planning within the sessions.  We got the sense that it was a little too obvious at first – Chris has stated that these were just all ingredients to a good session plan (you can read reflections in previous blog posts here and here).  But having stuck with it together, it’s given us a common language, and has pointed out some vital issues around the appropriateness of our skills and resources, the music room itself, and trying to work towards a young person centred approach.

One of the biggest challenges for me on this project has been gathering evaluation directly from the young musicians, and this crosses over with a lot of the school’s considerations. Bearing in mind it’s important for the young musicians to have their own voice, some of them might not engage directly with evaluation questions, or might not respond verbally.  We’ve discussed how to approach this as honestly as possible, by adapting the forms and augmenting the responses with descriptions of conversations around the interview, or significant actions within the session to indicate a preference.

Pacing and sustainability

Working on the longer timescale of Exchanging Notes has made me think hard about what happens when we would normally leave a project, whether or not there’s a prominent staff training element. It’s really challenged my expectations of what will “stick” over time, whether that’s down to interest of the young musicians or just the amount of preparation time involved – we need to find ways to integrate these processes into this constantly on-the-move workflow.

The first year for me was all about focussing on music technology, which we’d agreed was something Chris wanted to build confidence in, but I recognise now that I was essentially trying to change the way that he was doing things. On a practical level, that meant that we were able to respond to the young musicians’ interests – whether we’re talking about playing pop music or grime, the interaction with technology is a different, often more inclusive way of playing, and on this front it was a transition period that set us up for some really important discoveries.  But looking back at this now, this was often a very one-sided approach – we’ve agreed that there’s no way Chris would have delivered many of these sessions without me, and he’s very honest about how he will switch back to the default techniques that he knows will work.

With this in mind, thinking about legacy, we’re talking about how it’s important that it won’t just be Chris who can deliver this. Our priority in the last year has been making sure that the young people know how to work independently, creating roles such as sound engineer to set up the equipment, and most importantly that they can start teaching others how to do so.  And that process in itself has brought in questions around responsibility, trust, and reflection that’s helped some of the young musicians re-engage with the project.

I try to make a point of always working with resources that I can hand over to a teacher during a session.  Together we’ve developed ways of expressing our ideas that are based on session plans, making sure the technology or instrument-based aspects feel a lot more subtle, and that they are supported by activities that can play to the non-specialists’ strengths. And engaging the young musicians at this level feels like a logical next step.

Learning from the young musicians

As of my second year on the project I’ve been working with many of our young musicians in a one to one or small group context, which has given me some fresh perspectives as well. These sessions have helped understand ideas of joint ownership, and learning from each other. In the spirit of collaboration I’ve found it’s been important to be honest about my own role and abilities.  

As a music technologist first, I have a feeling I’m in the opposite situation to a lot of music leaders who are more comfortable with instruments. I found the sessions really took off when I felt confident in saying openly that I wasn’t going to try and keep one step ahead as a teacher, but that we would learn how to play together . . . that I couldn’t pretend to know everything about One Direction, but I could say “please show me what it is that makes you passionate about their music, and let’s try and find a way of creating that energy together”!