Taking Soundbox Online – what we learned from moving an inclusive music ensemble online


2020 was a bit of a weird one, as I’m sure you’ll agree! We all had to adapt to new ways of working, and in this article I hope to share some useful tips we’ve picked up on the journey of taking an inclusive music ensemble online.

To give a bit of context, I’m an associate musician with Drake Music, and I’ve been working with the Soundbox ensemble for around 3 years. Soundbox is an inclusive music project that brings together disabled and non-disabled young musicians to make music with accessible instruments, traditional instruments, and music technology. We’re a partnership project delivered by Drake Music, THAMES (Tower Hamlets Arts and Music Education Service), Spitalfields Music, and the London Symphony Orchestra.

In ‘normal’ times, we would meet every other Saturday morning, in a group of sometimes more than 20 musicians, and over the last few years we’ve endeavoured to build a culture of musical collaboration, exploration, community, and fun! We’ve performed at some really nice venues such as the V&A Museum of Childhood and LSO St Lukes.

Soundbox moved onto Zoom at the start of the first lockdown in March 2020, and it looks like we’ll be staying online as we move into 2021.

So how have we kept the culture and values of Soundbox intact when we’re no longer able to make music in a room together? 

As we say goodbye to 2020 and move tentatively into the new year, it feels like a good time to reflect on some of the elements that have worked for us, as well as the elements that haven’t worked so well! This isn’t a list of do’s and don’ts – just some points I’ve noticed along the way.

Keep the social elements

The 45-minute ‘soft-start’ that usually opens up our Soundbox sessions, is a chance for everyone to settle in, and to have a catch-up and a chat. It’s also where a lot of musical seeds are sown, seeds which often grow into integral parts of our musical creations.

Although floating in our separate boxes on Zoom can never replicate that bubbling, settling, social element of our ‘live’ sessions, we’ve tried to keep that sense of togetherness and community intact, by leaving time at the start (as well as the end) of each Zoom session for the young musicians and their parents and carers to catch up and reconnect, before we settle into making music together. We’ve definitely noticed that keeping as much of the structure and routine of the ‘live’ sessions as we can has benefited the online sessions greatly.

Get creative with feedback

Having clear lines of communication between the creative team and the young musicians (and their parents / carers) is integral to keeping Soundbox authentically collaborative and youth-led.

In our ‘live’ sessions we leave plenty of time and space for the Soundbox participants to give feedback and, as everyone communicates in different ways, we try to offer a variety of methods for leaving feedback, including big pieces of paper and pens, guiding questions and pictures, emojis, online forms etc. The process of moving online was a really disruptive time, and in hindsight we may have let the feedback process fall by the wayside somewhat. However, we’re now experimenting with creative ways to gather feedback from participants online, using the instant, visual, fun feedback that can be gathered by Poll Everywhere and Menti-Meter.

If you’d like to find out more about how important we feel Youth Voice is to the evolution of Soundbox, here’s a chat I had with one of the Soundbox young musicians and his mum, as part of Youth Voice Week

Don’t forget the benefits

We’re itching to get back in a room together, and there’s no doubt that much of the magic of musical collaboration is lost when you’re not physically together, playing off each other, and really feeling the music. There are also many other barriers and limitations to online music-making. Digital Exclusion, for example, is a huge issue, and has been written about brilliantly by one of Drake Music’s Artists in Residence, Elinor Rowlands. The full article can be found here.

Sadly, there has been a noticeable drop-off in attendance numbers at Soundbox since we’ve moved online, and although we’ve tried our best to support all Soundbox members to get involved, moving online has still proven to be a huge barrier to participation.

However, I have noticed some unexpected benefits to online music-making, hidden amongst the many challenges! For instance, some of our neurodivergent musicians can find unfamiliar places, journeys, people, sounds, and other sensory input, very challenging, at least initially. Being able to ‘meet’ with the rest of the Soundbox ensemble from the familiar surroundings of our own homes, has led to a noticeable increase in engagement and participation for some of the group.

Youth Voice is important to us, and it’s often the case that ideas and opinions can get lost in the hustle and bustle of live Soundbox sessions. We’ve found that working on Zoom, in smaller groups, has resulted in the young musicians having more space and time to share their creative ideas. I feel that even once Soundbox returns to being ‘in-person’, there’s definitely scope for combining the live sessions with smaller online sessions in between, and it’s unlikely we would’ve considered the potential benefits of this without going through a global pandemic together!

Although we’d always prefer to be in a room with the Soundbox ensemble, I think it’s important to notice these positive aspects, no matter how small they seem. We’ve still made some beautiful music together during this crazy time, and I’ll leave you with the THAMES Saturday Music Centre arrangement of Elbow’s ‘One Day Like This’, featuring over 100 young musicians from Tower Hamlets, and with a musical introduction by the Soundbox ensemble.

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