Inclusive ensembles are really important.
We know from experience, because as part of our Think22 strategic music education work we’ve been involved with establishing two inclusive ensembles in partnership with Music Education Hubs in Tower Hamlets and Essex.
Both have been tremendous learning experiences for us, and for the partners we’ve worked with, around how those collaborations work best and what musical quality looks like in this context. This work is part of the Youth Music-funded Alliance for a Musically Inclusive England (AMIE).
What inclusive ensembles can do
Inclusive ensemble projects are really good for redefining just what an ensemble, or an orchestra, might be. They take the typical shape of an ensemble and re-mould it, looking at it through the lens of the Social Model of Disability and seeing what changes that brings.
This widens the vision to include music tech, different improvisational and compositional approaches and new skills for the music leaders in supporting young Disabled musicians to overcome barriers.
They provide opportunities for Disabled and non-Disabled young people to make music together, on an equal footing, and create space for all the musical, personal and social benefits that brings.
So yes, inclusive ensembles are important, do really interesting creative things and have instrinsic value on so many levels, but they are not the whole story. They are not the ‘happily ever after’ of inclusion.
Young people at the heart
At Drake Music we take the view that Inclusion is a journey.
Inclusive ensembles are an excellent marker and step on that road to a more holistic approach; to inclusive practice being embedded across a hub’s full provision and structure.
A hub’s goal (which I think most would agree to, in principle) is that all its musical services are accessible to all the young people in its area. That’s the purest concept of a hub – a selection of musical opportunities which the young person is at the heart of and can choose from. However, while that is easy to put on paper, it can be tremendously challenging to deliver.
(That said, it is helpful that the Govt funding for hubs, which was increased earlier this year, through Arts Council England comes with permission to target those who are most excluded.)
What an inclusive ensemble does is create a way for young Disabled people to be at the heart.
We’ve seen that establishing an inclusive ensemble, particularly using the partnership approach, gives the hub and its workforce new skills and confidence, and allows all involved to see that the knowledge, experience and expertise they already have are transferable to working with young people to remove disabling barriers. It also shows which areas need attending to, or need extra support, in order to make it possible to open up that wider provision across the hub as a whole.
A whole hub approach
So how to go from an inclusive ensemble to a holistic whole hub approach to inclusion?
How can we grow this creativity, youth voice and musical quality sideways across the hub’s full programme?
How can we take advantage of all the good things inclusive ensembles do and take it further?
Learning from our experience, we see 3 things that the inclusive ensemble can help to develop:
Being inclusive is something hubs and their partners can learn. It’s not a magic trick that only a few people can perform.
The inclusive ensemble offers a place to discover what skills they already have on board, and to develop new skills for their delivery teams. It’s a place for skills to be put into practice and tried out, with support from partners who focus on this area of practice, such as Drake Music and others.
Being imaginative about what is considered as ‘an instrument’ can remove a lot of disabling barriers.
Part of setting up an inclusive ensemble is learning how to use music technology to deliver high quality music-making sessions. It is a chance for the music hub to assess its instrument collection, to discover what it has and what is missing, to see how they think about what is an instrument. In an ideal world, as well as storerooms full of Djembe drums there would be a rack of iPads, switches, Soundbeams, TouchBoards and more.
Barriers come in many forms, as our Artistic Programme Leader Daryl puts it, “there are stairs… and stares”.
Developing an ensemble with inclusion at the heart means getting to grips with ideas around the Social Model of Disability, which feeds into the confidence of the workforce, a lack of limitation, a sense of possibility and aspiration. It is a vital part of inclusive provision.
It also feeds into the aesthetics of the ensemble… and hopefully of the hub as a whole. It can open up questions around how we decide what counts as ‘music’ and how we define quality.
It asks about power. Who is in control? Who is leading conversations? Where is the voice of the excluded in that?
The ensemble can be a a window into these big conversations and questions of inclusion as a.) a journey and b.) a process of holistic change and power-shifting at the heart of organisations.
We’re definitely not saying we’ve got all of this stuff cracked at Drake Music. We are having these very conversations and trying to attend to these ideas and actions ourselves. But we think it’s important, and we return regularly to one very important question, to try and develop our thinking and practice:
The question that has to keep being asked is “how do we exclude?”.