Follow the Leader




I was recently involved in a week-long project for Drake Music at Springwood Heath primary school in Liverpool. Springwood Heath is a school that caters for both mainstream pupils and those with a variety of needs, and for this project a team of four Drake Music associates were working alongside 19 pupils to develop and perform a production of Hansel & Gretel. The four associates each specialised in an area of the production – Writing/Directing, Set Design, Music and Assistive Music Technology – with me leading on the latter.

The week was a wonderful experience, and the final performance a great success. There is lots that could be said about the process of planning the workshop timetables, balancing roles and responsibilities between the team, and the (very generous) ways in which the school, staff and children welcomed us, but in this blog I want to focus on an area that I found myself exploring over the week, which can be applied to all manner of work with young people.

This area is finding the balance between leading and following.

I like, as much as possible, to let participants lead activity. This ensures that sessions are focusing on aspects of the subject in which the participants are most interested and excited, and also gives a sense of power and ownership that in turn can lead to a confidence of creativity and exploration.

However, there are also a number of factors that, in this instance, required me to take the lead at certain times.

The first is that I was introducing the children to new technology, some of with which they were completely unfamiliar. This required me to demonstrate what these items could do, and what parameters could be altered, in order for them to understand how they could then take the lead in exploring the sounds and music they could create.

The next factor was that we had an end product to keep in mind. For each of the four groups with which I worked, we were required to develop a set of sound effects and soundscapes that would complement and enhance the action, songs and visuals in each of the four scenes. If the children were left to lead the activity, there is a fairly high chance that we wouldn’t have managed to get all of the sounds that the performance required, so again, a certain amount of guidance on my part was required.

The third and final factor was the time constraint in which we were working. Knowing that we were bringing all of the elements together on Wednesday, in order to start rehearsing the scenes together and combining the different disciplines, this meant that each group only had two sessions of c.1 hour each in which to become familiar with the equipment, explore the possibilities, decide on their chosen sounds, create these sounds, and learn how to trigger these sounds at the appropriate time. With so much to get through in such a short space of time, again I would need to take the lead on how the sessions flowed.


So the question is: How do you deliver fun sessions in which the participants have the opportunity to explore and feel that they are leading the activity, while still making sure that you achieve all of the required outcomes in such a short time frame?

I, of course, don’t have the answer to this! But it’s an approach that requires constant re-evaluation and experimentation, and I can share some of the techniques I explored in this instance.

Firstly, I found that it was very useful to arrive on the first day armed with, basically, a full set of finished sounds (and for certain sounds a number of alternative possibilities), which I had prepared in advance but, importantly, was perfectly willing – indeed, hoping – to discard. Of course I didn’t want us to end up using my sounds in the performance, but the reasoning behind this approach was that, in already having a range of sounds, I was taking away one of the constraining factors (and diminishing the pressure of another): there was no way that we would end up with nothing, and a certain amount of the time pressure within the sessions was slackened, allowing more freedom for play and experimentation and a more fun session (and therefore, in all likelihood, for the children to come up with solutions much more inventive than those with which I had come prepared).

In a best-case scenario, the children will come up with their own ideas that you can then help them to explore and realise. However, sometimes some children need a bit of help with the initial inspiration, so in having some possibilities ready to go, I was able to play an example of which I could then ask: “Do you think that works?”; “How could it be better/spookier/funnier/more exciting?”; and from there we could either create a new version, or edit and manipulate the existing example in the ways that the children suggested.

In having multiple examples at your disposal you are also producing a creative decision-making process of the simplest kind, that can especially work with children who might have difficulties verbally expressing themselves. If you have two possibilities, you are able to ask “Which one do you prefer?”; “Which do you think will work better in the scene?”; and that decision making process, while not as creative as producing a sound from scratch, still engages the participant in a creative role, and still provides the ownership of ‘That is the sound that I chose’. This can be a particularly nice way of having children with different abilities work together, and each feel that they are playing their own important role: one child might create two sounds, while the second child can then decide which sound they feel works best.

Another tactic that proved fruitful was using the evening of day one to follow up the ideas that had been explored in the first session in order to make the second session as productive as possible. So session one was the ‘ideas lab’, in which we tried out the different pieces of technology and explored what sounds we thought suited our scenes. Any ideas that would have proved too time-consuming on a technical level to realise within the first session were noted, and I was then able to prepare these myself before the next day’s session, so that they could then be explored fully by the children, and then confirmed for inclusion within the scene. This technique can equally be applied to weekly sessions in a similar setting.

Lastly, another concept that I bore in mind in the first two days of sessions was keeping the balance between focusing on the end result – the performance – and the exploration process itself. While the performance was a very important part of the week, and many of the children were looking forward to it as an opportunity to show what they had been working on to their friends, teachers and families, it was just one aspect of a really fun and creative week, in which all of the children were being introduced to new creative activities. It was important that we didn’t put too much emphasis on the final performance, both so that if it went wrong, or if a child made a mistake on the day, that this wouldn’t be seen as a failure of a week’s preparation, but also so that the children wouldn’t see the sessions earlier in the week as solely preparation for the performance which, once over, would be forgotten, but rather as learning new ways to make sounds and music that, as well as being used in our play, could be returned to in the future in different settings.

We explore all of these themes whenever we work in creative settings, and especially when there is a performative element involved within the project. Every instance requires a different balancing of leading and following, and this balance in itself needs to be led by the participants and their specific interests, ideas and abilities.

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