Making it up as I go along

My week got off to a good start on Monday with my third and penultimate training session with Phil Mullen at BPM in Bristol. Although the sessions are based around developing and reflecting as a community musician, one of the best things about the session is that it’s an opportunity to get together and talk with other people doing similar work to me – usually we all work in isolation and don’t get a chance to share good practice. But another thing that’s so great about the sessions is that they are free-wheeling, and follow the interests in the group. Phil makes no secret of the fact that there are things that he’d like to deliver in the group, but that the energy in the room is the most important navigator of the session.

In business it’s called agility. In music it’s called improvisation. In formal education, it’s called bad practice.

Musicians are weird. They are physiologically different from other humans. The brain power it takes to play an instrument and sing at the same time along with a band uses more areas of the brain simultaneously than almost any other activity. Daniel Levitin‘s excellent book ‘This Is Your Brain On Music’ goes into depth about how important music is for all areas of the brain and how to hear it and participate in it lights up and rewires the synapses within it. Music literally reaches the parts of the brain other activities cannot reach.

Maybe that’s why the creative arts in general and music in particular has a hard time fitting into the prescribed rigid structures of formal education – the way that musicians think isn’t necessarily aligned with the often linear check-list approach to education that is often required when dealing with a strict academic syllabus. Most of the time I don’t have a problem with this – if an exam board has a set of criteria by which they judge achievement, most of the time that has been developed with some subject specialists. You can often see the join between what people want to deliver and what is easily quantifiable, but in my experience it is often done with the best intentions.

Unfortunately, for a multitude of reasons, fun and enjoyment are not things we tend to assess.

My difficulties with the above model stem from trying to apply formal education models to anyone out of the mainstream – anyone with a disability, anyone on the autistic spectrum, anyone with behavioural issues, anyone excluded from school, anyone with emotional issues… I mean, we say these people are out of the mainstream, but I’d argue that for certain demographics, such as working in areas of deprivation, they can make up the majority. Many of these people turn to the Arts because they have been given a hard time in the more conventional academic subjects. If the Arts are forced to act within the same ‘One Size Fits All’ structures, then they will fail these people the same as they have been failed before.

This is best illustrated with an example. About 5 years, I started to run a regular session at a day centre for older people with profound long-term disabilities. (Here’s a video of me testing the equipment I planned to use before the first session). In this session, 90% of the group are non-verbal communicators. My remit, from the point of view of the centre staff, was to work with the people in the session and make music with them. That was it, nothing else. Within a couple of weeks, I’d started to learn what each client liked, what they didn’t and started to prepare equipment and repertoire to match their abilities and musical preferences.

Then along came Ofsted, who voiced concerns that it was difficult to show progression of those who were coming to the sessions (not just with me, but across the adult education work in general). The funding body responded by creating enormous booklets that all delivering staff had to fill in. They had to show progression. They had to show how I was embedding English and Maths into my sessions. They had to show how I was preparing the people I was working with for a job, giving them ’employability skills’. I had to show all this in detailed plans, I had to collect evidence that there had been progress from one session to the next, and I was told that if I didn’t do this, I wouldn’t be allowed to run the sessions any more.

Let me be clear – this was for a session where I was singing and playing instruments with people with profound disabilities, some of whom had been in the centre for a number of years. The idea of ‘One Size Fits All’ was the very antithesis of equality and diversity. If I’d have thought for one minute that my sessions would have been even slightly better for doing all this extra work, I would have done it; in actual fact the opposite was true as it took time away from me preparing music for the sessions. I tried so hard to find a compromise, but the funding body refused to budge. So I filled in their paperwork, spending two solid days working through a booklet that the clients would never see or be able to read, only to be told it wasn’t filled in correctly.

And then I quit. That’s not normally a happy ending, but because I had built up a great reputation for my work, I started working directly with the centres, cutting out the not only unnecessary but obstructive level of bureaucracy that prevented me from running the sessions to the best advantage of the centre, the carers and the individual clients. Now the sessions are a joy to run, not a burden. Financially, I think I might be worse off doing the sessions this way but I haven’t even checked because I literally couldn’t care less – for me it’s all about doing the right thing by those I work with, everything else is secondary.

I’m not saying that we don’t need plans, but I am saying that planning needs to be appropriate to the work that we do in the extent and the form that it takes. The analogy I favour in classes is that of the pilot who needs to get to the destination but will need to navigate around bad weather and unforeseen problems; a commercial flight is off-target for 90% of its time, but is always making tiny adjustments to get back on track. This brings me to the second problem I have with planning – it allows people to be absent from the real work.

When you are in a session and responding to the group, it’s very much like surfing a wave, you have to be profoundly present in the room to keep the session moving forward, and that’s what makes the session thrilling for everyone taking part. An overly-planned session is like being on a conveyor-belt, everyone moving forward at the same pace, and it is disengaging for both leader and participant. Stating the aims may be great for Ofsted (and for some participants) but for many it’s like watching a film or football match and being told in advance when to pay attention and which bits you can tune out for.

Let me end with a video – I was reminded of this by an inspiring presentation by Mark De-Lisser at Music Education Expo a couple of months back. In both the presentation I saw and the video below of Bobby McFerrin, the audience are clearly fully engaged. There are no stated aims or objectives, but it quickly becomes clear what is being taught. You can only deliver sessions like this if your focus is entirely on those who you are teaching. And I know that, for me, this is the time when my brain lights up like nothing else on earth, and it’s what keeps me doing this kind of work.