Archive for the ‘creative’ Category

I was there!

Just coming up for air now, 4 months after the birth of our stunning baby girl, Maggie Mai, I think my brain needs a bit of a workout. I happily get the odd email from MA students about projects and experiences. It is so nice because I had almost forgotten who I am outside of being a mother, which I could do forever but it won’t always be so consuming and in an area such as community music you have to be in the loop and loose the work. Anyway, I have been chatting to the lovely and talented Ruti Lachs about bits and bobs when I was reminded  of a  methodology that, I feel, suits the community musician struggling to apply their own knowledge and experience, ‘legitimately’. Do approach with caution though!

A couple of years ago I was invited to give a lecture on Community Music and deliver some basic skills that performance students could use when touring. No problem at all I responded and went about putting together a lecture based in the development of community music in the UK as an introduction, no better place to start I thought to myself, with all this fresh published material to back me up, what could go wrong. Based on perspectives offered by Lee Higgins, Tim Joss, Anthony Everitt and George McKay as well as being a member of Sound Sense whose quarterly journals reports on community music activity in the UK, I felt I was well positioned to offer somewhat of a historical perspective on community music in the UK. So, off I went and I began to notice that the more I say the more a mature student from England seems to becoming increasingly irate and visibly red. Foolishly, and naively, in typical all inclusive community music lets include everyone fashion, I ask, ‘Is there anything anyone would like to add or say at this point? The student in question dismisses my solid scholarly references in one swoop saying, ‘thats not what happened, I was a playing all over the UK during the 70s and that is not what happened, I know because I was there and community musicians were just crap musicians who needed to make money somehow.’  I was silenced, what could I say? Not only was I being accused of giving a false rendition of past events I was also being told in one way or another that I was a failed performing musician. The student was there and knew what their experience had been and the class listened the the back and forth comments between us. It was getting heated, an adamant, disgruntled student; what did I know? A 30 year old whipper snapper tutor, claiming to know what happened in their country during their time as a struggling musician seeing all these ‘crap musicians’ getting money from the Arts Council that they wanted, the student was furious and it seemed to be all my fault. The second half of the class was skills based and as you can imagine they were only too delighted to find a space in the room that he felt comfortable in and let their voice be heard, mingling with the voices of those around the area. I can honestly say that this student threw me dagger looks for the next 9 months of their time in UL. A simple slide caused all this distress and upset, I had not meant to and smiled widely every time our paths crossed thereafter, I think it made things worse. A lesson learned for me, in future a quick  scan around the room before including such historical perspectives, which at the best of times can be, as Benedict (2009) cautioned; hierarchical, one-dimensional and misconstrued.

I remembered this class while reading through papers suggested to me by my supervisor, a referenced paper by Andy Medhurst caught my attention who gives the following account –

 When you teach, as I do, university courses which look at the history of popular

culture, there is one kind of student you learn to dread. This is the student who

knows exactly what it was like during a particular aspect of a particular period of that

history because they took part in it, because ‘I was there’. Such a claim is a pre-

emptive strike that seeks to dismiss all the claims of retrospective thinking, all the

writers and theorists who have subsequently put forward interpretations of cultural

events, in favour of the apparently unchallengeable testimony of first-hand

experience. ‘I was there’ is a badge proclaiming the authoritativeness of 

autobiographical authenticity, and it’s a difficult badge to dislodge. Eventually,

however, the student-who-was-there can usually be persuaded to recognise that

critical hindsight may have some value, that simply inhabiting a moment is no

guarantee of fully comprehending it, and that personal recollection is but one

discourse among many. Knowing this as well as I do, it is very disconcerting when

I read academic accounts of 1970s punk, because all of my intellectual convictions

shrivel and wither under the onslaught of more emotive and irrational imperatives.

Reason and distance arc subsumed by the urge to shout—no, I know more about this

than you, because I was there.’ (Sabin, 1999, p. 219)

In a 3-hour session that attempted to cover the history of community music in the UK and to learn some workshop skills it was not possible for me to ‘dislodge’ the ‘authoritativeness of autobiographical authenticity’ that I so clearly did not have and that the aforementioned student did. All the smiles and ‘how you doings’ in the world could not remove the self-righteousness of the person who knew it all, because that person was there. Now I begin to see myself in this student in terms of community music and what it is, those who are not community musicians do not understand this pathway. How could they? They simply do not get it. This attitude must be removed and put aside during any research because it will, as it did with the all-knowing student, taint and cloud any autoethnographic narrative that I offer.

So it is with these cautionary tales and reminders that I set about looking deeper into the notion of using this widely criticized and celebrated method, sometime in the future, maybe after Maggie does ‘the Leaving’!

Harry Bird and co at the Music Hub

As a facilitator it is always a joy to attend a workshop and not have to lead, especially when the leader is the frontman for one of  my favourite bands – Harry Bird and the Rubber Wellies. We first heard Harry play at the Flat Lakes Festival in Monaghan 2 years ago, I went for a dander to check out other sounds and was halted in my tracks by that beautiful music. Since then we have seen the lads a handful of times, and each time it has been a real treat. On that first evening of hearing the lads play I bought 5 CDs for people  I thought might enjoy their style, one of whom is my good friend and excellent colleague, James Blake at the Learning Hub, Limerick. He seemed to enjoy the music as much as I did and set about getting them to the Hub and true to his word he did so, just yesterday.


Harry and Christophe leading the group in a songwriting workshop.

What a magical afternoon we all had! A very mixed bag of people attended, including experienced community musicians, young musicians, school goers and young songwriters. Harry, Christophe and and Jamie have a warm and generous presence, treating everyone with the same respect and attention. I learned so much in terms of approach and attitude, what a gift to receive on the afternoon I officially began my maternity leave. We wrote a song together and everyone contributed – Harry was a natural leader, no amount of training, pedagogical or philosophical ‘insight’ can afford somebody such skill. You either have it, or you don’t! It is clear that lovely Harry has it in spades.

Thanks to the Hub for a wonderful afternoon.

The Haiku and artistic composition

A dear friend and wonderful community musician, Aisling O’Gorman, moved to Dublin to run The Ark’s music programme last September. In leaving she asked me if I would have the time to take on some of her groups, in reality I didn’t but I had worked with one of the groups in the past and wanted to at least do my best to offer some kind of transitional period. Aisling had worked with the Parkinson’s Society ‘Voice Club’ for 3 years and the group was very fond of her, they had developed a large repertoire and performed each year for family and friends at their annual Christmas ‘do’.

So, I gladly took on the big boots of Miss O’Gorman and went about trying to find a place and time that would suit the majority of members and I. In the end it was decided that the Learning Hub each Tuesday morning would serve well for all involved. A beautiful, state of the art, accessible recording studio with a large practice room was offered to the club free of charge. Wonderful, and we began.

Although little research has been done regarding the clear cut benefits of music, specifically singing and Parkinson’s it is clear to me that these sessions have been of and will continue to be of benefit to those involved. Not just in terms of musical development and social interaction but also in terms of the individuals overall health.

Engaging in the sessions helps with; posture, maintaining muscle strength in the diaphragm, speech fluency (because it works the mouth muscles), preventing drooling, maintaining swallow and by engaging in something they enjoy.(Dunne, 2011)

30 minutes are dedicated to vocal warm-ups helping to strengthen muscles in the diaphragm etc. Exercises include musical statues, breath holding and vocalizing,  dedicated facial warming, scales, rounds amongst other tricks I have accumulated over the years. Songs are then shared, I will usually teach a song and ask members to do the same. For some members of the group music had been a big part of their lives ‘pre-Parkinson’s’ and this is a safe space for them to play and sing, I personally cherish this time and I’d imagine, although I have not asked, the said members do too. This said, there are members who have just come to music through the Society and clearly do not share the same grá for this part of the session. With this in mind I decided to cut back the time we spend on this ‘show and tell’ period and concentrate on composition. Composition with such a group is very challenging, grown men and women who come together once a week due to a shared disease does not necessarily mean that they have similar interests beyond music. So, I decided to use Haikus as a starting point for group lyric writing and thereafter individuals to think about when they went home for the week. Lee Higgins used Japanese sonnet composition when he taught me at the University of Limerick and has since published a book of events and workshops with Patricia Sheehan Campbell. ‘The Badge of Identity’ uses the Haiku in part, enabling the artist to work within structures and in many ways forcing them to think and compose within attainable boundaries.  Free To Be Musical 

The Haiku is a Japanese sonnet that follows a 5,7,5 syllable format. Over the years I have used the sonnet as a lyrical starting point  where groups are not gelling well, it has proved successul to date. Indeed my favourite and most indulgent event is the aforementioned ‘Badge of Identity’ by Lee Higgins, it allows for free expression if a non-judgmental and free space. I would only use this event when working with a group who has known one-another for sometime through the musical project in question. 

At first the change in our typical workshop format was met with some resistance and indeed some fear. Sensing this resistance I parked the notion of dedicating the full session to Haiku led composition and returned to our usual routine but I did invite people to compose their own Haiku and share it with the group the following week or anytime in the future. To my delight and surprise one gentleman, a piano player, returned a fortnight later with 3 Haikus written in the Irish language each sonnet with a character and a reference to the weather. The group applauded and celebrated the efforts of their colleague, as did I. We spent the rest of the session putting the words to music in range that suits all members.  Since then the composition has taken on the form of macaronic rhyme with another member offering an interpretation of the piece in the English language. The piece is beginning to come to life in the different shapes and forms that have emerged and come together seamlessly. The month of January will be set aside to work on the piece and record it, the Learning Hub as ever has offered support in the shape of recording time and production, instrumentalists, time and space. What a lovely way to begin 2012.

The Society for Music Education in Ireland – 1st Annual Conference, UCC

Cork people are a proud and passionate bunch in all departments; sport, music, culture, education, lilting tones and of course they are the funniest people in Ireland – well, so they would lead you to believe. I remember playing a gig in Bunratty around 10 years ago and a group of Corkonians from Mallow were on a company night out, they really missed home, they were lonesome for Cork! Soldiers, no doubt, of the People’s Republic of Cork! In many ways I can understand this overt pride in all things ‘Cork’, the city is warm and friendly with cafes and music venues lining  the side streets of the centre. Cork city centre has not lost its heart, like so many other Irish cities whose business and soul have succumb  to large shopping malls that sprung up in the suburbs,  during those ‘good years’. West County Cork rivals the most beautiful of views around the Irish coastline, but overall Cork seems to offer a blazing welcome to those who visit, in my experience the people go out of their way to help you and are typically, good ‘craic’. Cork city remains vibrant, home to UCC and CIT, both hosting wonderfully diverse and open music programmes. So, where better to have SMEI’s 1st annual conference?

SMEI’s conference organising committee made an excellent early decision in choosing Phil Mullen  as the conference keynote speaker. Phil, a UK based Community Musician and trainer. He has worked for 25 years with vulnerable young people including those with mental health issues and special educational needs and those at risk of offending. He has also worked with homeless people and in prisons and with seniors. For seven years he worked in Northern Ireland promoting cross-cultural understanding through music. Phil also works extensively with schools in the primary and secondary sectors. He has long standing working relationships with Goldsmiths College, London University, The University of Limerick, London Philharmonic Orchestra and Music Leader. He also acts as an advisor to ‘Sing Up‘, the UK national singing programme for primary age children on its inclusion strand “Beyond the Mainstream”. Phil is a former com- missioner and chair of ISME’s Community Music Activity Commission and is a serving board member and is also part of the Membership focus group. For me, in a time that community music in Ireland is in danger of being a passing fad, an extra line to add to a CV without a respect or deeper understanding of the practice, Phil’s presence and centrality to the conference was key.His name drew people far beyond the Music Education circles in Ireland and North America. A keynote full of energy, creativity and respect for the people who we as community musicians work with on a daily basis. It also highlighted how music education in Ireland has moved on since the days of the ‘Deaf Ears’ and ‘MEND’ reports, the willingness to be more inclusive and welcoming reflect how the success community music has perhaps been a predominant voice for change, whether music education realises it or not. Those who sat and really listened to Phil Mullen might find it hard to argue.

Phil Mullen

The conference committee was inundated with papers, workshops and posters hoping to be seen and heard in UCC on the 12th and 13th November 2011, so much so that parallel  sessions were a must in order for all voices to be heard. Presenters such as Randall Allsup, Evelyn Grant and Daithí Kearney highlight the span of interests and passions represented at the conference. Conference Programme  

Overall the gathering felt like a very welcoming and open event and one that should have been in its 8th year, not first. This, I feel is not only testament to the local organising committee, but also the glaring passion and commitment of those attending, performing and presenting, or maybe it was just ‘Cork’!

The Learning Hub opens in ‘pop up’ style: You are what you learn.

Set in Kileely, Limerick City looking out onto the River Shannon, lovely on the greyest of days but glorious when the sun shines, and so it did. It is hard to believe that just 5 short years ago director Jennifer Moroney Ward rattled around St.Martin’s House on her own with a hope of creating the team that she did, the results speak for themselves and this brief reflection does not attempt to represent the depth of hard work, educational sharing, artistic creativity and overall highly positive spirit that weave the tapestry and essence of the Learning Hub. You Are What You Learn. In my opinion, The Hub is, potentially Limerick’s answer to Dublin’s ‘The Ark’ or Newcastle’s ‘Sage’ programmes.

3 years ago I stumbled upon team members from the Learning Hub at a stuffy, routine presentation of work to satisfy funders. Not anticipating anything ‘new’ from the same faces and slides, I brought a good book with me and tucked myself away at the back, like the unruly student that I always longed to be. There seemed to be a few new faces, SIF 2. I was instantly taken by the smiles and enthusiasm of the Hub presenters, distracting me from the previously mentioned book. I wanted to talk to them and hopefully collaborate somehow, and so the link began. Students from the BA Irish Music and Dance, UL spent two, five week sessions in the Hub working with young people from the area through music and dance, the benefits to the BA students far out weighing those of the youngsters involved, we had to rethink the relationship. It was unfair on the young people involved in terms of pedagogical friendships to tease them with the presence of the BA students for 2 weeks just to be introduced to new faces the following week. Thereafter, I kept in touch with the Hub through MA and BA long term placements, this engagement meant greater impact for all involved, a 50/50 deal, as it should be.

In January 2011 The Hub in association with The Limerick School of Music opened it’s doors to children aged between 8-15 from the area for a music programme, a community music programme. The hours were advertised as such and the interview panel asked all kinds of questions about community music, I was shocked! The VEC were quizzing me about my community music experience when only 8 years previously they were asking to clarify, with the aid of a powerpoint presentation, as to what community music was. (Dear Community Music Ireland – Please do not become a cool and new thing , do your best now, stay true and be strong, don’t forget who you are, don’t sell out). Luckily I was included along with the very talented James Blake to run the Hub’s music programme, 3 evenings a week. Happy days, with my contract in UL recently finished this was perfect timing and a big challenge to get back into the work that I am so fond of.

On the evening that families were due to come to The Hub to sign up for the programme, the elements were against us. Hail, some snow, wind and of course that obligatory ‘Angela’s Ashes’ type rain that is a constant in Limerick(that is a joke, just in case any Limerick advocates are googling, ‘Limerick, rain’ to try and start a row. A very wet place though, it has to be said). The damp and cold conditions did not seem to deter families from making their way to Kileely, 70 kids signed up and 45 performed at the opening last month. They performed original and covered materials and even sang a layered and harmonized song with the steady guiding hand of James all the way. The results were wonderful, high praise form dignitaries, families and friends on the day and since. One song called ‘Recession Shoes’ has proved popular with all age groups, all songs will be recorded in the hub’s new studio this month.

This music programme seems to have lit something in the children, young people and families that we have worked with since January, it has created a hunger to learn more about music and to continue to perform. The positive and creative attitude of those who run The Hub is infectious and this permeates through each session we share. Requests of formal instrumental lessons from so many of the children involved have been heart-warming.I suppose they see the teenagers in the group who are taking instrumental lessons and they want to be like the older dudes and dudettes, but also on the day of the opening one young lady played a pink, daisy shaped electric guitar to the Undertones’ ‘My Perfect Cousin’. It doesn’t get much more inspirational then that!

So, we hope the music programme will continue and that those who have engaged with the initial part of the course will continue and receive the long awaited instrumental lessons. The performance,technology and compositional workshops will continue for all but a new group of children will be invited to avail of what has been and will continue to be a terrific project. I’m going say it, skip on now if you must – ‘I would have loved something like this when I was their age’. Please feel free to judge me, but know that I have never said this to any children or young people that I have worked with in my role as a community musician.

The Hub is the most professional and involved place I have worked as a community musician. They value your opinion and if you work hard and be apart of their creative energy, you will receive an ongoing, unconditional welcome. All this said, it is hard work; high energy, reflective, vocational, ‘for the kids’, many hours beyond your contract hard work. The trick is, I found, to know when to say ‘no’, to know when you are, as a leader, being stretched and indeed to recognise when others are being stretched too. All too often this is difficult to do, but ultimately the project suffers if a balance between input and output is not struck. There is a very thin line between high energy, all consuming work and cynicism.   When that tired, sensitive cynic comes to work, no matter how nice the workplace is – Kids, beware!

RIME 2011

‘The aim of the conference is to gather together researchers, teachers and practitioners to share and discuss their research which is concerned with all aspects of teaching and learning in music: musical development, perception and understanding, creativity, learning theory, pedagogy, curriculum design, informal settings, music for special needs, technologies, instrumental teaching, teacher education, gender and culture. Music education is also  viewed in  the context of arts education, the whole curriculum and its socio cultural contexts.’ (RIME,2011)

My application to RIME 2011 was 2-fold; to hear and meet some excellent music education and community music researchers and practitioners as well as taking the opportunity to draw a line under 11-years of project work with the Nomad project at the University of Limerick. With my paper accepted and sharing the stage with people such as Lee Higgins, Dawn Bennet, Cecilia Bjork,Kathryn Marsh, Alexandra Kertz-Welzel and Mark Whale standards were set to be of the highest order with plenty of scope for honest and critical discourse.

‘The Nomad Project: returning to the field for further educational investigation’, marks the end point, research wise, of nearly 11 years of project-based community music, academic and course development work. A tall order to represent the depth of work that has been done by the project during this period. With the fear of misrepresenting the project, the paper was written from the view of the author – offering personal and group narratives and case studies. All of which being framed by the development of community and Traveller education development in Ireland since the ‘boom’ times experienced since the late 1990’s. Hoping to develop a new presentation style whilst retaining an appearance of confidence and an ability to ad-lib I decided to use a new presentation tool – ‘Prezi’.

This tool challenges the lateral style of powerpoint using a single canvas instead of the traditional slide format of other tools. Allowing for non-linear presentations, where users can zoom in and out of a visual map thoughts can jump from one section to another when planning. I found that it forces the user to think about the order and pathways making for a more organised presentation, certainly more work but once the basic skills are acquired, I found it to be a most liberating way of presenting.
My presentation was placed in-between Brit Ågot Brøske Danielsen (Norwegian Academy of Music, Norway) and Kathryn March from the University of Sydney. Both with strong community music and outreach leanings I was right at home. Brit reported on the reflections of students involved in a music programme at a Palestinian refugee camp in the Lebanon, having learned about this programme from the participant perspective in Beijing it was wonderful to hear how the music students had found the experience. Kathryn treated us to many clips from the playground featuring the role of music in the lives of refugee children in Sydney, very interesting work. I was happy to receive plenty of questions and comments during the session and afterward.

It was difficult to choose what papers to attend, organisers had requested when going to a session to stay at it for the remainder of the presentations and not to walk in and out of sessions. A point that I well appreciate as it can be disconcerting as a relatively inexperienced presenter to have people walking out of ‘your’ session.

Ailbhe Kenny from Mary Immaculate College, Limerick presented a case study on a music partnership that she and her students had engaged with a local primary school followed by Lee Higgins. Lee spoke about community music and the individual within the group. As a community musician recently returned to 20 hours of workshopping in relatively large group situations I relished this presentation, which was as ever thought provoking asking questions of the practitioner and the ethic responsibility we have to the individual as well as the group. Lee spoke about ‘a sense of an ethical relationship’ with the people we as community musicians and music educators work with on a daily basis. Although I aspire for an equal relationship with the groups and other facilitators I work with everyday, can that this ever be true? I ‘call’ and ‘welcome’ the group but can that call ever be fully met by the individuals? No is the answer. How could it be? The facilitator has the expertise, the experience, the facilitator plans and makes the decisions as to whether the group will divert from that plan on a given evening etc. A line that resonated with me that morning was ‘ the sense of being equal is imagined, not reality’, even as I type these words I am disappointed in myself, in my pedagogy that I claim to offer all-inclusive, student-centred learning whose door is always open. Is it though? Is it really? There has to be a planned session irrespective of whether that plan is followed, there are limits to what participants can say or do, surely! Lee compares this to having people to your home for dinner, they are most welcome but they cannot help themselves to his record collection or leave with his sofa! Thus the conditional, yet warm welcome is imagined.
Lee’s was the 2nd paper of the conference, perhaps a bit early to be peaking? There was more to come and I was not disappointed.

Free to be musical

In ‘Free to be Musical’ Lee Higgins and Pat Campbell have ventured where no other creative composition and improvisation publication has gone before. The use of language is welcoming and warm, creating a safe and non-judgmental space in which to make music. For example, what I have always referred to as a workshop is called the ‘Event’ in the context of this book, I like this. A workshop can mean so many things to different people; someplace to keep garden and power tools, something that business people do maximize team productivity, breakout groups during a motivational conference(Tom Cruise in Magnolia comes to mind) and of the community arts workshop. Not a negative term by any means, as it suggests that the session will be ‘hands-on’. For, me using the term ‘event’ instead is more exciting as well as less intimidating and competitive, it suggests many layers, roles and outlets for input rather then the same approach to a question/process.

The ‘Badge of Identity’ is particularly attractive and is one that I have used with groups already. This event manages to be about the individual as well as the group and touches on poetry(haiku), self-reflection, group reflection and musical composition based on the piece of ‘art’/’badge’ the individual creates. Participants create their ‘badge’ which represents them at that moment, it can consist of pictures, items from their house, books, a new painting – there is no ‘right’ way. The individual is then asked to write a haiku about their ‘badge’. The group then read their pieces and introduce their work and finally composition can occur based on each ‘badge’ with the condition that the person who owns the ‘badge’ does not take part in the musical composition for his/her piece. The piece is then performed by the group for the ‘badge’ creator. Event best describes this process, I feel.

The outcome of these events are never known to the facilitator, allowing for a true freedom to be musical.