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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_hub

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 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.