Lots of Youth Music projects are delivered out of school hours, in a wide range of community settings.
What’s your delivery space like – how does it affect your work?
Over many years as a music leader, I have organised and run music groups in theatres, music studios, arts centres, a magnificent mud hut (with fireplace), schools (I’m sure you know about those echoing halls), a Quaker Meeting House, village halls, day care centres… and so on. Not all of them great for music.
Our current project is starting to gather a large group. AllStars Music is a fund B project that brings together young musicians who have a range of support needs to play music with their peers. AllStars was partly inspired by the lovely room in which we have held our 'Heart Beats' sessions. We found the room through a school workshop and immediately thought…ah! This is a place where creativity can happen.
So: for a few years now, we have had the luxury of an affordable, safe space with big windows opening out on to a walled garden … plenty of elbow room, plus a break out space for parents. It is a place where noise isn't an issue; right next door to the school that is one of our project partners.... the atmosphere and acoustics of the room were woven into the methods we developed as a team.
The inevitable happened and we lost the use of this room. Finding a replacement has been a challenge for us, but now we have a new home.
This move has stirred up a few thoughts about music and space - fundamental things that are probably ocmmon gorund for most of us. Esepcially if you are aiming for inclusion, and ocnsequently, good communication environments.
Is the room a main priority?
The importance of finding a good space is one of the key responsibilities of a project manager. It can seem that there's quite a lot weighed against us: affordability; access; parking; acoustics.... And that indefinable essential, atmosphere.
As music leaders, when we sign up to the music education code of practice, and concentrate on delivering and evaluating good work, all of us know that we should be efficient, organised, and keep our groups safe. We all spend a long time developing assessments, plans and schemes of work; we monitor, revise and disseminate our findings.
We always aim to arrive on time and keep equipment in a good state.
But no matter how much preparation you do, you’re at the mercy of your venue.
Does your space reflect the aspirations of your group?
Of course, it’s about the demographics of your group – your venue should feel right for them. If it feels like somewhere special, creative, and a privilege to be in , then you’re on track. I’ve got happy memories of taking a group of young musicians into a professional recording studio for the first time. Ideally, we should open doors : maybe even literally.
In fact what happens when the door opens is important. Starting your sessions and workshops with a good welcome can mean a lot.
In AllStars sessions, we’re lucky to have Ben, our front-of-house person, who ensures we have a regular arrival procedure – some of our young musicians can be nervous about crossing thresholds and entering new situations.
If you have young people in your group who present with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), it’s not just going to be about aesthetics and central heating. People with autism may also experience over- or under-sensitivity to sounds, touch, tastes, smells, light or colours. (You can read more about this at www.autism.org.uk). If you have ASD, some spaces can be ‘ chaotic environments’ - causing stress, which affects behaviours: hardly right for focussed music making.
There are strategies you can use to make your environment more autism-friendly (www.autism.org.uk/working-with/autism-friendly-places.aspx )
Because our work tends to be about process rather than product, and a number of our group may be challenged by the length of attentive time we require, we work in a circle, with the centre becoming the ‘leading space’.
It’s intimate and easy to manage: anyone can be invited up to use the leading space (leader or group member) – there is room for one, two, even three co-leaders. It’s also an uncluttered space for impromptu movement and dance.
In theory, then, it shouldn’t matter where you are working, because the circle is always inwards facing. Chaotic, visual clutter should be forgotten and attention should be on the group and leader.
Is there more to it than that?
There also the matter of ambience – atmosphere, and acoustics.
Atmosphere is the hardest to define and alter. Every room has it’s own ambience; reaction to this is very subjective.
Nicki Davey at Saltbox training has a free resource that helps you identify a ‘brain-friendly training venue’ . A benchmark is that you should feel good yourself when you enter the place for the first time. Lighting, windows, flooring, even associations can all impact on the way a room feels to you.
The Communincation Trust has communication friendly checklists to download.
It hardly needs to be said that acoustics are essential to our experience of hearing and making music. Each room is unique, and according to the type of activities you offer, there will be a perfect room for you.
In the real world, however, most of us have to compromise. We always have ear defenders available for anyone who finds noise a barrier to participation. A rule that works for us is that if you’re in the room, you participate – chatting support staff in the corner doesn’t benefit anyone.
If you happen to know an architect, please point them to the National Autistic society’s resource about suitable environments - there’s no reason why many of the ideas shouldn’t benefit us all .
We have a break mid-session for socialising – our work has peer interaction and increased social skills as a major output. In our old venue, there was a choice of places, including the outside when the weather was fine. People gathered in regular groups, and often drifted back to the music space before the music leaders.
Now we have less room, we are going to be sitting at a long table for our break. It seems like a minor point but this will give all the group more chance to engage. Tables are traditionally places where short, personal stories are exchanged, and we know that stories can create communities. (www.openstorytellers.org.uk)
Is this relevant for all music groups?
Well, perhaps it is. It’s not just about accommodating ASD, sensory loss and so on – music leaders will always need to be able to establish the music space: hold an environment, create focus, and maintain attentions, no matter who we work with.
We need to be heard, seen, and have our tools to hand – which can often involve the management of lot of hardware.
Every individual will have a different approach to managing a space. Systems have evolved: an obvious example is an orchestra depending on a conductor.
It’s part of our toolkit – knowing how to command a space, being organised, creating welcome and defining the creative space.
It’s worth having systems in place, as it can be a challenge when you don’t have a chance to check out your room beforehand, or have tons of equipment, and so on.
Factor in plenty of time for room management at both ends of your session – it may take a long time to put a room back together if you have truly made it your own!
Making do with what you’ve got.
Ironically, since we’ve moved to a smaller space, we’ve had a rush of new applications to join our group. More folk in the room, plus bigger chairs (with arms –how does that work for guitarists?), and of course more instruments needed – it’s cosy.
The ceiling is lower: acoustics are very different. Our circle is closing in. The group feels more intimate and yet, for some reason, it’s easier to listen too. It’s a conversing environment.
We feel that playing improvised music, as we do, has its parallels with speaking and listening, which can be interpreted as expression and comprehension. This is very relevant for some young musicians in the group, who need support with speech, language and communication. Ideally, the room becomes invisible as the music takes hold.
We may be a bit squashed, but the room has its own quality. How will it develop? Watch this space!
It would be interesting to hear how you make your music space work for you, too.