Finding a Good Room: How much does the space where you deliver your sessions actually affect your work?

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 )

Holding attention.

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.

 

 

Topic: 
94 reads

Comments

Sophie Appleby's picture

Really interesting blog, thanks Jane! It's a great illustration of the E6 criterion in Youth Music's quality framework: "Consideration has been given to the physical space, with available resources being best used to make it comfortable and appropriate for the target group." http://network.youthmusic.org.uk/qualityframework

Jacqui Haigh's picture

This is something that I have been considering with colleagues as we look to find suitable spaces for one of our New Ambition projects - the Hope Creative for Looked After children in Bristol. Last week we did site visits to the venues we will be running our music making sessions in.

As we are working with Looked After Children a safe space is paramount in our thinking.

We also were looking for venues outside the centre of Bristol within the communities from which we hope to attract participants and the carers who look after them.

Both venues have staff who have shown a great interest in what we are wanting to set up and have been very helpful in making us welcome and taking on board our requirements.

As you say, Jane, we have had to compromise in some respects but the team working with the young people and their carers understand the importance of the environment in which they want to work creatively. There was much discussion within the team to make the most of the large hall space in Knowle West by creating a smaller space in which to make music. There was excitement at the prospect of working on the stage area which is well maintained and a feature the community is proud of.

Very much part of the project is the social aspect of the Hope Creative not only for the participants but also their carers. I was interested to read about the importance of "brain friendly food" in salt boxes Brain Friendly Training Venue Checklist. This has become a feature of the the Hope Creative as a means of bringing people together and sharing stories.

As the project develops I will let you know how the spaces work for the Hope Creative.

As well as finding venues for music making with young people we have been looking for training spaces for Music Leaders wanting to develop skills in Inclusive Music Making. Jess, project assistant for New Ambition and myself visited potential venues for running four day long sessions for music leaders in the centre of Bristol.

We are fortunate in having a number of organisations who have excellent spaces for learning. As they are in the centre the price can be high but we were looking for somewhere inspiring and within a creative setting. The space we went for was a studio in the M Shed which is part of the museum and has wonderful light and windows looking out across the harbour.

We want the whole training experience to emphasise that we value the importance of training for music leaders by thinking carefully about both the quality of the trainer and environment in which it is taking place.

Finally, thank you for the very useful resources which I will signpost others to.

Count Me In's picture

The most important thing about a venue is that young people can get to it and still feel safe. We're in a rural area and folk come a long way to access our sessions. With the evenings drawing in, our young musicians are arriving in the dark . Some travel on public transport, others rely on lifts.
We want to meet everyone's needs and keep people safe. As you say, sometimes this could mean passing up on great central venues to be nearer to the young peoples' communities.

It's easier for people to access venues for training, perhaps, but good venues can cost a lot. We have found that as a not-for-profit organisation we can get a 'charitable rate', which can count as support in kind when scoping out budgets. I'd suggest that it's always worth asking!