Participation is a basic right…. but do we understand what it really means? And how to enable it?
Participation continues to be a word we might use regularly, and sometimes quite casually. In music projects, playing, listening or even simply attending could be called ‘participation’.
It’s worth remembering that there are other models of participation, for example, social or community based participation- all very relevant when we’re running music projects which recruit groups to play together.
Active participation is a guiding principle of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. ‘Through active participation, young people are empowered to play a vital role in their own development as well as in that of their communities, helping them to learn vital life-skills, develop knowledge on human rights and citizenship and to promote positive civic action.’
Perhaps we need to think more deeply about the power we have, as music leaders, to enable effective participation, not just in music, but in wider communities?
Youth Music has a useful resource document, guidance on involving young people. This includes advice and some great case studies.
On page one you’ll find Roger Hart’s Ladder of young people’s participation:
Inclusion and communication.
If you look at the ladder, you can see why we should all be at the top, sharing decision making about our projects fully with the young musicians we work alongside. This will lead to the empowerment outlined in the declaration of human rights.
Many young people will be familiar and comfortable with the concept of full participation and will need nothing more than the right supported opportunities to make meaningful decisions together with their music leaders and facilitators.
Running music projects based on inclusion will inevitably bring us together with young people who have speech language and communication needs.
The Communication Trust state that in the UK, over 1 million children and young people – that’s 2 or 3 in every UK classroom – have some form of long term and persistent speech, language and communication difficulty.
Communication is always a two-way process: sending, and receiving.Having a communication impairment affects the ability to receive, send, process, and comprehend verbal, nonverbal and graphic symbol systems.
This means that many young people with communication disorders, and autism, have difficulty understanding abstract concepts such as ‘participation’ and ‘empowerment’. Which could leave us a bit stuck, quite near the bottom of the ladder…
Mencap have investigated the challenges around communication needs and participation. You can look at the findings from their Involve Me project, which focuses on adults with PMLD (Profound and multiple learning disabilities).
The Mencap Changemakers project specifically focussed on young people with learning disabilities and participation.
Good communication helps effective evaluation.
All Youth Music projects will be funded because organisations have proved a need, consulted with young people, and shown they can deliver good work effectively.
Generally, we all say we will make change, and we want to prove that the change is evidenced and recognised by the young musicians we work with.
But how effective are the consultations that we make with young musicians? With the current focus on ‘musical inclusion’ it is more than likely that many of the young people who benefit from Youth Music projects may not have the necessary skills to communicate effectively.
Project leaders may have spent a great deal of time developing systems to gather evidence and evaluate work.Evaluation frameworks often rely heavily on questionnaires, box ticking, self-assessment.
Good communication is a two-way process - a combination of skills in sending and processing information.
Young people can appear more able communicators than they are. Systems, attitudes and stock phrases are built up to hide behind.
If you work with young musicians who have learning disabilities, they need support with understanding new or complex information, learning new skills and coping independently, and may not communicate verbally. Young people with autism may have difficulty processing social situations and need especially clear instructions.
Why this is a hot topic.
The new Social Care Act (2014) affects all young people with additional needs. It is now mandatory that a young person’s voice is at the centre of their Education and Health Care plans.
Every child needs to personally contribute to their own annual review.
These EHC plans are crucial: beginning in year 9, they guide the transition to adulthood at 25.
Music is a great communication tool. We believe it builds self-confidence, friendship, and allows us to explore who we are. Music projects allow young people to build new social communities outside of accustomed, established groups such as school or family.
If we can help young people to widen their social horizons, be creative, have fun, and explore their identity through playing the music of their choice then we hope they can begin to explore their authentic voice.
By creating the right environment for participation, we can support young people to begin their journeys to self-advocacy.
Understanding the concepts of inclusion and participation.
Youth Music projects will generally have quite complex aims, ranging from social and personal to musical outcomes.
Youth Music say ‘be transparent and honest about your objectives' and ‘allow young people to take the lead and as much ownership as possible'.
A lot has been written about youth participation. Many guides for participation start with the assumption that the young people can readily contribute their own ideas, opinions and experiences.
Supporting young people to ‘take the lead’ really hangs on this point. We can do our best to listen, but to enable participation we need to establish what we might call an inclusive communication environment.
Group decisions must be a shared experience that is accessible to all.
To climb up the ladder of participation, you’ll need to start by turning abstract concepts into concrete, clear exemplars. Show, don’t tell, or even discuss. Beware of the ‘confident communicators’ becoming dominant.
It’s important to keep hold of your aims for inclusion.
If your young musicians have speech, language and communication difficulties, it’s easy to get stuck in a dynamic where young people are informed, assigned, probably consulted – but always ask yourself, are they truly included… What systems are you using to make sure everyone has a voice?
Recognise that some people need more time to process and respond, or have concepts modelled and demonstrated. Others appreciate the use of signs, symbols and objects of reference.
Thinking about the elements of communication can help. Only 7% of effective communication is through words alone, whilst 38% relies on volume, tone and pitch of voice, and a massive 55% on our body language.
Questioning, for example, is a commonly used as a key method of gaining information. However - this can lead you into a minefield of silences, closed or misleading responses. Often people use stock answers, say what they think you want to hear, or fall silent, whilst struggling to process the intent of your question.
Being music leaders gives us a chance to enable young people to become part of the community we create, to grow in confidence, feel included and find a voice.
In music education, effective participation will impact on fundamental things such as choice of repertoire, accessible instrumentation, schemes of work – even who to accept into your group and what the criteria for joining might be.
If any of your young musicians have speech, language and communication needs then there are many factors to consider.
Quite a few challenges develop:
How much should the music leader bring to the mix?
How open and flexible can we really be?
How can you include everyone in your group equally, elicit response, and respect those voices, without straying away from your anticipated outcomes?
And know that you make a difference?(Please don’t just hand out sheets of paper and pens at the end of your sessions!)
What approaches do we use?
Our team of music leaders at Count Me In have experience of working in different settings with people who have a range of communication support needs. Our range of experience helps shape the delivery our projects.
We’re really keen on self reflection, and always looking for new approaches to our work. A benchmark could be, getting it right for a certain individual in the group – if you’re reaching them, then you’re moving in the right direction.
After every single music session, we discuss our plans and delivery.
Music is the primary communication tool in our AllStars project. You could say we see ‘listening and responding’ as pretty similar to ‘speaking and listening’ – a two-way communication.
We’re working with mixed, integrated cohorts of young musicians who present with differing levels of ability, both musical and cognitive. There’s always quite a lot going on. It’s easy for individuals to become lost in the mix....
We use a lot of physical instructions, but words as well.
We invite young musicians to lead pieces of music and actively manage situations so everyone is included. We gently move people on from ‘characteristic’ behaviours, such as always choosing the same instrument or seat.
Having several music leaders working together helps us to model instructions visually and aurally.
The nature of the group itself often causes us to challenge our practice, for example, when T., a young man with visual impairment recently joined us.
We began by ‘translating’ visual prompts for T. by following the lead of his supporter, who would touch him on the arm and speak to him.
Other group members began to use this system too, inviting him to sit by them.
After a couple of weeks T. just took over on his terms – taking the lead from his chair, calling out clear instructions to everyone; starting and stopping a piece of music in his own way.
Simple, but effective participation.
A space for everyone.
All the music in our AllStars project is improvised. We choose to work with very open themes, such as a key rhythm or a specific combination of tuned instruments.
You could say, we allow music to happen: we sculpt, scaffold and support, and know when to stop. We share agreed signals for creating dynamics, focus and change.
We listen, reflect, and move on. We value and include, reflect, and gather feedback and inspiration from each other at every session.
We don’t see our music as a ‘product’. The emphasis is on process, building communication and participation.
In Francois Matarasso’s excellent paper on music and social change (Ghent, October 2015), he invites us to consider ‘impact’ as ‘social effect’ – stating that social participation in music projects should be measured by individualised response. He says ‘The social effects – a word I prefer to impact – of music making are real, complex and profound. They can be transformative, even life-changing. ‘
The Otoasobi project in Japan are a group of musicians, music therapists, individuals with learning disabilities and their families who play improvised music together.
A final word on inclusion and participation comes from them. They say: 'Each of the group members has a fairly different aim - for example education, welfare, art and joy - so we share a belief that every member has their own ways of evaluation. The creativity energy arises from these discrepancies.'