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Covid19 as an opportunity to explore new methods and technology by Paul Carroll (Lead Music Leader on Quench Arts’ Plugin project)

As an artist working for Quench Arts, I support people with experience of, or those at risk of mental health challenges by helping them make their own music in various ways. This can include some teaching of instruments or music software to improve technical skills, but ultimately, I work creatively due to the known benefits this has for self-expression and self-esteem. Typically, this involves getting project participants involved in exploring chords and melodies on instruments, trying out different sounds and rhythms using music software and - if there is an interest - singing and writing lyrics. As new music is created, I record it using software on my laptop or perhaps show the participant some recording skills.

2020 - need I say, things were different and at the time of writing are continuing to be that way. The usual in-person music sessions were not possible from April to September and even after that, some frontline settings we visit as part of the Plugin project were still not allowing outside staff in. Similarly, some participants of community projects just didn’t feel comfortable coming back to working face-to-face yet. Despite this, the directors and artists of Quench Arts worked hard to continue engaging participants on their projects. As a team we learnt new skills in working remotely and I will describe how we explored new methods and technologies in order to continue project activity as much as possible.

The first things we got to grips with were Zoom meeting software for continuing live sessions and how to film and edit together video tutorials when this was not possible. There’s a good chance most people discovered Zoom at the same time as me if they weren’t using it already, so you know what it’s capable of. Specifically, for creative music, I use the chat and the shared whiteboard for people to share their ideas such as lyrics. In fact, sometimes the chat, when used anonymously, has been really good for encouraging the quieter members of a group to contribute. And the whiteboard is really good for everyone to write up their ideas at the same time. At the end of the session, you can download the whiteboard as a PDF but the downside at the time of writing (surely, they’re going to fix this in a future update) is that I can’t seem to find a way of uploading the whiteboard in the next session to carry on with ongoing work. So more recently, I have been using the option in Zoom to show a specific application to everyone, such as Word software. It means I can save it and use it next time and all contributions can be verbal or in the chat. Another way of sending ideas back and forth in a Zoom session is by sharing files in the chat.

With all the live screen-based functions in Zoom, I did find that it sometimes lost its appeal and for some participants it was not always engaging. So, I actually tried to plan activities off screen as much as possible. In this case, rather than talking and writing up ideas on screen in real time, I would have people use a pen and paper and work on their own on a task for a while and then, after some time, come back to the screen and share. As well as providing some variety in engagement, it can also, again, encourage equal contributions from everyone taking part.

One last brilliant use of Zoom that is well worth mentioning is as an alternative to the live performances we have at the end of many Quench Arts projects. At the end of Wavelength (a former Youth Music funded community mental health project in which Plugin is a spin off of, based in inpatient settings) in 2020, we had a listening party where participants and their friends and family logged on to Zoom. The directors and lead artists presented and played recordings of all the new music which had been made that year at the same time as releasing them on Facebook. The ‘audience’ were able to use the chat to feedback instantly and, if they were on Facebook, comment there too. This was good because, as well as allowing us to enjoy great music, Quench Arts performances are designed to celebrate what has been achieved and audience appreciation can further acknowledge how well participants have done. So, presenting finished music over Zoom in this way was a worthwhile substitute for a live performance and also has the benefit of having a permanent space on the Quench Arts Facebook page, meaning anyone who missed the listening party could go back at a later date, enjoy the music and show their appreciation. This will be something we will explore in the Plugin project in 2021, when hopefully we will have more opportunities to engage with young people via Zoom or, eventually, in person.

Another legacy of 2020 and beyond are the videos and worksheets that were created by the Quench Arts artists: a substantial and valuable resource. When live sessions were not possible, we made easy-to-follow videos on anything we could think of to help people make music on their own at home. There are videos on the Quench Arts YouTube page about playing bass, guitar and keyboard, writing lyrics, singing exercises and specific skills in using music software as well as tutorials on accessible music apps for mobile devices ( Making videos and presenting to camera was not something I had done before. Yes, I perform live music, but I do not relish talking to an audience in between songs, and anyway, I found that talking to a device just wasn’t the same. What helped with the presentation side of things was when I was making the video for someone specific and addressing them by name. Now, when I’m filming, I try to imagine a person I’m talking to. I’ve also accepted that for me public speaking is something I am still working on. I found that it’s quicker for me to film in one go and cut out all the mistakes in the edit than keeping on filming over and over again until I get it all right. That may not be the case for you though. Others in the team are more eloquent, however, and can make their way through a whole video without any mistakes.

Regarding the technology required to make a video, at first, I could get by using my smartphone and editing in iMovie, which came free with my MacBook. I learnt a few things on the job. One tip for better sound is to use the microphone on your headphones when talking to the camera, if you can get it to reach. For editing I found iMovie was easy enough for me to teach myself and I could get pretty good results. However, Quench Arts got hold of some software for the artistic team (from an Arts Council Emergency Grant), which had slightly better capabilities. At times I made tutorials about different apps on my phone so that’s when I needed to learn about screen recording. There didn’t seem to be an app which recorded both the sound of the music app and me talking so in that case I needed to use a separate recorder for my commentary. Fortunately, there haven’t been any precise time limits to our video briefs, so my videos ended up being as long as they ended up being. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the response though. There was one video I made about Android apps, which I thought was much too long to be interesting but when I look now, I see that it has had over 400 views. So, I would say if you’re not used to making videos and feel a bit foolish in front of the camera, don’t worry. There are always a few people who will find what you have to say interesting.

The next thing to figure out was an interactive way of encouraging creativity in live music sessions. We work with people with different musical experiences and varying access to equipment in their settings. The idea of recording items in our houses proved very useful here. Early on during lockdown restrictions, the artists working on the Plugin project put together a video of a creative experiment in which we received an everyday sound of something in the home and had to add something similar. For example, I received the sound of small pieces of Lego swirling around in a plastic tub and added singing and a rhythm tapped out on my desk with pens. Quench Arts released the video along with a public task to contribute more sounds. From that another track was made and I had some really positive comments from parents saying their children had enjoyed finding sounds to record and that it had changed how they thought about music.

The technology involved in working with random recordings, known as sampling, is not new but is something that I had not used as much before 2020. Audio software such as Ableton Live and Apple Logic were very useful due to their ability to change the pitch and time of sounds and to sequence them into rhythms. This way, when setting a sampling task to participants, I didn’t have to be too prescriptive regarding timing and key and this kept activities accessible to all levels of musicianship.

We put this method into practice in our live sessions with very interesting results. The process provided a good opportunity for participants to work off screen, with support from staff when required. And smartphones proved really useful for capturing and sending sounds from people’s homes. The end results of 2020 were songs full of quirky character, showcasing the contributions of everyone who took part.