I Speak Music is a youth music funded project that aims to support the confidence and musical skills of young people from a refugee background or newly arrived and vulnerable so that they feel able to join other groups and ensembles in the county and beyond. It is delivered by a diverse and talented team of professional music leaders.
We have been busy running song writing sessions for ESOL students at a further education college in Surrey. We met up with about 25 students each session. They are predominantly male, aged 16 to 21 and mostly asylum seekers or refugees. The level of English language skill in the room varies greatly and some students have very basic or no literacy and others have had very little schooling. The project is now running very well but our journey has been less than smooth and working at the college was definitely not part of the original plan!
Initially we aimed to run open sessions at a local Theatre which was strategically located right next door to a Surrey Welcome Centre for unaccompanied minors. We were relying on various voluntary and local authority partners to encourage the young people they had contact with to take part. We prepared and planned meticulously: we recruited our tutor and project team, ran an initial awareness training and planning session for the team and had several careful discussions with various partners namely the Local Authority’s Fostering, Care Leavers and Participation Services, the local Theatre, the local YMCA as well as with a local musical Academy to agree how we would work together to support the young people and promote the sessions to them.
To begin with we had some promising attendance and enthusiastic participation. Over the summer months numbers decreased dramatically for various reasons such as: young people having competing activities or making alternative ‘on the spot’ arrangements, some young people who lived near where the sessions were taking place had been moved away (in some cases out of the county) so transport became an issue, key workers not finding the time to encourage attendance due to art activities being less of a priority, and on reflection perhaps to a certain extent the lack of a clear and consistent structure and artistic direction to the sessions.
We had been clear from the start that the journey the young people take is more important than the final outcome. We had been mindful not to set ourselves unrealistic expectations and to that end we aimed to offer a creative safe space within which the team and the young people make music and write songs together as equals. That had not been enough and therefore, faced with the depleted attendance, the project management team took a deep breath and went back to the drawing board to re think the programme. After some fruitful conversations we relocated the programme to a local further education college where we successfully embedded the ISM song writing programme into the existing ESOL and citizenship curriculum.
With the panic over, we enjoyed running a series of song writing sessions during which we invited our budding musicians to explore rhythm, melody and lyrics.
Inspired by themes such as Equality, Wellbeing and Identity, the ISM team and young musicians put feelings and thoughts into words and pen to paper. With the team’s help, the young people’s words and stories acquired rhythm and melody and started taking shape as a song which they got to record in a professional studio and keep as a memento of their ISM musical journey.
So what, in conclusion, would we recommend when things don’t go to plan?
- Bear in mind that ‘things can go wrong’
- Accept that sometimes things just don’t work and that this is not in itself a failure but rather an opportunity to review and make changes
- Have a backup plan
- Identify and keep in regular contact with key people and partners
- Remain resilient and positive.