by Author Anna Batson

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Keeping Passionate - Plymouth Music Zone and The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment

A new and exciting ‘Our Band’ partnership project with Plymouth Music Zone and the OAE began with two days in October ’18, working together with students with learning disabilities from Plymouth’s City College Skills Development course (age 16-19). The students have further opportunities in 2019 to create, develop and perform an opera. This will be performed in summer 2019 alongside a 20-piece orchestra playing on period instruments combined with electric guitars and other band instruments, iPads, quirky percussion instruments and whatever we find along the way to create drama and emotional responses from our audiences.

The timing couldn’t be better in that 2019 is the year we will be celebrating 20 years as an organisation working in the city of Plymouth. We hope many more years will follow, allowing us to challenge, inspire and create fantastic music with different communities. In addition to this we will to continue to share, inspire and be inspired by others both locally and (inter)nationally.

As well as the wonderful opportunity to work with world-class musicians and highly experienced facilitators, we have found that working in partnership in this way brings extensive co-learning opportunities and is motivating for music leaders. It’s well known that many practitioners can feel alone in their work and there can be a risk of burn-out. Chances to share with other practitioners is extremely important. With this kind of opportunity we can explore and stretch music leading techniques, share tips, tricks and observations of individual participants, as well as different perspectives on group dynamics and shifting energies. We have a genuine chance to all feed into the project to ensure that everyone, including all support workers and tutors are also given the best possible creative experience together.

This post elaborates on our thoughts around practice-sharing with the OAE, “Our Band With Plymouth Music Zone”. Link: 

Two of Plymouth Music Zone’s music leaders had the opportunity to ‘shadow’ the musicians where they could immerse themselves in the activities, but also reflect about their own work.  In terms of keeping passionate and motivated in their own music-leading, they have offered some thoughts about what it has meant to them to work with external practitioners from the OAE.

PMZ Music Leader, Shane Gray reflects on his experience of shadowing the OAE:

Over some time I’ve shadowed the OAE sessions about 3 times over the last 7 years. Firstly as a music leader apprentice (approx. 2011), then again as part of the Scallywags group with Plymouth City College and again with ‘Our Band’ in October 2018.

Each time the main leader has been James Redwood, joined by other OAE players including Cherry Forbes. At first it felt intimidating being around highly trained classical musicians from a very different musical background and I just play guitar and am not formally trained. That was just the first time, however and my views have absolutely changed since.

Musically, it challenged me at first, but now it doesn’t so much…they were using simple but effective materials. I didn’t feel out of my depth and able to support other people with what they needed to do.

It’s been beneficial to be able to shadow external things with someone else leading, like sorting out arrangements for songs, warm-up tips and tricks... This kind of thing helps when working with my own groups (e.g. ‘All Stars’ group at PMZ).  I felt able to accompany and help more effectively with the groups this time. I was able to anticipate more of what was needed.

These special projects are not something we could possibly achieve every day within our PMZ programme. The opportunity to do something intense over a few days feels very different to hour-long sessions, or those which music leaders work on over longer periods of time. As Shane reflected:

These are one-off sessions with a lot of energy that is condensed down into that timeframe. They are quite different from some of the work I do on a long-term basis with recurring sessions, therefore the energy is very different. Peer leading with more musicians is very different from working on your own or just in a pair, which is common in a lot of my work.

James (Redwood) was leading, with amazing help from the other musicians, which drives things forward. If all of them were trying to lead, it could be confusing for the group as they wouldn’t know who to focus on, but they are led and supported in just the right way.

It’s beneficial to see James leading. He’s like a breath of fresh air. Shadowing them is quite important and I picked up things I could use along the way. It’s inspiring, invigorating and I’m already using some of the things I’ve learned in my own sessions.

It was interesting to see how our resources were being used by James Redwood and the OAE musicians. For me it was about how much they used – anything and everything to make music with – thinking outside the box with what was available. It wasn’t so much the space itself being used differently. 

Jodie Saunders' thoughts on the same question:

It is refreshing to see such a familiar space and familiar resources transformed by the presence of an external facilitator and team of external musicians. I learnt a lot about my own practice by observing the leadership of another, in terms of management of people, resources, content and flow between activities. My position within the space, in comparison to instances where I lead, was more aligned with that of the participants, to whom the content and of the session is fresh and unfamiliar. This led me to feel a heightened appreciation of repetition of material in order to learn new songs and pieces as well as a shared awe at the beautiful new live music the musicians brought into the space.

As music leaders or music teachers who are engaged in daily musical activity, we may sometimes forget how awe-inspiring it is to hear a piece of music played live and today’s OAE experience jolted me back into not underestimating this, allowing space and time for a piece to be listened to, reflected upon, appreciated in whatever way participants can or wish to. I also found I was able to observe participants and whole group dynamics with a clarity that is conflicted when, as a leader, I am thinking ahead to the next activity, or re-shuffling timings in my head when a particular aspect of the session overruns or Plan B is being called into action.

It has made me endeavour to keep that clarity of observation when I am leading, to be as present as possible so that I can notice and respond to the subtle reactions and interactions of participants.

Further to this, Jodie reflected on her own practice when working with different learning styles in mind:

In learning some new songs for this project, sign language was included, which was incredibly valuable for comprehension and memory of lyrics. Physical demonstrations of rhythms and playing techniques was of the utmost importance. In many instances, I noted how a physical demonstration was more instructive than any verbal instruction. I am increasingly noticing when I over-use words as a workshop leader, where the same outcome could be achieved non-verbally, through gesture and body language, demonstration and call-and-response. Verbal instruction has long taken the precedent in classroom education, whereas there are a multitude of ways to learn.

Jodie also talked about the importance and impact of support workers in the sessions:

The atmosphere of positivity that support workers bring into the space can influence the participants and can make the difference between non-engagement and meaningful participation. It is really important that participants are given enough space to reinvent themselves in the workshop – they may be noise-sensitive and require headphones in outdoor spaces, but at a drum kit – where they have control over and can predict the noise, they may be happy to be around noise. This requires an openness from support workers, to leave their expectations and about a student they know very well, at the door. It asks a lot of them.

Finally, Jodie offered some comments that are an excellent synopsis of the overall experience:

The day contained within it many moments of musical beauty and the discovery of quite unexpected skills (i.e. a participants’ beautiful vibrato singing which was very moving). The uncovering and unfolding of these moments relied on the skilful management of space, resources and expectations by the music leader, as well as the enthusiasm of support workers and staff. Everyone present in the room (leader, staff, participants) was going through a learning experience, an opportunity to experience and engage in something wholly new and therefore discover new things about themselves, and others, too.

We are extremely grateful for the opportunity and related support for this partnership with the OAE and can’t wait to find out how our opera takes shape in 2019…