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Maintaining a participant-led approach when delivering inclusive music online by Paul Carroll (Lead Music Leader on Quench Arts’ Plugin project)

Plugin is a Quench Arts creative music project for young people in Birmingham who are mental health inpatients in hospital. Working across 5 settings, each weekly session is an opportunity for the young people in each setting to create their own music in collaboration with myself or one of the other music leaders, as well as a young music leader. We work mostly on a one-to-one basis but encourage collaboration if the opportunity presents itself. Like for the rest of the UK in 2020, work has not been the same and visiting project participants in person has not been possible. Therefore, we have been creating online opportunities for them to continue to take part in creative musical activities and in this blog, I will describe how participant-led practice has continued to be at the heart of the project delivery.

Why work in a participant-led way? To give further context, the kind of challenges the young people we meet face outside of the project include anxiety, low self-esteem, and a shorter attention span (sometimes associated with autism spectrum disorder and / or a difficulty with engaging in mainstream education). We have seen in previous project evaluations which collate participants’ and their support networks’ feedback that engaging in creative music-making can be at least a break from the young participants’ challenges, and even help to improve their situation (one previous participant is now back in education after dropping out for a year and another is attending clinical appointments more regularly). We do this by giving people as much choice and control in sessions as possible to help them see that they can contribute meaningfully to a positive collaboration and to help counteract the possible lack of autonomy in other aspects of their lives.

The first thing I have been doing is making sure that activities are relevant to the participants’ interests. Using Zoom conferencing software, we can share music and listen to songs they like with them. This is an easy way of inviting a contribution from them straight away. It can also be really useful later on when we start exploring similar sounds and rhythms in the young people’s own music as it gives us a starting point.

The next thing to establish is what existing skills and equipment young people have access to so that music activities can be achievable and relevant. When we visit mental health settings, we can bring equipment in but when working online it has to be based on what the participants are realistically going to be able to achieve. There are a number of ways we have planned for this. In one case I took a Quench iPad to the setting for them to use for the duration. This has been really useful there because I was able to share my screen on my iPad in Zoom sessions and teach the participant and staff member new skills, which they in turn could use both in sessions and during the time between. They used the GarageBand app to create a chord progression and to record themselves singing and then could send that back for me to make suggestions and continue supporting their creativity.

Whatever music the young participants could make in their settings, the now commonly used smartphone and tablet has proven to be very useful. I was mindful that, whilst I mostly use Apple technology for recording and composing music, not everyone has access to this equipment. For those participants who have Android devices, I created a video tutorial on how to record and compose music using apps like G-Stomper Rhythm and Audio Evolution. I’m also conscious of budget so used the free versions to make a full track. Microphones on phones and tablets are also pretty good so we supported the young people, staff and other carers in using such devices for recording sounds and sending them to us to use in their compositions.

Inevitably, we worked with some young people who don’t have access to musical instruments and technology in their settings. Despite this, we found we could still give Plugin participants lots of opportunity to contribute to a creative process. In the early part of UK restrictions, the Plugin artistic team created two videos about what was possible when music was put together from recordings made in different locations and emailed to each person. Participants and staff were supported in using phones for recording and emailing sounds so they could be included in this process.

Lyric writing is always an inclusive activity, particularly for those participants who don’t play or own their own instruments, even if they don’t want to sing (someone else can always do the actual singing). Writing lyrics is entirely possible using the chat virtual whiteboard functions in Zoom. This has been great for one young person who already wrote poetry and used some of it for making songs with support from Plugin. It also worked well for one participant who had less experience in writing but was excellent at drawing characters and telling stories. They used the details in one of their characters’ stories to write song lyrics. This also highlights again the benefits of taking an interest in the whole person you are working with and has the added bonus of being a useful way of raising self-esteem as it acknowledges the young person’s existing artistic achievements.

So, how do we bring all these ideas together without meeting up? Again, Zoom’s sharing function has been really useful for keeping young participants included in the creative process whilst using the audio software we usually use such as Apple GarageBand and Logic. Here we can play different sounds and rhythms based on the young person’s musical interests for them to choose the ones they like. If they can play or sing, then they can suggest melodies for the music leader to add into the project. If not, the participant can describe what they would like or the music leader can play different ideas of their own, from which the young person can choose their favourite, and you can throw in any ideas from above: phone recordings of singing, found objects, instrumental ideas, and loops created in apps. The participant can take control, asking the music leader to arrange ideas on different parts on the screen and to record, say, some guitar or singing themselves.

2020 was a year of experimentation and the Quench Arts artists have continued to keep participants at the centre of creative activities. The biggest challenge on Plugin has been for the setting staff who, whilst managing changing priorities in their frontline organisations, support the sessions. It wasn’t possible to run live activities for the entire year as planned, however, we were still able to deliver to all five locations and in my opinion, one of the best achievements has been showing staff what is possible creatively and interactively under the current circumstances.