I have been very fortunate this year to be the lead artist on Quench Arts’ Plugin project. This project works with young people in secure mental health settings to help facilitate their creative music making using technology. My previous experience in similar work has mostly been within the community so I was excited to start the project with plenty to learn and take in.
Over the years working as a shadow artist on projects run by Quench, such as Wavelength and Musical Connections, I have quietly watched and learned from some of the best musical facilitators doing this kind of work. With their help, I have accumulated ideas, knowledge and experience. I’ve reflected on what I have learned and what I have been taught after every session and evaluated on what I believe to be are the most important skills for a practitioner to have in this line of work.
1. Sensitivity. Sensitivity is something I rate highly in my friends and family, but when working with someone who might be feeling vulnerable this is ever more important. Being cautious, careful and empathetic to the multitude of ways that a person might feel when they enter your room means that the atmosphere is much more conducive to allowing your participant to feel safe; and when this happens the creative activity is likely to flow with more ease. I hope that I have helped the emerging music leaders I have been mentoring by modelling this with participants as soon as they come in.
It Is important not to get lazy with sensitivity. Even when we think we know someone, people’s feelings change from day to day and sometimes what is being displayed may not be an accurate representation of what is truly being felt. At other times one must be ready to take infinitesimal clues from a person’s behaviour to quickly gauge a situation. Hand in hand with sensitivity comes empathy, the ability to sense someone’s feelings and then empathise ‘What would I like to happen next if I felt like that?’ I used to wonder if it is possible to learn empathy or if we are born with a predetermined amount that cannot fluctuate. Through this work I now believe that empathy is infinite and ours to learn. We can always open ourselves to understand others more. But how to help others recognise this in a mental health setting? This brings me to my second important skill.
2. Good communication. These might sometimes be easy to overlook as the very nature of someone being a good communicator means that they are probably able to make you feel comfortable and secure without letting you realise. Every artist that I have observed working for Quench has had their own style of communication but at the root of each person’s communication has been approachability and humility. Sessions seem to work best when participants feel that no judgement is communicated. There should be a healthy and balanced level of expectation depending on what is appropriate for that person and that the music leader is there to work with them and genuinely cares for their work. Communicating these factors openly whilst also staying ‘on a level’ with participants is important. Keeping communication light, fun and as easy as possible is helpful. I try as much as possible to keep these things in mind when also working with emerging artists. If I communicate my own plans for sessions and my intentions for participants well and I invite others to reflect on my/our practice this will hopefully be instilled as a foundation in their creative practice moving forwards.
I’ve also been very open about my weaknesses and the gaps in my knowledge as I feel it is important to recognise where I can develop. I have been fortunate to be supported by two wonderful emerging artists who have been able to help me in these areas. I feel that by being honest about my own vulnerability might promote open discourse and through supporting one another, greater learning can ensue for all!
3. An open and flexible outlook. Working in these kinds of settings it has become apparent to me that anything might happen; the best way to be prepared is to have confidence that you have the skills to adapt when your best-laid plans go down the drain within the first 30 seconds. I usually explain the plan for a session with emerging leaders beforehand but remind them that this might quickly change. If they know the plan before, it can give them greater insight as to why something might quickly be modified during the session itself.
4. Your own musicality. The last important thing to remember is to find balance in how much of your own musicality you share. I’ve been fortunate enough to see plenty of different music leaders and their approach to this. Some music leaders are very relaxed with the amount of help they give in shaping a track and allow this to be lead by the participant. The positives in this approach are that participants will have greater ownership of their own music. Other people choose to be more forward in using their musical ability to quietly help facilitate a track. The positives in this approach are that the track might be more cohesive and might sound ‘better’ to a participant although they might lose an element of creative independence. I think that it is important to be able to dip in and out of both approaches but overall, that the ability to let go of your own independent musical creativity is important. After all, it is about them and not us! Sometimes, in a lively group dynamic with Occupational Therapists, music leaders and young people in the room it can be easy to get carried away but I try to rein it in and remind everyone, myself included, that the final say for a piece of music lies with the participant.
Putting this down on paper has made me realise how much is happening as a session takes place. As my own style develops I can see that it is an amalgam of other people’s influences and it is an ever-changing shape. I hope that I can pass on some of the good practice that I have received.