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My Experiences as an Emerging Music Leader By Ellie Williams

I have been working as an Emerging Music Leader, and have been involved in the Positive Labels project since April 2019. I had some previous teaching experience, having run music workshops for young musicians in the town I live in, as well as teaching piano lessons privately, however, I hadn't worked in a 'big city', as it were. Here are my reflections on the lessons I have learnt.

The difference between 1-2-1 teaching and community music sessions 

The participants of Positive Labels all came from varying backgrounds - sometimes very contrasting. I was presented with a range of different personalities: some young people were very confident; others were shy and withdrawn; one or two gave the impression that they were altogether indifferent. Working in a room full of young people put me in a different position in a teaching aspect, as I had only taught 1-2-1 lessons and two workshops in my hometown previously. Teaching in my hometown was very different to teaching in Birmingham, prominently because I knew all the people taking part in the workshops in Tenbury; this was not the case when I started working with Positive Labels. I had to quickly develop an ability not only to promptly make decisions based on what was taking place in the sessions, but also to gauge and read situations, as well as being able to read people, and as a result, cater to that person's needs. 

I had to be much more flexible and be able to go with the flow in Positive Labels, part of my job was to shadow on delivery of sessions and add my input to support the main goals of that session. For instance, focus on the lyric and melody writing aspect or on percussive or instrumental ideas. Towards the end of the session, we would be able to put together the bare bones of a new song which had been completely composed by the young people.

This kind of outcome is rewarding for the young people in a number of ways: they are able to relax around each other and work in a team (and enjoy working in a team!), as well as being able to record a song which they have composed on their own. Furthermore, this also means that they complete the session with a fantastic end product: a mixed and mastered recording of the song that they have all worked together to compose. An achievement such as this will mean so very much to a group of people who enjoy playing music and who have perhaps lacked the confidence, tools and skills to obtain this kind of result before.

Facing new challenges: adapting to the role of Emerging Music Leader

Adapting to the role of an Emerging Music Leader certainly came with its challenges. I found that no two sessions would be the same. When the sessions first started, I was nervous and keen to make a good impression. One of my weaknesses is my need for everyone in the room to like me. I often find that I use humour as a tool for achieving this, and as a result, I often turn to self-deprecation.  Learning to respect myself and remember that I was there because I was good enough to be there was a mental hurdle all of its own.

During my growth from teenager to young adult, I've made a conscious effort to be kind and understanding of those around me - people may be facing physical and psychological struggles of which I am not aware. This aptitude has definitely come into play during these sessions, as I have had to establish the ability to truly put myself into others' shoes and to develop more patience. It was personally rewarding to see young people who lacked confidence coming to the sessions and eventually building up enough courage and experience to comfortably perform solo or to contribute confidently to the creative processes.

Feedback methods when working in community music

Each young person would have different goals to suit the skills they wanted to cultivate and expand on, as well as fears that they wanted to overcome: one young person's goals would potentially be figuratively miles away from the young person next to them. For example, during a session, Person A might learn to play a C Major chord for the first time; Person B might write a bassline to an entire song and then record the bassline in the studio. Perhaps from an outsider's perspective Person A might not seem as impressive as Person B, but what they don't know is that Person A has never owned or played an instrument ever before, nor have they previously had enough self-belief to even contemplate being able to play a musical instrument. 

The important thing here is that I have given the same amount of positive feedback and praise in response to these two achievements, because they are both results that should be celebrated in their own right. Giving feedback can sometimes be a delicate process. I think it's vital that developmental feedback is delivered in a setting where the recipient feels comfortable and safe, and is applied in a constructive and positive manner, thus leaving the recipient with the motivation to improve and, moreover, feeling that there is a clear path to improvement.

Reflecting on the young people's musical and social development

It's been amazing to witness the steady growth of confidence and self-esteem in the young people I have worked with at Positive Labels. An integral part of my own contributions to the sessions is reminding students that the purpose of playing music is to enjoy the process, and not to feel stressed, pressured or as if they have something to prove to anyone. There were certain members of the group who at first would perhaps be withdrawn and reluctant to contribute or interact with the other young people; that same person is now far more dauntless and secure in the group environment. Participants have said that they felt much encouraged to be themselves. They also felt able to overcome their own fears and inhibitions, a process which was accelerated in these sessions because they soon realised that no one was judging them for what they could or couldn't do.

How has this affected me?

In terms of my personal development, I have found that being part of a process which has achieved such positive results has triggered an increase in my own motivation. I have found that there is a fine line between being proactive and knowing when to take a step back and empower young people to work out what it is they are doing. 

This experience has presented me with wonderful opportunities of my own, too. Some of the Positive Labels sessions have featured guest speakers, such as songwriter and composer, Alan Roy Scott, and session musician and songwriter, Vicky Warwick. This has meant that I have learned in so many different ways while being able to impart new knowledge and guidance onto the young people I have worked with.

I feel like there is plenty that I have learned so far, and yet much more to discover as I go along. I am now much more embracing of challenges. I feel better prepared than before, and furthermore, more trusting of my own instincts and my own ability. One of the best qualities in a leader is learning how to truly lead, and not make the mistake of dictating a particular path to anyone.