by Author nicbriggs

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My learning through Quench Arts' Plugin project by Katie Stevens (Music Leader)

The Plugin project has been a steep and rewarding learning experience for me. Prior to Plugin, my experience had been as a shadow to more experienced music leaders and the offer of a lead role on the Plugin project was an exciting but admittedly daunting prospect. I was very grateful for the opportunity however, to put some of what I had learned as a volunteer and shadow artist to use and accepted the role from Quench without hesitation. Although I felt confident that I could adapt and rise to challenges that might arise, I also knew that there would be a lot of learning through the role itself and I would face new challenges that I had never expected.

One of the main challenges that I knew I would face would be that of my lack of knowledge with more urban music styles and how to record and write music using technology (my formal training until this point had been on a classical music masters in performance on the clarinet!).  Although I had learned elements of this before, I had often found it difficult to retain this information because I was not recording regularly. I also know that I learn best through doing so I had a feeling that this would finally give me the opportunity to really cement the basics.

The first year of the project saw me set with a young music leader who entirely complimented my skills. The Quench team had paired me with someone who had all of the skills which I did not have in computer technology but who had less experience in working in this sector. This gave both of us confidence and we learned through each other and the situations which arose. This sort of pairing is testament to how much Quench bosses know the whole team’s skills and vulnerabilities and the actual delivery itself. Although they are removed from the practical activity delivery, I feel that they do understand it and know how to get the best out of people. It also makes me feel like they have a good overview of the whole me a wide range of participants to work with, with musical tastes, interests and abilities very different to mine. We had an arabic rapper, a greek bouzouki player, beginner keyboard players and indie bands to name a few. I learned quickly and perhaps I was learning just was much from the young people as they were learning from me. What did give me confidence however, was the knowledge that although I might not have a comprehensive understanding of all musical styles and techniques, I felt sure that I could relate well to young people from different backgrounds and that I was adaptable and easy going; qualities that I think are fundamental in this line of work!

The first year passed with success and relative calm - little did we know what the next would bring.

One week into year 2 of the project the world went into lockdown and so Quench and the project staff had to quickly call upon the adaptability mentioned above! Quench bosses set us tasks to make resources that would be helpful for the young people to use during the lockdown or to draw upon in the future. We had no idea what the short or long term future looked like at that point but regular communication gave us the feeling of connection and allowed us to build up a fantastic resources bank which we can all continue to use in our work today. Personally, I also used my new found free time to really solidify my understanding of the software ‘Logic’. As I have already mentioned, I learn best through doing and I decided that I would try to pick a popular track and try to recreate it in my own way. This proved to be a fantastic way to learn and I quickly began just writing my own music on Logic for fun rather than an exercise. This is when my best learning happened. This only reaffirms to me what I have learned as a teacher and as a music leader- that we need to help others find the way that they learn best. And sometimes, as the music leader, this can be a completely different way to the way that we would choose for ourselves! During this time, through the tasks set by Quench I wrote ‘listening sheets’ for the young people, choosing genres that I was not familiar with such as hip hop and trap. There was not a clarinet in sight! It didn’t take me long to have a much better appreciation for a much wider range of music. I soon became aware that it wasn’t that I didn’t like this music, I just hadn’t been exposed to it. And with this awareness, I realised perhaps this is the same for the young people that we work with too’ so I believe that we have a responsibility to offer them some listening experiences outside of their usual parameters too.

Halfway through year 2 we were finally able to run zoom sessions for the young people at one hospital. Many factors came into play which made the sessions challenging at the beginning as we were all finding our way in a unique set of circumstances. Most obviously, hospital staff were under immense strain with reduced staff on duty due to sickness or isolation. This meant that sometimes there were no staff to cover our zoom sessions or that communication about the sessions was not received. Hospital staff were also being asked to draw upon entirely new skills that were very much outside of their remit ; they had to use computer technology which they had never come across before and be ready to trouble shoot when things went wrong with the tech (which they did!) There were microphone problems, camera problems, wifi problems and all the while, we tried to learn what might work and what definitely didn’t work on zoom! Despite guidance on group sizes from Quench bosses, zoom sessions could also be quite large at times. Often this was due to staffing issues; there were not sufficient staff on the ward to allow for such small groups or our sessions were being held in a particular room that other people were using at the same time. This could be difficult at times, particularly if there was activity in the room because zoom would suppress sound and there were many moments of technical confusion!

As a music leader, I consider a big part of my work to be assessing the vulnerabilities and strengths of the young people I am working with through analysis of interaction and body language. This was one of the biggest challenges to deal with when using zoom. Sometimes these assessments can be made based on very small clues and being removed through a screen made it much harder to read people’s actions and behaviour. Due to the vulnerable nature of the young people with whom we were working with, sometimes they did not want to be visible on screen so would rather choose to sit off camera and it could be quite difficult to make sure that everyone who was physically in the room felt included. I sometimes did not know how many people were off camera or how to direct a question or idea towards those who were not visible. I think this resulted in the more confident young people being happy to join the zoom and those with more social anxiety finding the medium did not work and dropping out after one or two sessions. That said, despite the difficulties along the way we had a number of very positive sessions on zoom. I think that zoom also enabled young people to feel a little more flexible with sessions, like anything was possible! In one session that has stuck in my head, I remember a particularly lively group of young people brought pots and pans and anything that they had around them as instruments! In another, we managed to work with two young men who were new admissions on the ward. Both seemed to be ready to engage with none of the usual nerves or inhibitions; perhaps the lack of interaction due to lockdowns allowed them to be more open, or perhaps the fact that we were removed gave them a bit more freedom to express themselves. Either way, they wrote an excellent rap which we were later told they had performed in a concert at school.

When finally we could go back into our settings It was quite an unusual experience to have worked with some of the young people for so long but never have met face to face. Coming back I found that in both hospitals there were more people interested in taking part in the project than ever before. Perhaps this was due to a lack of external visitors during the lockdowns, or that young people had had more space to be creative during this time. Either way, we had regular attendance from the same young people throughout the rest of year 2 and into year 3.

During this third and finally leg of the project, I found that I felt far more equipped than I had in the first year of the project to use the technology available to us to make music. The time I had used during the lockdown had been really useful and had given me new skills and appreciation that I had not had before. The unique challenge of using zoom had made me ready for anything that could be thrown at me; because it couldn’t be as difficult as I had found it on zoom!

Overall, although the Plugin project hasn’t quite been able to run its natural course over the last three years, I feel like I have learned more than I would have been able to otherwise. I’ve also learned that the appetite to make music is always present, in spite of difficulties to overcome, young people have wanted to continue making music throughout. I have also learned that although it is good to know that there are options for making music together when we are separate, I am reassured by the knowledge that the magic of being in a room and connecting with one another in the same space is real and something that cannot be underestimated; something that will always make projects like Quench’s Plugin of paramount importance to the wellbeing of the people accessing them.