by Author Anna Batson

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Planning to be Unplanned

I had an idea, but I prefer yours, so let’s do that…

This comment came from music leader, Deb Woollaston after she’d spent a long time carefully planning a tailored activity for a young man and had ended up abandoning the plan.  This got us onto a reassuring chat about empowerment and handing over ownership instead of sticking to a fixed plan or set of ideas. This also builds on my previous post about ‘playfulness’.

Deb and I spoke about balancing ‘containment’ with exploration and taking opportunities to expand ideas or spot the leftfield emerging ones! We often found ourselves planning for the approach but not necessarily the outcome.

It’s a bit like your improvised solo, where you know the chord sequence, but you don’t know which notes you’re going to play until you play them…working ‘in the moment’ and often breaking the rules along the way. Sometimes if you don’t know any rules, (especially when working with young people who are completely new to making their own music, for example) then you don’t have to be contained by them, which can be enormously fertile creative ground. Conversely, sometimes people need the ‘rules’ to feel safe and ‘held’. However, for those young people who are berated for breaking the rules, perhaps socially, music is the ideal opportunity to do this safely and opens up other worlds of confidence and self-expression.

There’s a time and place for this obviously – navigating when this may not be appropriate, particularly when you want to acknowledge input and ideas, but you know as a practitioner that it will not work well…managing passion is a huge challenge. It's always helpful to acknowledge any idea as a good idea, provide alternatives and park ideas to potentially develop them later.  

Creative practical training provided at Plymouth Music Zone for sessional music leaders who work across the community with both adults and children is really useful for knowing how to build a framework around activity, but feeling equipped to move within this e.g. toolkit materials that can be built upon and personalised.  As practitioners, we are in danger of missing out on opportunities to learn from our participants. If we are able to question who is leading whom, then we are exploring real and genuine experiences.

An example of taking an idea and running with it is exploring how to play instruments ‘differently’ – what can I get this to do? Not ‘ how are you supposed to do it?’

At a Tier 4 secure mental health facility for teenage young people in Plymouth, Deborah Woollaston describes working with a young person as part of our ‘Breakthrough Music’ Youth Music funded programme:  

I was working recently with a very interesting young woman who didn’t present in a very typical way in terms of a ‘diagnosis’ or personality type. In some ways she was very confident to just ‘do’ whatever she wanted to rather than worrying about what others thought of her - not what I was expecting at all in this setting. Whatever I introduced to her, she always chose to explore sound as a sound artist rather than a musician – she found very different ways of playing something. E.g. swinging ‘wah wah’ tubes around in the space rather than using them in a static way. She was very conscious and deliberate about what she was doing. I chose not to show her ‘how’ to do something when it was so much more interesting to leave her to show me what she could discover. My job was then to encourage and to respond to her musically so that we didn’t have to talk too much.

Deborah and I have worked for some time in partnership with the Plymouth Domestic Abuse Service. In these settings, by the very transient nature of the setup, it’s impossible to plan for progression, although there might be across a number of weeks if a young person is going to be attending for a while, but you might also just have one opportunity to work with them. As much as you can attempt to have a bit of a structure to ‘hold’ the session, there were consistently opportunities and windows for quickly reacting to change and development and creativity. We were able to observe immensely progressive things happening, such as a young 4-year old who only attended sessions for a few weeks who initially found the whole thing overwhelming despite being interested. She needed the choice about staying / leaving and dipping in and out. Within a few weeks she was ready to immerse herself.

Looking even more closely through the intensity of a one:one setting, Deborah described the work of a bereaved young person she was working with through ‘Breakthrough Music’ Youth Music programme:

I worked with ‘T’ on a one:one basis over a period of nearly a year. The engagement was set up to support him through a difficult period following the death of one of his parents. He was initially interested in making hip-hop music, doing some rapping, possibly playing some instruments – no real focus, but his family knew that engaging with some sort of musical activity may be helpful at that time. It quickly became apparent that he had a lot of untapped musical creativity. Everything that I introduced, he’d have a go at, then he’d make something with it (a loop or a riff), then he’d discover a completely new software feature that I often didn’t even know about! He was always teaching me something new. This also applied to working on an acoustic piano, Yamaha Tenorion…whatever he was exploring, he would quietly and studiously find an entirely new way of working with the tools around him.  

In short, our ideas as music ‘leaders’ aren’t always the best ones. We need to have a genuine respect for other people’s input rather than doggedly sticking to our planned activities. We need to continue to be mindful about when it's a good time for us to leave our egos at the door, at the same time as offering our expertise and skills as an exchange of ideas rather than an imposition.