Back in the dark ages, when I started working on music inclusion projects, I remember saying to a tutor that the best we could do was just turn up each week. If the young people chose not to come, or came along only to disrupt and pick fights or – as happened on one occasion – came along, nicked some of the kit and then galloped off down the street with it, then that was their choice – the best we could do was be there each week - and demonstrate that they could trust us not to give up on them.
Since those early days of echoing church halls and rehearsal rooms up three flights of stairs with no functioning lift, we have developed the Rock Up music project, offering weekly two-hour sessions that combine open access, 1:1 tuition and band practice in rock, pop and DJ-ing. Run from a Lowestoft youth club, we’ve had the luxury of three practice rooms, a team of youth workers who support us in everything we do – and a group of dedicated young people, some of whom have now been coming to the project for well over three years and will soon be too old to attend the club.
Our environment may have changed, but our approach to running the sessions remains determinedly person-centred, taking our lead from what the young people wish to learn and play, giving them the space to do nothing, if that’s what’s necessary, going at their pace and being consistent, responsive – and trustworthy.
And so the day arrived when we introduced Bronze Arts Awards. We did so with a mixture of caution – it was the first time we, as tutors, had delivered them; enthusiasm – for we knew that the young people were actually doing much of the work necessary to achieve the Award; and great trepidation, as we also knew that anything that smacked of ‘school’, including written work and deadlines, was an instant turn off and had them running for the door.
We explained what was involved, we discussed it openly and fully with the group and six young people signed up for doing the Award. One subsequently stopped coming to youth club (his mother discovered he spent as much time playing pool as playing his guitar so he was grounded) and so we had a band of five, ranging in age from 14 to 19 years old.
And that’s when the challenges really kicked off. The young people were accustomed to the structure of the sessions; asking a 14 year old boy with autism to produce a review was a complete deviation from the norm and took several attempts before he was able to engage with the activity.
Did you hear the one about the dog eating the homework? Or the sprained-wrist-making-writing-impossible line? It was just like when they’d started to learn to play – so full of self-doubt and angst that they couldn’t get started, they wouldn’t let themselves even begin, in case they got asked for more and couldn’t do it. Every week they’d say they would do something – and every week there was another reason why it hadn’t been done.
When we started the Awards there was plenty of time to complete them – but I had not factored in time lost due to prevarications, evasions and no-shows. Suddenly, fitting in the moderation before the project complete date began to make the timetable feel much tighter.
One participant assured us they were progressing – and then didn’t show up for several weeks. Another, when asked about their skills share, retreated under a stack of chairs and we had to spend the rest of the session trying to coax him out.
One young man struggled to such a degree that we seriously doubted he’d get the work finished in time; we offered him ‘exit strategies’ but he was adamant that he wanted to do it. It’s just that he didn’t do it – and this is where our concern as tutors really cut in – for it began to feel that we had set them up to fail – and this was the very opposite of everything we had worked to achieve.
And all of this was, of course, set against the normal cut and thrust of your average music inclusion project, in which other young people take part in the sessions, needing your time and attention, whilst others drop by to share their news with you and chill out and one or two come along to see how much havoc they can create – and they can create quite a bit of havoc when they’re of the mind to do so.
At the outset we created a blog site (https://rockup.org.uk/, and a Mixcloud page (https://www.mixcloud.com/RockUpProject/) for students to record and share their work for the Awards – but curiously they all became very camera shy and didn’t like the sound of their own voices so it took a while to establish that as a means of evidencing their progress.
We engaged parents, asking them to support the work at home and whilst this did help to a degree in one case, it was still very much like ‘homework’ and often got left right there, at home, rather than brought into sessions.
Interestingly, the one student who worked consistently and thoroughly throughout the process was home-tutored; presumably he had learnt the skills necessary for successful lone-studying and had no issues with completing the tasks required for his Arts Award.
One tutor described the process as ‘painful’; we had expected more input from the young people themselves, not least because at the outset they had all expressed an enthusiasm to do the Award. Another tutor reflected that his students found it ‘too much like school’ and didn’t like the pressure they felt. The participants were coming to Rock Up to make music, not to do the Awards; we had to coerce and persuade them that the two weren’t mutually exclusive.
None of this was the fault of Arts Awards – it was just that the sessions were already established and the biggest obstacle was getting the young people to adapt to something different. And we had to adapt, too, as we explored different methods of engaging the participants and supporting them in their work.
Ultimately, we did a lot of talking and scribing – as writing was clearly a major issue for several members of the group. And that process led to discussions about all manner of things that possibly might not have come into our general conversations; we learnt new things about them and they discovered ways of thinking that they hadn’t previously considered.
Joseph, writing about the art skill he improved, concluded by saying, “I intend to go and listen to more of my favourite songs to work out how they are put together to help me get better at writing my own songs.”
In his review of an arts event, Kieran wrote about a live performance he’d seen, reflecting that he “… liked the soloist best. It was a shame she got it wrong, but she carried on and I admired her for not giving up. I was watching other people be scared, instead of me.”
Choosing James Arthur as his musical inspiration, James said it was because of “… how he deals with his depression and anxiety. This is something I can relate to having suffered from both myself. Being able to read how others are able to cope is of comfort.”
Marianna chose to create her own scrapbook – it was the lure of the glitter and coloured pens – rather than using the official logbook. Reflecting on her skills sharing activity, she wrote “With time I would be more confident to teach someone as now I know it’s not too bad to teach someone else.”
And for all that we had to push and nag, and for all that they put up barriers, each time they achieved a section they were so surprised by and pleased with what they’d done, and when they shared their journals with each other it created a real buzz – and when they showed the youth workers what they’d done, the response was colossal – the youth workers were genuinely amazed and delighted with what the young people had accomplished.
And when we handed out the certificates, it was difficult to say which group was prouder – the students or the tutors. The sense of achievement felt by the young people was palpable – and something that they will always have. They have experienced that they can improve skills, do things that initially appeared beyond their capabilities and have those achievements valued and acknowledged by others. And as for us, well, we couldn’t be prouder of them – they’ve come such a long way and achieved so much. And they’ve got a certificate to prove it.