How volunteering on Quench Arts’ Musical Connections project for adults helped me to prepare for my shadow role on their Wavelength youth project
This is my first ever blog and it’s taken me ages to write only a few words. It’s hard to condense my stream of consciousness into something logical and coherent that also accurately reflects and gives proper justice to the incredible projects on which I work. So, here goes…
Sometimes I can’t believe how lucky I am. Not only have I somehow managed to achieve one of those highly coveted ‘portfolio careers’, but this particular portfolio also includes two absolutely incredible community music projects: Musical Connections and Wavelength. Both projects are run by Quench Arts and partner Birmingham and Solihull Mental Health NHS Foundation Trust and work with vulnerable young people and adults, using music and songwriting as a vessel for positive change. I absolutely love them!
I started volunteering for Musical Connections (the adult programme) whilst studying at Birmingham Conservatoire and, after graduating in 2010, it was one of the things that kept me in Birmingham. I had no idea, however, that I would still be involved nearly 7 years on!! I totally underestimated the hold it would have over me and when the opportunity arose to apply for a paid shadow artist role on Wavelength (the youth version of Musical Connections funded by Youth Music), I jumped at the chance.
So, what has my experience of Musical Connections taught me to prepare for my role on Wavelength?
My role as a shadow artist for Wavelength is often very similar to my role as a volunteer for Musical Connections. In both projects, I support group sessions, helping to create a new song/piece of music, whilst also supporting both the members and the artist in whatever way is needed. Thus my role is actually split into two key parts: musical support and emotional support.
Musical support: sometimes this may require me to sit back and work one to one with a member, maybe enabling keyboard skills or vocal harmonies. At other times I may need to take a more prominent role in helping to construct the direction of the song. This latter option can depend on the energy of the group involved, their interactions and confidence on that particular day. Sometimes lyrics, melodies and harmonies flow easily. Sometimes they don’t, but that’s ok. It’s easy to feel panicked when things don’t happen immediately - but that’s often the reality of songwriting. Sometimes it just needs space and silence. Space for musical and lyrical thought. As leaders, it’s our job to allow this space to happen in a secure environment to minimise insecurities. I have found it helpful to be open about my own musical struggles in order to put myself on a level playing field. I hope it is empowering for the members to be able to sometimes support and advise me! By working on both projects I’ve been part of at least 70 group sessions, and no matter what the pace, we’ve always had a completed song at the end.
Emotional support: Some individuals feel more at ease with group work than others. I believe that it is my job to help the Lead Artist navigate this. As a result of years of experience through Musical Connections, I feel extremely aware of little signals; body language, eye contact, interactions with others, vocalisation of ideas. I will change my position in the room and move closer to someone in order to give extra support, often becoming their personal cheerleader, validating their ideas and enabling them to be heard in the group. This may just involve me quietly asking them their preference about a lyric, and letting the artist know, so that their choice is heard and incorporated. It can be difficult to manage group settings where vocal members are adamant to promote their own ideas, and I think it is vital that everyone has a chance to be heard. Of course, just because a member is outwardly confident, doesn't mean that they are on the inside - their ‘confidence’ may be their coping mechanism, and this must also be taken into consideration when navigating a group.
Aside from all this, the biggest things I have learnt from Wavelength and Musical Connections is to remember that we are all just people, each with our own individual strengths and vulnerabilities and that’s why these projects are so unique - everyone is treated as an individual in their own right, not as a label. In fact, as a shadow artist and volunteer, I don’t even know any specifics about why our members are there. We are just all involved in these two fabulous projects for the same reason: we are passionate about music and believe in the healing power of music and songwriting.