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Music-based Mentoring: FAQs

Frequently asked questions about music-based mentoring

This page is part of a resource pack on Music-based mentoring.


1.    Q. Is mentoring the same as coaching? A.  No. Music-based mentoring will always be concerned with the personal, social and emotional development of young people as much as it is about their musical development. Coaching (helping people further their skills in a particular area through goal setting, observation and supportive feedback), is likely to be an important part of the mentoring relationship but it is not the whole picture.

2.    Q.What kinds of challenges are mentees likely to face? A. We have identified five broad challenge headings: i. Ability challenges (covering physically   disabled, sensory impaired, learning disabled, other special needs); ii.  Economically disadvantaged; iii. Educationally excluded (covering at risk of exclusion, excluded, in pupil referral unit, not in education, employment or training); iv.   At criminal risk (young offenders and at risk of offending); v.  Risk of exclusion (rurally isolated, traveller, young parent, looked after, mental ill health).

3.    Q. As a mentor should I become friends with mentees? A. A. Mentoring is a non-judgmental supportive relationship, so you won’t want to be seen by your mentees as unapproachable or cold: this is where your communication skills come in [See Emotional Intelligence]. But it is a professional relationship, and you must not over step the mark: [see Methods: Mentoring code of practice]. Where the boundary lies is a matter of professional judgment, as in this case history: A mentee could completely let himself go physically and has turned up for sessions looking dreadful, not having eaten for some time. The mentor’s first step on these occasions has been to feed him. At one level, this is merely pragmatic: the music session simply couldn’t go ahead until the mentee had been stabilised. At a deeper level, this is ‘befriending’: providing social support to an isolated individual and a pre-requisite in some cases to the building of the next stages of a trusting relationship.

4.    Q. How long should a mentoring relationship last? A. Most of the literature* talks about mentoring only becoming effective after regular contact (weekly or fortnightly) for 10 months to a year.  Music-based mentoring starts from a basis of shared interest between mentor and mentee, so progress can be somewhat faster. And a case can be made for a short, focused programme of as little as five sessions to begin to move mentees forward.

5.    Q. Do I need to know about mentees backgrounds and the problems they are having? A. Many music leaders are resistant to knowing anything at all about the people they are working with and like to start with a “blank slate” – “As a music leader I tend not to want to know background details unless it is part of my work. I like it to come out naturally and I like to make personal statements rather than discuss the problem.” However with mentoring it is important to know quite a bit about the mentee’s background. Firstly it will sensitise the mentor to some of the mentee’s journey and the types of challenge they have faced thus helping them be more truly empathic. “The mentees I've engaged with from cold are the ones that haven't worked.” Secondly issues within the mentees story may be directly relevant to the personal goals they decide to pursue and the mentor will need appropriate information to help them overcome their challenge: “I always want to know as much as possible, I always ask the youth workers to divulge any relevant information. I had this situation of not knowing before with a new mentee: all I was told was that they had mental health issues and then I had to tread on eggshells to find out issues which was daunting; and if I'd been aware of why they were anxious it would have helped.” We feel that mentors need to be mature enough to take on background information without it negatively affecting the developing relationship.

6.    Q. Is what we say confidential?  A. Yes, information should be shared between mentee, mentor and coordinator and no one else, unless the information is not controversial e.g. the mentee has produced a new track. That is of course, unless the mentee is being abused or breaking the law in which case it needs to be shared with the appropriate services. The coordinator will be able to support the mentor in any cases such as this.The organization needs to have a clear policy on confidentiality and child protection and mentors need to be up to speed with this.                  

7.     Q. If mentees drink or smoke etc. is that acceptable in the session? A. It makes sense that the session should be a smoke free, drink free zone.

8.     Q. What about swearing? A. It would seem inappropriate to us to try to “make a ruling” on an issue such as this as everyone has different understandings of what they find offensive. It does seem unprofessional for mentors to use swear words when they are working.

9.      Q. What should I do if I don’t like the mentee? A. Firstly, this could quite easily happen, as it might in any human situation. An early discussion between mentor and coordinator is essential, with the possibility of changing the mentor for this mentee.

10.    Q. What should I do if I get upset by the mentee’s story or circumstances? A. All mentor’s should have a space for regular non-judgmental supervision, somewhere they can express their feelings about the work with no negative comeback. This may well be with the coordinator or someone with a lot of mentoring experience whose job is to give support. This should in most cases help the mentor to acknowledge how they feel and how difficult the work can be sometimes, and hopefully help them move on. It is not at all unlikely that over the course of time mentors will have emotional reactions to the work.

11.    Q. I don’t feel comfortable talking about people’s private lives. Is there a place for me in mentoring? A. You will be mentoring through music and this will often be the main focus of the work. Forced conversations about personal problems may even detract from the work. What you do need to do is have a sensitivity to young people’s challenges, listen and give them respect and help them find the confidence to move their own lives forward. If they raise personal issues themselves then you need the ability to listen maturely and give them what support you can.

12.    Q. I don’t feel I have any advice to give. Should I still be a mentor? A. The mentoring relationship is not primarily about giving advice. It is about supporting a young person’s journey toward a more positive future. This will be through a range of methods; musical coaching, supportive listening and feedback and helping the young person find the ability to reflect on, and over time improve, their way of doing things.

13.    Q. Should I socialize with the mentee if we are into the same music? A. It would be silly not to say hello and chat if for instance you both happen to be at the same gig but we feel that the relationship should be boundaried and professional. This means that when you arrange to meet (even at a gig) that you should see yourself as working professionally and maintain your professional attitude. Of course that doesn’t mean you can’t be natural and relaxed.

14.    Q. What do I do if the mentee doesn’t seem to be able to reach the goals they have set? A. It may be that the goals are too challenging and smaller targets would help. It may also be that there are other things taking priority in the mentee’s life at this time. If these are temporary they may just need to cut themselves some slack for a short time and refocus on bigger goals later on. Pretty much everyone in life can find ways to sabotage themselves on their journey to where they want to be. This can be a good time for mentors to stress that they are there for the mentee and that they have an unshakeable belief in their ability.

15.    Q. I think about the session on the way there and back. Does reflection need to be any more structured than this? A. Thinking about the session when going to and from are part of reflective practice and are important to us all. Reflection becomes interesting when it is more structured because; • you have the opportunity to identify issues and patterns and follow them   over time • you can prepare more thoroughly to tackle bigger challenges • reflecting with colleagues can help give you fresh perspectives • Structured reflection will spur you on to prepare musical materials more thoroughly and will improve your own planning • structured reflection can become part of the evidence that the programme is working and be an advocacy tool for funders

16.    Q. What happens if part way through the mentoring programme, changes occur in my own life and I have to end the mentoring relationship? A. There is a difference between the commitment needed in keeping yourself available in a professional manner for work that revolves around trust and loyalty, and the deeper issues that can arise and change our life course such as health, family, career and financial concerns. If an ending is going to be unavoidable then it is important, wherever possible, to inform your coordinator early and work together on a plan for ending the relationship. It may be that another mentor comes into the picture or not, but it is important that the mentee gets a sense the distance you have travelled together, and gets an opportunity to express their feelings, look back on what you have achieved together and hopefully celebrate the relationship.

17.    Q. What do I do if someone is poor musically but thinks they are great and want to get into the music business? A. Firstly remember it is a non-judgmental relationship. It is not up to us to make judgments as to what mentees choose to do outside the mentoring process. You can help them through giving them a sound knowledge of what happens in the music business. You may also wish to encourage them to have a fallback position. Most important is encouraging their own reflective and critical thinking and their ability to meet situations with resilience.

18.    Q. I have been matched with a mentee but really don’t like their taste or style of music. What do I do? A. In many cases this might be a mismatch as most mentees need to form a close musical bond with their mentor before they can move forward with the personal dimension. If you feel this is so then talk to the coordinator and negotiate a change. There may be circumstances that the primary reason for the match is not musical fit but perhaps gender, overall sensitivity or something resonant about the mentees story. The challenge for you then is to see if, as a professional, you can still find appropriate ways to support their music making and be passionate about the mentees musical journey. If not then another mentor needs to be found.  

References *Meier, R (2008) Youth mentoring: a good thing? London: Centre for Policy Studies. Philip, K & Spratt, J (2007). A Synthesis of Published Research on Mentoring and Befriending: University of Aberdeen Sandford, S et al (2007) Lean on me: mentoring for young people at risk – a guide for funders and donors. New Philanthropy Capital

For further information around the topics on this page please read - 'Move On Up – an evaluation of Youth Music Mentors'.