Trends in community music research

I recently gave a keynote presentation in Beijing as part of the Third Community Music Education Summit Forum, hosted by the China Conservatory. I was asked to speak about current trends in community music research, which was an interesting question to grapple with.

Sitting in my official seat, audience behind me

I began by reviewing proceedings from a number of conferences over the last three years, and back issues of the International Journal of Community Music. I also thought about discussions I’d been part of with colleagues here in Australia and overseas. In the end I came up with this list:

Historical mapping of community music activities in countries and regions

It seems to me that in the absence of a neat universal definition of what constitutes community music (and I’m not saying there should be one – just observing its absence and the perennial discussion of “what is community music” that recurs periodically as a result) these kinds of historical overviews that dig into region/country-specific political-economic-social environments, shifts, changes, and trends are becoming increasingly useful documents. Lee Higgins wrote one that for me is definitive of the style, examining the historical context of community music development in the UK; Andy Krikun has written some fascinating accounts of the development of community banding in the United States; Roger Mantie has examined some of the historical shifts (albeit the a focus on language and discourse in key journals) of the wind band scene in Canada. Shorter overviews of other countries’ contexts for current practice were included in ‘Community Music Today’ (Veblen, Elliott, and Messenger, 2012). I’m hopefully the trend will expand further, and that we’ll see similar studies emerging from regions that are less-represented in the community music literature thus far.

Typologies and conceptual frameworks

Related to these alternatives to a universal definition is a continued effort to offer frameworks or conceptual models for understanding community music activity. These turn up fairly frequently, and depending on what is being examined, offer varying degrees of usefulness (which means it is useful to have multiple options). Huib Schippers unveiled a very interesting set of three domains of community music at the recent Asia-Pacific Community Music Network meeting that draws upon his extensive work on music sustainability and eco-systems. The ecological perspective illuminates different aspects of music activities and projects – for example, providing a tool for understanding the community expectations of a community music intervention, which may differ from the expectations of its organizers.

Online community music communities

There’s a growing number of really interesting studies that explore this topic from different angles – pedagogy and informal learning, communities of practice, materials, different applications of technologies, as a participatory cultural practice, limitations and possibilities, and so on. The International Journal of Community Music devoted a recent Special Edition to this topic.

El Sistema and Sistema-inspired activities

I’ve also observed a growing presence for Sistema-inspired programs in community music research. The twin goals of social care and music learning, and the complex contexts in which these projects work make these activities a good match with community music research. At present, research on this topic may still be more frequently directed toward pure music education forums, however, I’m anticipating a continued gradual positioning of this research in the community music sphere. What’s more, the next group of PhD scholars and researchers interested in examining a Sistema-inspired project can read an inspired/inspiring list of potential research questions in Roberta Lamb’s review of Geoff Baker’s ‘El Sistema – Orchestrating Venezuela’s Youth’. See pp. 178-179, here.

I closed the keynote presentation with a series of ‘hot tips’ – topics that I predict will emerge as future trends in the next 3-5 years:

  • Gender in community music. It hasn’t come in for much attention thus far, but it’s an important area for examination. Music is an extremely gendered practice; the paper “From snuggling and snogging to sampling and scratching: Girls’ non-participation in community-based music activities” (Baker, Sarah, & Cohen, Bruce M. Z, 2008) is well-worth a read for an initial examination to how this can play out in community-based music activities.
  • Pushback against the ‘intervention’ model as the gold standard towards more organic, community-driven music approaches. I predict this will come about as non-English language community music work gains profile in the research literature. The relevance of this difference in emphasis of what practices look like and deliver was particularly evident at this year’s Asia-Pacific Community Music Network gathering (Japan, July 2015); indeed, the increasing ‘pushback’ was a topic that was discussed in the closing comments of that conference.
  • Happiness and Joy. I predict that as researchers we will begin to look beyond the instrumentalised focus of many community music activities (or of their organisers’) to put the spotlight more firmly on participant experience, which will foreground some of community music’s least measurable, most subjective outputs – such as experiences of happiness and joy.
  • Street bands and music-as-activism. I predict we will see an increase in the visibility of these kinds responses to social issues, and consequently they will begin to feature more prominently in community music research. The activities are not new, but I predict a revived interest in the dynamics of this kind of music-making as it interacts with local and global contexts for change and citizen action.

What do you think? Are there trends in community music research that you’ve observed that could be included here? What are your own tips for the next ‘hot topics’ in community music research?

Return to China

I loved this return visit to Beijing. It’s always nice to be hosted, and the Chinese are wonderful hosts! My plane touched down at 3am, and when I finally emerged through the gates into the public area (that airport is enormous, it took me ages to walk through given I was still recovering from my recent surgeries), two very tired but smiling student volunteers from the China Conservatory were there to meet me.

Gillian and Chinese volunteers

My first day was free of work tasks so one of the volunteers took me to the Panjiayuan antiques market where traders from different parts of China were selling antiques (some real, some less real) and handcrafts. I bought some gifts for family, friends and friends’ children, but mostly just loved the browsing and people-watching.

We also went to Beijing Glasses City. This is a mall filled with spectacle-sellers, lens-grinders, and optical accessories stalls. My student guide, Wang (although I later suggested an English name for him – Max – which he loved and immediately adopted) is from the Xinjiang Autonomous Region, up in the north-west, sharing the border with Kazakhstan and Kyrgystan, so Beijing Glasses City was a new discovery for him. I chose frames and got my eyes tested and had new glasses made within 30 minutes.

Beijing Glasses City

The next day I led a music workshop for community music and dance teachers from around China, who were in town for the Community Music Education Summit Forum (I love that the event was both a summit and a forum). We did a range of collaborative composition tasks, using voices and body percussion. They were a great group. Though, I was reminded how tricky it can be to work with an interpreter in composition tasks. Sometimes, the pace of the work moves very quickly and I want to be able to give a key direction or piece of information in a very specific moment. It’s tricky to remember that if I just speak when I want to speak, the group won’t understand what I’m saying, and the energy behind it can translate as stressful urgency, rather than just in-the-moment encouragement that progresses the composition along in a critical point in time. A couple of times I really had to bite my tongue to give the interpreter a chance to move across the room to me and translate my instruction for the group.

That evening, Max and I found a Xin Jiang restaurant where we ordered too much and had a fantastic meal of very Central Asian food. Max took the leftovers back to the dormitory for his room-mates. I was pretty excited to discover this new cuisine, although I also realized it was similar to I had had at the Uyghur restaurants in Kazakhstan. I fell in love with the sturdy wooden kebab sticks they served our meat on, and the wooden spoons that they served our yoghurt with. Max asked the waitress if I could buy them. She said no.

My last day in Beijing was the day of my keynote presentation. We travelled together to the conference venue (a community college). There were a number of formalities at the start of the day, and I joined the group of presenters on the stage for many of these. My presentation was well-received by the group and afterwards I had the chance to speak with a number of community music educators. One told me she was delighted that I had spoken about the importance of acknowledging happiness and joy in community music. “That’s what it is all about,” she stated emphatically.

In the afternoon, the student volunteers took me to see the China Conservatory. They walked me through the grounds, showing the impressive practice annex, and the student dormitories where they both lived. We had tea together in a small Xinjiang café in their basement student food hall. I fell in love with the beautiful teapot they served our green tea in and wanted to buy it. This time I didn’t ask though. It isn’t quite right to offer to buy the serving paraphernalia in every restaurant you go to, is it? Max had brought me some Xinjiang snacks, which consisted of extremely hard round crispy breads, which he called naan. They were so hard I wondered if I might break a tooth. It felt a bit like trying to eat an enormous rusk.


Then the time came for me to head to the airport, and both Max and Heidi (the second student volunteer) accompanied me there. They helped me with the check-in, organizing for me to have some assistance getting to the gate so that I wouldn’t have to carry my bag too far in my post-surgery state. Heidi had been the main person I’d communicated with prior to my departure and she knew I’d been ill, so was particularly concerned to take care of me.

They both sent me text messages wishing me well in the couple of hours between our farewell and my take-off. They were the sweetest volunteer helpers ever! Thank you Max and Heidi for making this visit to China so delightful!

Wrapping up Community Music Leadership for 2015

In second semester each year I teach a 13-week Community Music Leadership course as part of Melbourne Polytechnic’s Bachelor of Music degree course. As part of their assessment for this subject, each student organizes to spend a minimum of 12 hours in a community music project, where their main goal is to observe an experienced music leader in action (rather than assuming a leadership role themselves). They are required to blog about these experiences, and the last class of the semester is run as a discussion forum, where everyone can share their reflections on what they have learned through the placement process and course content across the 13 weeks.

A student-led workshop exploring 'haptics' - a way of communicating musical ideas to deaf-blind musicians

A student-led workshop exploring ‘haptics’ – a way of communicating musical ideas to deaf-blind musicians

With 28 students in the class, there were too many people to accommodate a short presentation from each individual about their placement experiences, so instead we focus on small group sharing and reflection, followed by group presentations to the rest of the class. We had this final class on Thursday and it led to some lively discussion. Here’s a summary of some highlights:

Acceptance and non-judgment

A group of 5 students that did their placements in settings where the main participant groups had particular vulnerabilities/care requirements spoke very openly about how confronting and challenging some of their experiences had been, particularly during their first visits. They were working in settings such as juvenile justice detention, an immigration detention centre, a drop-in community centre for homeless and mentally-ill people, and a school for autistic children/youth.

A main learning that they described was the importance of acceptance as a central ethic and value. One described how, while he knew that some of the young people in his placement site had committed very serous crimes, he realized that he didn’t need or want to know who had done what. Instead, his role as a musician and music facilitator was to accept everyone in the group as fellow human beings, sharing a common interest in music. Another suggested that, on face value, some of the people he interacted with in his placement looked like people he might have wanted to avoid if he passed them in the street somewhere. He learned how quickly those preconceived ideas would block any genuine connection he could make with the music participants, that he needed to discard those notions of ‘knowing’ people and come to the experience in an open, warm, and accepting way.

This is the hospitality that is inherent in community music – what Community Music Victoria trainers call the “active welcome” that intends to draw people into the group, to feel welcome, valued, appreciated, and free to be themselves, without fear of judgment or not being “enough”.


A dilemma that caused some frustration for one group revolved around ideas of “excellence”. The students in this group had all completed their placement hours with the same community orchestra – not a symphony orchestra but a very lively, informal group that plays mostly Balkan and East European music. Their frustrations revolved around a sense of passivity they perceived among the group members, and an apparent casualness about musical attainment and mastery. They felt that more effort could have been made in this group (by the leader? by the students themselves?) to achieve a higher standard of performance (they observed that the group members didn’t necessarily use the resources that were prepared for them to help in their at-home practice and learning; also that the group was working towards a very ambitious concert program that allowed little time to be spent going over musical details). Underlying their frustrations seemed to be a plaintive cry of “Why don’t they want to play better? Why isn’t that a priority for everyone here?”

Their arguments for a greater focus on mastery/attainment/excellence centred around the idea that a sense of ownership towards the group and its music could be achieved through participants being invested in their own progress and gradual mastery… they were less aware of the fact that for some members of the group, the pressure of having to ‘master’ their instrument or the music can detract from their enjoyment of the experience.

Their grappling with this highlighted the way that ‘excellence’ in community music activities often does not refer to musical excellence alone. It is also about excellence of experience, about quality of relationships, and about being able to set and influence the agenda of a group in collaborative ways.


A third point of discussion was of the importance of identifying and articulating your values, so that these will form the foundation of everything that you do, and can also be used as a central point of reference in decisions about programs, directions, priorities, etc. The student that raised this as a key learning for her had spent sometime working closely with the administrative staff of Community Music Victoria, and CMVic’s values are certainly front and centre of everything they do, as their website attests.

Inclusion and exclusion

Students also debated the inclusion/exclusion dichotomy quite vigorously. They considered the paradox of “inclusive” projects where particular groups who might be typically marginalized from the mainstream are targeted for participation – does this then exclude the mainstream? They also observed the way that ‘opt-in/out’ projects (where participants decide for themselves the extent of their participation, interacting and participating according to their own interests and comfort levels) create space for people to exclude themselves – and does this therefore mean they are less inclusive than they intend? Can you be actively and deliberately inclusive without excluding some? In other words, are they essentially two sides of the same coin, and one cannot be present without the other?

We didn’t finish the student forum with any conclusions, more just a strong sense of the unresolvable nature of many of these questions. In community music there may not be any truly hard and fast rules of what to do and what not to do. Rather, the facilitator’s willingness to remember that “it depends”, and to remain alert to the subtle shifts and nuances within every group, adapting and adjusting in response to what they read and observe, is what determines their actions, choices, and leadership throughout the workshop and the project.

My hope with the Community Music Leadership course is that the students – most of whom are in the final semester of their music degrees – will recognize community music leadership as a viable and (hopefully) artistically-satisfying and inspiring part of the portfolio careers that many of them will go on to build. They were a good bunch of students (they always are), and I finished the semester reflecting on how satisfying it is to teach a subject that I feel so passionate about to a generally personable, curious and open-minded group of very versatile and talented musicians.

Memories of my time in a post-Soviet Children’s Camp

Probably the most famous of the Soviet Union’s ‘Young Pioneers’ Children’s Camps was Artek, on the Crimean Peninsula. Positioned along the sparkling blue waters of the Black Sea, it was the first Young Pioneers camp, opened in 1925, and grew to become a vast complex, and an extremely prestigious place to go. In the European summer of 1996 I made my way to Artek to spend a few weeks as a guest vozhaty – group leader. I spoke a little bit of Russian and was up for an adventure. This weekend, Artek is celebrating its 90th birthday. Sveta, one of the vozhaty that I befriended there 19 years ago invited me to write an article with memories from my visit. This is what I wrote.

View of Artek from Ayu-Dag mountain

View of Artek from Ayu-Dag mountain

I arrived at Artek somewhat unceremoniously. It was late July, 1996. I’d flown to Odessa, and had planned to travel by train to Crimea. But then I met a group of other travellers in the visa queue who were also travelling to Crimea but by private bus. I asked if I could hitch a ride with them to the city centre because I had heard there was no public transport from the airport. Instead, they persuaded me to travel to Crimea in their bus with them. I agreed, but it was a big mistake on my part. It was an awful journey that took three times longer than they’d said it would. It was a Friday, and I had arranged to call the Artek office from Odessa before they finished work for the day to say what time I would arrive by train in Sevastopol. But the private bus never stopped so that I could phone. No-one had mobile phones in those days. I also had no chance to change money, so I couldn’t buy myself any food and had no water. It was a very bad decision and to this day I regret hitching a ride with that group of Germans, friendly though they were, and missing the chance to see Odessa and travel by train to Crimea.

They dropped me in Sevastopol the next morning, a Saturday, and as I’d been warned, I couldn’t contact the Artek people to say that I’d arrived, because the administrative office was closed. So I boarded a bus that was travelling to Hurzuf, which I knew was the nearest village. As an Australian, I was used to travelling independently, but it meant that I arrived at Artek (with the help of some friendly Hurzuf locals) with no prior warning, which I think was a bit of a shock and inconvenience for everyone.



Kiparisniy (Cypress) Camp is the camp that is closest to Hurzuf, and that is why I ended up at Kiparisniy Camp – because I could walk there. My visit to Artek had been organised by a youth exchange organisation in Riga, and I think I was supposed to go to Lazurny, or one of the more modern, flagship camps designed by famous Soviet architects. Kiparisniy was already full, with no spare beds. It was also old with lots of problems with the plumbing. But Kiparisniy Camp was beautiful with its tall cypress trees and views of the ocean, and the people I met welcomed me so warmly that I was happy nobody tried to make me move to another camp, once that first weekend had finished.

Meeting the vozhatie

It’s funny that most of my photos are of life in the dormitory shared by the camp’s group leaders (vozhatie) . It would appear that I never went anywhere else! But it is also appropriate, because my memories of Artek are mostly of the people.

Right from the beginning the wonderful, indefatigable, funny, kind Sveta took me under her wing, and we’ve remained friends ever since. She had less English than I had Russian, but she had patience and energy and ingenuity, and a very inclusive spirit. I remember her approaching me that first evening saying, “A bunch of us are going out to eat arbuz – Do you want to come?” I had no idea what arbuz was but I went anyway, and learned that arbuz meant watermelon. A group of us sat and ate slices of juicy watermelon and I played my clarinet for everyone, sitting outside, around the edge of a fountain. That was my first evening at Artek.

Tourist Games

One of the first excursions I went on during my Artek experience was to play what were described to me as “tourist games”. In English I think we would call it orienteering. I had never done anything like this before, and I’ve never done anything like it since. With another young woman who was also a short-term visitor I was taken by car to the middle of a forest, and, using some clues that made very little sense to me, had to find our way to an end point, out of the forest. Fortunately, vozhatie and older campers popped out from behind trees every now and then to help us along the way.

One of the tests we had to pass required us to use sticks and stones to ford a wide stream. We were hopeless – our feet got very wet. Another test required knowledge of different kinds of wood. A serious, slightly world-weary girl scout asked us to choose which from among three bits of wood was the one we should use to start a fire, and which to use to keep the fire burning. To me they all looked like random sticks, so I just guessed. The girl scout sighed heavily, and matter-of-factly told me that I had failed. In fact, this one (she pointed to it) was Wood Type X, and would be the quickest to catch alight, and that one (she pointed to another) was Wood Type Y, and was a slow-burning wood. So there. She let us go past anyway. Thank goodness. In the end my team failed the Tourist Games. I think we got collected by a bus at some point, because we were so slow and so far behind the other teams. I laugh at the memory now, because I know that I really had no idea what was going on, nor how to succeed!

Another excursion I remember was going on a walk to see the marble caves. I think this might have been on my second day at Artek – it was very early in my visit and I didn’t really know anyone. A girl named Luda befriended me that day, and Luda was a great companion for the rest of my stay.

Artek days were very, very long. The vozhatie got up very early, because they had to get their group of children up and out of bed – which meant rising before them. Then, in the evenings, after the children were sleeping, their free time began, so they would socialise and then go to bed very late. There was nap-time in the afternoons. But how did everyone keep their energy going?

The earliest start was the day that my group went to climb Ayu-Dag, the high “bear” mountain that overlooks the whole Artek complex. We left long before sunrise – maybe at 4am? We went first to the kitchen, where the staff had prepared packed lunches and bottles of boiled water for us (all the drinking water in Crimea had to be boiled at that time). We travelled awhile by bus – or did we walk from the camp? – and then we started climbing upwards. When we reached the mountain summit Sveta painted coloured stripes on our faces. These were to say that we’d climbed Ayu-Dag. On the walk down we had wonderful views across all of Artek.

Some of the Ayu-Dag group

Some of the Ayu-Dag group

Swimming in the Black Sea

I remember being fascinated by the daily swimming program. The sea water had been divided into lanes, with all the children’s groups assigned a lane each. When a whistle blew, they were allowed to run into the water. No-one was allowed to put their head under water (I wasn’t sure if this was so that they didn’t drown, or because of ear and eye infections). Time in the water was strictly monitored and when the whistle blew, the children had to get out again. During these rest times, I remember hunting for shells with some of the children. We tried to find shells that had dirochka – little holes – in them (you see, I still remember these words), that could be threaded onto leather strips and made into necklaces. Beaches are prominent in my Australian childhood memories, and the shell-gathering was a familiar activity for me. However, the restrictions around being in the water were very strange for me, and I admit I found the whole regimented process quite bizarre. Australia has a strong beach culture. We see access to beaches as something akin to a human right!

Arts and culture

There was so much skill and talent among the vozhatie and the children! I remember there was a ballroom dancing competition while I was there. A whole crowd of vozhatie took part. In Australia, there is no way a random group of trainee teachers and youth leaders would know how to ballroom-dance. And no way they would take part in a competition – unless it was supposed to be humorous. I have photos of the costume preparation – whole teams of vozhatie sewing black trousers and short red skirts for the dancers.

I remember some extraordinary young singers – they had won a local competition, and both first- and second-place getters had come to Artek as part of their prize. They were clearly on track to be the pop stars of the future. Also while I was there, a dancing troupe from Belarus was in residence, and gave several performances.

I remember playing duets with a young saxophonist named Vika. We played the Theme from Love Story [Legende Lyubimiy] together, with me improvising a harmony to her soaring melody. I led workshops for a small music group, and together we wrote songs and improvised. I also joined with two other vozhatie to sing lullabies every night in the dormitory for the 8-9 year olds. I loved doing this, and learned several Russian songs in 3-part harmony in the nightly singing sessions.

The singers, thumbing their way through my Russian dictionary

The singers, thumbing their way through my Russian dictionary

Life in the dormitory

Sveta celebrated her birthday during my time at Artek. She organised an elaborate party, with all sorts of tasty food and lots of Georgian wine. We re-arranged the girls’ dormitory to make it look festive and used every table in the building to make a long table in the centre of the room. Later, we hauled our mattresses up to the roof and slept outside, under the stars.

The vozhatie’s dormitory had some definite plumbing problems. I hope nobody minds that I remember this! For me, it was part of the adventure – but I was only there 2 weeks. Probably it was more annoying for everyone else. I remember the water only came out of the taps once in the mornings and once in the evenings. People would make sure to fill up all the buckets each day and we would use this stored water to make tea, wash hands, and flush the toilet. I loved the colourful labels that were on the bottles of Georgian wine we were drinking, and I remember soaking the labels off the bottles in the buckets of water, then drying them between the pages of my journal. People thought wine labels a fairly odd thing to collect, but I remember Sveta sending me some more labels, years later. Thinking back now, I’m not sure how hygienic it was to soak empty wine bottles in our water storage.

Hot water was more unpredictable. I learned that when someone yelled out “Goryachaya voda” (hot water) in the dormitory building, it was a cue for everyone to take advantage of the opportunity to have a hot shower. People would run into the corridors carrying towels, and head down to the basement showers. No-one could ever be sure how long the hot water would last. Goryachaya voda is Russian vocabulary that I learned in Artek, and that I have never forgotten!

Also ‘smyena’. It took me a long time to work out that there were two sitting sessions for each meal. I was supposed to know which smyena – first or second session – my group had been assigned each day. I didn’t understand this, and kept turning up whenever I was hungry. This meant that I was taking up a seat, and that someone who was supposed to be there didn’t get to sit down for their meal.

(Which reminds me – I also learned the word ‘poldnik’ (afternoon snack) at Artek. I loved poldnik – both the cuteness of the word, and what it meant. I can’t remember now what we used to eat, but I remember how nice it was to have a snack at that time of day).

Similarly, it was only at the end of my stay that I realised I was sleeping in someone else’s bed. That person had given up her bed to me, when I turned up at the camp all of a sudden, and was now sleeping somewhere else. That’s how welcoming and kind people were to me. I continually didn’t understand how the systems was supposed to work, and kept disrupting things. It must have been annoying for people, but no-one ever, ever let me know.

В Добрый Час, Друзья

By the end of my stay I felt like I had been drawn into an extended Artek family. When I continued my travels (to Kiev, and then to Lvov), the Kiparisny Camp Director arranged for me to stay with a former Kipirisny vozhaty, Katya. She and her family were so kind to me, welcoming me into their home and showing me their city. They then arranged for me to stay with their relatives in Lvov.

Director of Kiparisny Camp making a speech at the Farewell Concert

Director of Kiparisny Camp making a speech at the Farewell Concert

Because of Artek, I finally learned the irregular case endings for dyeti, children. S dyetymi, dlya dyetyei. And also for drug, friends. Druzya, s druzyami, dlya moyikh druzyei. These words were often needed, because I met lots of children, and I made lots of friends. At the final concert for that two-week holiday (the children arrived and left in 2-week batches) the vozhaty performed a song together – V Dobriy chas, Druzya (Good luck, friends). I think it was a popular song at the time, but not everyone knew the words. I remember one girl muttering the next set of lyrics at the end of each phrase for those of us that didn’t know the song, so that we could attempt to sing along. Nineteen years later, I can still remember the chorus.

Two decades later

Travelling to Artek and spending 2 weeks as a guest vozhatiye remains one of the most extraordinary things I’ve done in my life (and I’ve done a lot since then, working as a musician in post-war countries and using music as a tool for peace and recovery). When I meet Russians or people from the former Soviet Union, I delight in telling them, “I spent some time at Artek. Do you know Artek?” The older ones know the name, and are always impressed. The younger ones – well, maybe my pronunciation is bad, but when I asked my new Russian teacher (born in 1990) this question, he thought I was saying I’d been to the Arctic!

Thinking back to that time, nearly 20 years ago, we see how much has changed. In 1996, there was no internet. How did I even find out about Artek? Why was I so determined to go there myself? I was looking for adventure and unique experiences. I knew of its prestige and its history, and wanted to be part of something that had held such pride of place in the former Soviet system.

Artek seemed to me like this glorious social experiment of bringing diverse people together to relax, play, and learn. Because of its size, some people joked that it was another of the former Soviet Union’s autonomous republics. It had its own schools! And public transport system! But it also had, in my experience, a genuine openness to connecting diverse peoples, and exploring and celebrating all their common ground. Call it a multicultural policy, perhaps.

I still hope to go back. I loved Sveta’s descriptions of Artek at Christmas time, when it would still be 20 degrees each day, and the water would still be warm. I’m sure that I will go back one day (maybe for the 100th Birthday?), and when I do, I hope that the times will be more peaceful than they are now in that part of the world. It is devastating to read of the turmoil and suffering that has taken place in Eastern Ukraine and Crimea in recent times. But when I do return, I hope that Sveta and her friends will again take me to eat arbuz. We’ll dangle our feet in the fountain, share stories, and open ourselves to the different life experiences we all bring from opposite sides of the world, and be intrigued, inspired, and changed by each other once again.

New publication on Music Interventions

One of the reasons that I’m not blogging very often at the moment is that I am deeply immersed in my PhD research into music participation projects in conflict-affected areas. That means that I spend most of my days (and many of my evenings) reading, writing, coding, thinking, and then reading and writing some more. I spend much of my time crafting words, including for various scholarly publications – book chapters, journal articles, opinion pieces, and so on. Sadly, it doesn’t leave a lot of time for blogging, which often requires a very different headspace.

Therefore, I’m very happy to share the news that the first of the various book chapters and articles I’ve been working on alongside my PhD has been published. The chapter, Music Interventions: Shaping Music Participation in the Aftermath of Conflict, appears in this volume:

Yearbook Arts Education 3 cover

In it, I outline the broad intentions that underpin many music interventions in post-conflict and conflict-affected places, illustrating how this looks in practice with examples from the Afghanistan National Institute of Music and the Pavarotti Music Centre in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

This book, The Wisdom of the Many: Key Issues in Arts Education, was created through a very collaborative and democratic process.  The Editor, Shifra Schonmann, invited arts education academics and scholars from around the world – some extremely well-established, others like me in the early years of building their profile – to contribute succinct (2000 words) chapters on whatever we felt were the current emerging issues in research in arts education. Shifra used a ‘snowball’ technique for finding potential authors, asking the initial group of academics she approached to recommend a further five scholars each for inclusion. Each member of this expanded group then contributed a list of the critical current issues in arts education from their perspective. Later, we were asked to select one of these to write on.

The whole process took about eight months, from gathering the group of writers, to compiling the issues, proposing titles and circulating these, then writing the chapters, and reviewing each other’s work (which was a wonderful way of connecting with new scholars) – incredibly fast for an academic publication involving such a large group of writers (104)! Throughout, we were encouraged and guided by Shifra Schonmann, who deserves great accolades for the superb way she steered and maintained the publication’s steady progress, while keeping all of us so very involved throughout, and for the clarity and vision that conceived of the whole ‘crowd-sourced’, ’emergent’ publication in the first place. She really is quite a star!

Having read several of the chapters as part of the peer reviewing process, I can attest to the diverse array of issues covered (concerning music, art, visual arts and digital media, drama and theatre), and the great readability of the different chapters. If you are wanting to know what some of the ‘hot’ issues and emerging themes in arts education are in 2015-16, this book is going to be a great place to start. Click on the link below to see the Table of Contents:

Yearbook Arts Education 3 ToC

Then, head to Waxmann Publishers to purchase the e-book or paperback copy. Happy reading!

Adventures in trade and human niceness

In recent weeks I’ve discovered the thrill of Gumtree, our free local classifieds where people sell, swap or give away their unwanted stuff. It started when we decided to reorganise our home office – my study. I sold the loft bed I’d been working under for the last 3 years, and bought a sofa bed for those once-a-year guests to sleep on instead.

The loft-bed/home office

The loft-bed/home office

Within 24 hours of posting the loft bed advertisement on Gumtree, it was sold. The man who bought it drove 2 hours in a small hire car (because his ute was in for repairs) to see the bed and bought it on the spot, but then had to come back a week later to collect it. As I helped him and his wife carry the pieces of dismantled loft bed down to their car I learned that they’d spent years in the navy, something that was evidenced by the precise and exacting way they packed the pieces of that loft bed into their rented trailer like total pros. They worked it like a giant jigsaw puzzle. They were buying it for their eleven year old boy and told me he was beside himself with excitement about his new bed.

The topless chest-of-drawers

The topless chest-of-drawers

Reorganising the room got us reorganising the cupboards and we started finding things we no longer wanted. I advertised these on Gumtree for free. A student from Colombia snatched up a functional but unlovely chest of drawers missing its ‘top’. He said thank you when he saw the drawers, thank you again when I went downstairs with him to hold the security door open, again when I helped him manoeuvre the unit into the back of his tiny hatchback, and again when we closed the doors and he got back in his car. I responded to his thank yous by thanking him for taking the drawers away, which just goes to show what a mutually beneficial interaction giving away stuff can be.

Pretty vintage chair

Pretty vintage chair

Next I gave away a chair. “Pretty vintage chair, needs some work but will restore nicely” was how I advertised it. A girl named Renae answered the ad and her brother came by for the chair two days later. “Why did it catch your eye?” I asked him when I handed it over at the front door. “We’re moving house, and we’re short one chair for the dining table,” he replied. I wished him well with the house move and the dinner parties.

Vintage portable audio

Vintage portable audio

When we cleared out the spare room cupboards we found a stash of what I later advertised as ‘vintage portable audio’ – a Sanyo Walkman the size and weight of a small brick, a Sharp Minidisc recorder that was my pride and joy when I bought it in 1999, an iRiver mp3 player, a portable amplifier with built-in cassette player, and an assortment of random cables and ear buds. I priced it as a bundle for $20. The guy who bought it only wanted the iRiver, but took the whole box away. I told him I’d had quite a bit of interest in the Minidisc recorder as an individual item and that he should try and sell it on.

The biggest surprise has been the padded post bags. I had loads of these, plus mounds of bubble wrap. I’d kept all I’d ever been sent, assuming I’d be able to reuse it, but I obviously don’t send as much as I receive. I wasn’t convinced I could put them in the paper recycling, so, somewhat speculatively, I took a photo of the boxful, and posted it to the Free section of Gumtree. Three days later, a young guy named Abbas, starting up an online business, had dropped by to collect it. “What do you do?” he asked me from over the top of his box of packaging. “Buy books,” I confessed.

Random assortment of used packaging

Random assortment of used packaging

I’ve learned that Gumtree can get quite addictive. I remember my father buying the Trading Post every week, even though there was nothing in particular he needed. He just liked to read it. Read about the bargains. Gumtree works in similar ways – read it with a browsing mind and you’ll find all sorts of treasures. I found the new sofa bed on Gumtree, and also a wonderful hand-knotted Hali rug for our living room floor.  The couple that sold it to us were European, both artists, but with very distinctive aesthetic tastes. She was Scandinavian, he was Czech. He liked dark wood and Bohemia, she liked clean lines, white furnishing and Ikea. Despite living in a little Edwardian house with dark wood trims, Ikea and whiteness won, and the rug had to go. We rolled it up and put it in the back of our car, and celebrated with lunch at a nearby St Kilda café with a southside friend and a serendipitous car spot right by our outdoor sun-soaked table. It was a gorgeous Sunday afternoon’s activities.

Of course, it feels good to give things away, but what I’ve really enjoyed about these adventures in trade are the human interactions I’ve had. The small stories we have shared in these brief exchanges and transactions have given me glimpses into other people’s aspirations, strivings, and efforts to shape their lives, in the same way that the things I buy and get rid of reveal something of my own. And it has all been so friendly, so willing and open to trust. There was delight in the exchanges. They were short, to the point, but also incredibly affirming of the genuine niceness of most people.

(My sister has also been writing about Other People’s Stuff lately. Read her article in the Sydney Morning Herald here)

Video link – ‘Dr Sarmast’s Music School’

If you haven’t heard of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music before, then you might be interested to watch the 2012 documentary by Polly Watkins about the first two years of the school. It illustrates what an extraordinary undertaking the school was at the time, particularly in a climate that remained suspicious and often condemning of music and musicians.

Here is a trailer for the full-length documentary (which is available via iTunes):

But you can also follow this link to see a shorter version of the film screened by AL Jazeera.

It’s a truly wonderful film, very moving at times, and a testament to the persistence and courage that some people must sustain in order to follow their musical desires and dreams. I recommend it to you.

With students from the Afghanistan National Institute of Music in Dubai

In my last blog post I left you with a cliff-hanger – did the Afghanistan National Institute of Music students make it to Dubai for ChoirFest Middle East or not? Were their visas issued in time?

A very quiet aeroplane for my flight to Dubai

A very quiet aeroplane for my flight to Dubai

I arrived in Dubai to an email that said the group was still waiting on half the visas, and that if the remainder were not issued, then the group was unlikely to travel. I went to sleep feeling disappointed, and more than a little foolish to have travelled all that way and have the group not show.

I awoke in the morning to a new email – half the group had travelled to Dubai! Eleven students was enough for me to gather the data I hoped to gather, and so I was elated! No sign of jetlag – I was energised and ready to get started.

What followed was an intense three-day period of sticking closely to this group of bright and hard-working young people and their delightful teachers, chatting informally, and grabbing opportunities for interviews whenever I could. The group consisted of five instrumentalists in a traditional Afghan ensemble, and 6 singers. The group included two girls.

Lunchtime concert at the Spanish Steps, Dubai International Finance Centre, 12 March 2015 (G. Howell)

Lunchtime concert at the Spanish Steps, Dubai International Finance Centre, 12 March 2015 (G. Howell)

On Thursday the group performed in a lunchtime/early afternoon concert, and this was when we also got to meet and hear some of the other choirs participating in ChoirFest ME – the Tehran Choir, the Ensemble Vivace from Beirut, and Cadence, an a capella quartet from Toronto, who were the headline artists for the festival. Then we travelled by bus to the rehearsal/workshop venue to take part in two rehearsals and workshops.

Vocal workshop with local choirs

Vocal workshop with local choirs

At 6pm, the ANIM group went to Dubai Mall, where we saw the sights and ate some dinner. The ANIM students liked doing the same things that teenagers everywhere like to do – they wanted to check out phone accessories shops, and take photos of themselves in various groupings, in front of various backdrops. Not camera-shy at all!

The great highlight of Thursday was when Dr Sarmast, the school’s director, received a phone call saying that the remaining visas had been issued, and the second group of students – mostly girls from the orphanage with whom ANIM works in close partnership – would be travelling to Dubai the next day, arriving in time for the ChoirFest Gala concert. The group in the restaurant burst into joyous whoops, cheers, clapping, and dancing at this point. Witnessing their delight at the news was quite something. There are obviously very strong bonds between the students, and it must have been very stressful and upsetting for all of them to have half the group sent back home from the airport the previous day. They had prepared for this tour together – now they would get to perform together as planned.

Friday was taken up with more workshops and rehearsals, and an evening Gala concert. The second group of students arrived in the evening, to the delight and warm welcome of the rest of the group. Following the hugs and excited conversations, everyone assembled for a group photograph – the first of many for the whole group.

ANIM students Friday nightOn Saturday morning there was some free time, so we visited Jumeirah beach. None of the group swam, but they paddled up to their knees (some up to their thighs – who cares about wet clothes? They will dry!), played chasing games, wrote names in the sand, built sand castles that Dr Sarmast immediately trampled through, and generally hung out doing beachy things. And took photos.

The rest of the day was spent at the Kempinsky Palm Hotel, where the Choir of the Year competition was held. Rehearsal, sound-checking, hanging around, hanging out… and then performing. I will write a separate post about the whole ChoirFest ME experience.

The second great highlight of the trip was when the ANIM choir won the Best Regional Choir award! The whole group returned to the stage to receive the award. It was a wonderful recognition of all their work, and given the uncertainty of their travel, a particularly sweet success for them and everyone who had worked so hard to get them to Dubai.

Winners of 'Best Regional Choir' Award, ChoirFest ME 2015For my part, I felt privileged to be able to observe the group at work and play. Short of going to Afghanistan (which my university won’t let me do – which means that I wouldn’t be able to use any data I gathered there for my PhD dissertation), this was the best way for me to get to do this. I was also able to interview students about their experiences of being a music student in the midst of a war-affected and volatile environment, and many cultural barriers and obstacles. I chatted with them in English (with those that knew English), in Italian (some of the girls knew Italian), in Russian (one faculty member spoke Russian – mine was very rusty indeed, as I last spoke Russian about 20 years ago), and in Dari with the help of interpreters.

This fieldwork travel was supported by SEMPRE (the Society for Education, Music, and Psychology Research), who awarded me a Gerry Farrell Travelling Scholarship in 2014. I thank them most sincerely for making this travel possible and supporting my research in this way.

Fieldwork in Dubai

This morning I got on a plane to Dubai. I only booked the flight last night. I’m on a fieldwork trip but have no idea if the people I hope to interview and observe will actually be in Dubai or not. It’s nerve-wracking, this not-knowing, but also kind of thrilling to cross your fingers, jump on a plane, and take a punt that everything will work out fine.

My PhD research investigates people’s experiences of music learning in the aftermath of war and violent conflict. I embarked on it in 2013 and have loved every minute so far. I am focusing on music schools and other ‘organised’ or structured initiatives in conflict-affected settings, and I have three case studies – the Pavarotti Music Centre in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Hadahur Music School in Timor-Leste, and the Afghanistan National Institute of Music [ANIM]. The first two sites have been easy enough to visit in order to interview students and other participants and observers; however, organising fieldwork in Afghanistan has been challenging. The conflict has intensified and come closer to Kabul in the time since I started my research and my university hasn’t allowed me to travel there.

So why am I going to Dubai? The ANIM Choir has been invited to participate in a 5-day choir festival, called ChoirFest Middle East. Their participation has been on the cards for a while (I first learned of it at the end of January), but the bureaucratic hurdles that must be navigated to get the necessary Afghan government clearances for student travel are considerable, even when every department responds positively and efficiently. The first hurdle was getting government approval for the travel, which then enabled the process for getting their passports released to start. The passports were released mid last week, and that triggered the process of applying for visas to enter the United Arab Emirates. The students are scheduled to fly today (Wednesday) and the school expects the passports to be ready just a few hours before their flight would depart.

I had a choice – wait and find out if they get the visas or not (and risk missing their performance and other data-gathering opportunities, as well as risking flight availability), or fly without knowing for sure that they would travel.

Sometimes you just have to go with your gut. On this occasion, I felt like I’d been waiting on tenterhooks to confirm the travel for so many days, it was a relief just to go. But also, I figure that if I go, I will find something interesting, even if the ANIM group doesn’t arrive. The event itself sounds interesting. There will be choirs from other parts of the Middle East (Iran, Lebanon, and maybe even Iraq), and the organisers have been very welcoming of an outside researcher observing the events. I will be staying in the same hotel as all the visiting choirs, so there will be good opportunities for informal conversations and socialising. And I have a good feeling about the ANIM visas, indeed, I am optimistic! This is not their first international travel, nor their first visa application. My gut feeling is that all will be fine.

PS. I wrote this post while I was on the plane. It is now Thursday morning and I am enjoying my buffet breakfast at the hotel in Dubai. I now know whether the ANIM students made it to Dubai or not – but I like the idea of a cliff-hanger, so will keep you waiting until the next post!

Lots of writing, not much blogging

It’s that time of year again.

For many people it is a crazy time, filled with competing work and family demands. For me, there is some of that craziness, but mostly I am feeling the satisfaction of having got through a long period of competing deadlines relatively unscathed.

Over the last three months I’ve completed three book chapters, several conference abstracts, an article for The Conversation, and got to grips with two new software packages that (hopefully, in time) will yield tremendous productivity gains in this PhD adventure! Needless to say, it’s been a lot of screen time. Hence the silence on the blogging front.

I’ve been working on my Bosnia case study. Here’s a bit of a run-down:

For one of the book chapters, I explored an idea that I called “life-space” – the real and imagined boundaries of a quotidian lived experience, and the expansion/contraction of these. The war in Mostar contracted the life-space of many of its young citizens very dramatically. The way they described their experiences of playing and learning music at the Pavarotti Music Centre suggested that it had resulted in expansions of their life-space in a number of dimensions – physical/geographical, personal/emotional, and social. It was an interesting way to analyse the participants’ descriptions of their experiences.

I’ve also developed a framework for understanding the goals and intentions of many music interventions in conflict-affected settings. These kinds of projects are initiated in response to particular needs, such as the need to create dialogue towards conflict resolution or peacebuilding, the need for psychosocial healing, the need for positive and productive activities for young people to supplement limited education and employment opportunities, the need to ensure music education opportunities (either within formal schooling or in addition to it), or the need to address the destruction of cultural knowledge, taking strategic steps to nurture and regenerate it.

The other two chapters laid out this framework, explaining the contexts that lead to these areas becoming priorities, and the ways that music interventions can offer meaningful and purposeful responses. One of the chapters used the Pavarotti Music Centre as a case study, to see how these different goals and intentions are realised through community-based cultural action.

Relevant to my research, although somewhat peripheral, are discussions surrounding the next set of development goals, and so I’ve been following these fairy closely. The Millennium Development Goals have set the global development agenda since 2000, but they expire at the end of 2014, and a new set of what are called Sustainable Development Goals will be adopted by the United Nations Member States in September 2015. There is a lot of discussion and debate about what the SDGs should be (they will basically set the agenda for the next 15 years, and I added my voice to the argument for the inclusion of culture in an article for the online daily, The Conversation. You can read it here.

I was then invited to update the article for publication in the Media Asia Journal, and that print publication will come out in January, I believe.

This week, with the last of the book chapters at the final stages of editing (trying to get the word count down), I’m happily able to return my attention to my raw data. It feels like ages since I’ve been able ‘hang out’ in the transcripts, thinking and exploring, and following lines of thought that arise as I read and make links with the literature that I’m constantly exploring. What a luxury! I am a pig in s**t these days, as the saying goes.

So, lots of writing going on. Not as much playing and singing and just thinking in music as I’d like, so that is a balance I’d like redress next year. But coming up is my annual Christmas carol-singing party, so in the spirit of that, please enjoy this Christmas classic! Not quite a carol, but a number we’ll definitely be including this year.

Not as much blogging going on either. Thanks for hanging in there, subscribers! Back in the saddle now.


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