Archive for the ‘research’ Category

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The Galle Music Festival was an intense whirlwind of activity. For me it started with the “Inspiration” workshop that Sevalanka asked me to lead – this was a session for all the artists the day before the Festival, designed to welcome them and get them interacting and relaxing together. Some of them had been travelling many hours and Galle Music Festival would be their first major event. They were tired, very serious, and not sure what to expect from it all. But the games and creative tasks I introduced worked a treat, getting them singing, clapping, sharing rhythms, songs, and other musical ideas from their traditions and their imagination, as well as laughing and connecting with each other.

Then there were soundchecks for me to do. I’d spent the last few days observing a drumming collaboration between two all-female drumming groups (one from the North, one from the South), and I’d ended up being roped in to play as part of the act. That was enormous fun, and a very different way to connect with the musicians in the group than simply as an outside observer.

The Festival began with the Morning Program, held in a lovely market square in Galle where a weekly artisan market is held. Stalls were created for the different performing groups where they could display their instruments and costumes, and they gave informal performances in front of their stalls or on the small stage at one end of the market square. The Morning Program at the market had a lovely, chilled vibe, and I was happy to see that it also gave the musicians a chance to interact with each other a bit more, check out each other’s instruments, performances, and so on.

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It’s hard to see what is happening in this picture – but she is balancing her head-dress while crouching down to get eye level with the tomato. There is a NEEDLE stuck in the tomato. She then blinks the needle out with her EYE-LID! This was an uncomfortable trick to watch, didn’t look so comfortable to do either.

At the Festival I had two particular researcher tasks – I had a small team of volunteers to help me administer an Audience Survey, and I remained backstage throughout the evening concert to ask each group of performers to complete Performer Surveys. This meant that I was part of the energy and excitement of the performers, as they gathered at the side of the stage waiting for their turn, and afterwards, as they milled about, buzzing with adrenaline, but also (for many) rushing to get their equipment together and their costumes packed away in order to start their long journeys home as soon as possible.

I therefore never really got to see the Festival from the audience’s perspective. That night, it started raining heavily (in fact the rains that came continued unabated and were the cause of Sri Lanka’s devastating floods just a few days later), so the audience was mostly seated further back from the stage under weather-proof awnings. I wonder how it was for them, seeing these performers of diverse folk traditions, many of whom were only experienced in performing for rituals in their own communities? There was an impressive amount of elaboration. I loved these leopard costumes, from a folk theatre group from Mullaitivu District.

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Unfortunately I couldn’t get a photo where he turned to look directly at me – but you can get a sense of the detailed face-painting from this shot hopefully.

My role backstage, and following on from the ‘Inspiration’ workshop on Friday, enabled me to interact closely with all of these musicians. After attending my workshop, many of the artists greeted me warmly when they saw me backstage, wanted to chat and to have photos taken with me.

Some of the groups that I’d spent quite a lot of time with – like the all-girl drumming group from Kilinochchi – were particularly sad to say good-bye. One of the girls gave me her pottu (Tamil word for the forehead decoration). We’d first met about 7 weeks earlier, when I came to see one of their village performances and interviewed them about their experiences in the previous year’s festival.

GMF 2016 Me and Thappu girls

In the end, I had a satisfying amount of Audience Survey completions, and an even more pleasing number of Performer Surveys. My backstage pass for the Festival said “Researcher” on it, which was a definite highlight of my whole time in Sri Lanka! How many researchers can boast such Rock Star-like validation?

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Access all Areas: Researcher

The Paraiyers’ drums

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Another part of the Sri Lanka Norway Music Cooperation is the ‘village level performance’ program. Village-level performances give village elders that are custodians of rare and endangered folk forms (music, dance and theatre) support to put on a performance of their traditional work. Support can include funds to purchase instruments, for artist rehearsal time, to prepare costumes and props, and travel costs. This year, one of the village-level performances was in the Eastern province near the city of Batticaloa, and involved musician elders from four different villages.

The model that was used this year was particularly interesting. The musicians were all performers of the Parai drum tradition, which has for a long time been regarded as the instrument of the low-caste Paraiyers (see here for an interesting history of the Paraiyers). Because of this, members of the Paraiyer caste often reject this musical tradition, seeing the drum and its rhythms as markers of lowly status, and indeed, a marker of membership of that caste. Yet the musicians involved in this year’s village-level festival are adamant that the traditions and instruments should be preserved, and they have continued to play for rituals (usually funerals) despite the dismissive and often hostile responses from others in their community.

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Therefore, building up the status and importance of the parai drum, and recognizing the work of the elder musicians in preserving it was one objective of the village-level festival. The next objective was to increase knowledge of the drum and its rhythms among young students of Tamil music. The Swami Vipulananda Institute of Aesthetic Studies (SVIAS) at Eastern University was a co-presenter of the village-level festival, and arranged for the elder-musicians to rehearse at the university each day in the weeks leading up to the performance. Students and lecturers of Tamil drum and dance worked with them closely, studying the artform. They worked outdoors, under big trees with a circle of benches surrounding the rehearsal space.

Bringing it into the University was a new initiative for the Music Cooperation, but it served two purposes – of helping to preserve and celebrate the knowledge of the elder musicians by training the next generation of performers, and of sidestepping the hostility towards the Parai drum within the musicians’ own communities.

I was able to observe two days of rehearsals during my research trip to Batticaloa two weeks ago, and these photos are from that visit. I saw a fascinating level of exchange taking place between the elders, the students, and the lecturers. Sometimes it was hard to see who was the authority, or the director of the project. One of the students explained it to me this way:

The elders are the experts in how to play this drum. They know all the rhythms and techniques and forms, and the students are eager to learn this from them. However, they have only performed for village rituals up until now, and they are not experienced in creating a performance for the public. So the students and the lecturers are contributing those ideas.

It reminded me that finding the balance between support and instruction, agency and collaboration, the authority of knowledge and the authority of institutions, and when to be expert and when to step back and give space for the content to emerge and evolve, is complex, messy, and somewhat infinite and imperfect pursuit. This project was tackling these challenges in what seemed to me to be courageous and thoughtful ways. I’m sure they all learned a great deal, and for me, it was an intriguing and thought-provoking process to observe.

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Commonalities across boundaries

The two young women move swiftly and gracefully to the front of the stage, arms outstretched. In the centre of the stage a young man holds a stylized pose. He is supposed to hold a deep knee bend but it is his first time in this role, and the group’s esteemed director kindly, affectionately tells him he can use a chair for this first day. (Observation journal)

I spent the weekend with students from three Sri Lankan state universities – Eastern, Jaffna, and Peradeniya – as they prepare a performance act for the forthcoming Galle Music Festival. They are working under the direction of Dr Arunthathy Sri Ranganathan, and faculty members from their respective Performing Arts departments. The focus is on traditional music and dance, but Sri Lanka’s multi-ethnic population means that these traditions vary widely across the island. What’s more, with the three universities based in geographically distant and somewhat war-isolated areas (one in the North, one in the East – both areas were epicenters of the civil war that ended in 2009 – and one in the central, mountainous region), opportunities for cross-campus exchanges and collaborations are not in the usual course of student life.

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What’s been fascinating to observe this weekend are the points of commonality – social, cultural, and aesthetic – and how these are found and navigated.

The first point of commonality is the students’ shared love of music and dance, and Sri Lanka’s traditional folk forms in particular. If they weren’t interested in these, they wouldn’t be here, because the Galle Music Festival is primarily a festival of folk and traditional arts. (There’s a bit of fusion and rap going on to – but folk traditions are the foundation). The students from Jaffna and Eastern Universities are enrolled in Performing Arts degrees; the students from Peradeniya are members of the ‘Music Society’, a university-wide, student club for those with an interesting in performing music together.

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Another commonality is their age and stage in life – they are all university students, young people coming of age in a digital era with phones, photos, selfies and Facebook making up some of the artefacts and shareable commodities of their modern lives.

Finding a common language is more problematic. All of the students are being educated in Sinhala or Tamil at university. Some students can speak both Sinhala and English; some speak Tamil and English. A smaller number speak both Sinhala and Tamil (although most of this generation are across the basics of both languages, they tell me). Therefore, conversations happen in second or third languages, or with the help of mime and gesture and a lot of good-natured laughter.

Each of the groups was asked to prepare a musical number to contribute to the workshop. Some had prepared songs with instrumental accompaniment, others had songs only, others had dances.

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In the full workshop with Dr Sri Ranganathan, they each first presented the music they’d prepared. Dr Sri Ranganathan made notes, and then proposed a form that would flow from one song or dance to the next. As they worked through this proposed form, students were roped into different roles. Four girls from Eastern University who’d come along to the workshop as singers found themselves dancing alongside the dancers from Jaffna University, who instructed them in the steps. In the very vigorous and rousing ‘Kavedi’, all of the boys had to dance, with very physical choreography requiring lots of jumps and deep knee bends, and Cossack-style kicks while crouching low to the ground. Impressive – and demanding!

The students stayed in Colombo overnight, so I asked one of the Peradeniya students to keep an observation log of the interactions for me, as I’m interested in the ways that music collaborations can foster more positive intergroup group bonds and relations. She reported back to me the next day that in addition to lots of conversations in different languages, a highlight of the evening was an impromptu jam session, lasting into the wee small hours, when the instruments came out and everyone sang each other’s songs, played each other’s instruments, and generally just hung out and immersed in music the way music-loving young people do everywhere.

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The collaborations are one of the new programming strands in this year’s Galle Music Festival. Next week there will be workshops for the collaboration between two all-female drumming groups, one from the North, in the Kilinochchi area, and the other from the Academy of Music and Dance in Colombo. They will be joined by Sri Lanka’s premier women’s vocal ensemble – and possibly by me on clarinet, because the piece that is planned needs a Western melody instrument. It’s a bit of a departure from research observations, but what I love about my work is the constant interplay between music, ideas, collaborations, and intercultural learning. Whether I’m watching, writing or playing, that intersection is where the magic lies.

Music development as reconciliation?

I’ve clarified the shape of my research project this last week. After feeling initially stalled by the idea of examining music activities that were created as music development activities rather than peace and reconciliation activities using music (so many variables! so open-ended!), I came to realize that the question to be answered is about the relationship between music development (the strengthening and development of the skills of different sector actors) and peace and reconciliation in Sri Lanka. Are the music activities having an impact? If so, where, and how, and what are the indicators of this, according to the people taking part? How do these vary across different subgroups of participants?

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The connective logic or ‘theory of change’ that can be inferred from the activities goes something like this:

  • Sri Lanka’s music sector (including traditional arts practices and the local (professional) music industry) has suffered great damage through the three decades of war.
  • By building the capacity of musicians, supporting professionals (e.g. event organizers, audio engineers, lighting designers), and up-and-coming talents (through mechanisms such as performance opportunities, provision of resources such as instruments, training workshops, event experience, etc) you’ll raise the status of the music, and create more engaging and attractive gigs and events. You’ll also facilitate meeting, friendships, and potential collaborations between people of like minds, skills, and interests who have been divided through the recent war.
  • As the events become more professional, they will attract people from all cultural groups who will be attracted by the music on offer and to the idea of spending time in a safe, depoliticized space that facilitates meetings with people of other ethno-religious groups.
  • The performances of traditional music are also a platform for recognising all that is shared across the different cultures, as well as the value and interest of diversity. Performances and workshops are conceived as ‘culture learning’ platforms, where people can learn about other groups in a holistic way that encourages appreciation and engagement.
  • The combination of culture learning and meeting in depoliticized spaces, and the potential for new intergroup friendships and collaborations to be made mean that the Music Cooperation’s impact could also be considered in terms of building peace and reconciliation in Sri Lankan society. However, this potential outcome is somewhat speculative as it has not been sufficiently tested or scrutinised.

Initially I thought that the Contact Hypothesis (from Allport 1954, utilized by social psychologists frequently since then, and further developed through multiple iterations; Arild Bergh used it very effectively as an analysis tool in his 2010 thesis examining music and conflict transformation) would be a useful framework. Contact theory posits that mere contact is not sufficient for reducing prejudice. Certain conditions relating to the context of the contact act as ‘facilitating conditions’, so that mere contact becomes optimal contact. However, a drawback with contact theory is that, over time, the number of facilitating conditions has increased to the point where the actual contact experience bears little resemblance to the conditions that govern the more banal intergroup contacts that are likely to take place in everyday life.

Furthermore, definitions of ‘reconciliation’ and ‘peace’ are undoubtedly contested. People with vastly different lived realities (e.g. those living in the most war-affected locations, or belonging to minority groups) are likely to have differing ideas of what these ideals look like in their lived experience – so whose definition should be used when considering how the music activities have impacted peace and reconciliation in Sri Lanka? Grappling with these questions has led me to a research design that lets the research participants (performers in the annual festivals, primarily) define peace and reconciliation at the outset, and then invites them to explore how – if at all – their lived experience of intergroup interactions, co-existence, and cooperation might have changed through the Music Cooperation activities.

The goals of the research are pragmatic. I hope to identify the key mechanisms and indicators for whatever changes are reported, so that this can inform and shape monitoring and evaluation. There will be other outcomes as well – such as building the evidence base that informs the program logic or theory of change (we may find we need to modify it accordingly). Also, the design allows for unexpected outcomes – things that are not currently part of the picture, but that are of importance to the participants, and therefore could be considered in future Music Cooperation programming.

Meanwhile, Colombo remains hot, hot, hot. Sometimes, travelling home on the bus at the end of the day, I make a mental list of ‘essential’ things I need to buy from the supermarket, just so that I can go and stand in the icy coolness of the local Food City for a few minutes to cool down and just not feel hot. They tell me it is only going to get hotter, these next few months. It’s the best reason I can think of to never buy groceries in bulk.

References:
Allport, G.W., 1954. The nature of prejudice, Cambridge, Mass : Addison-Wesley Pub. Co
Bergh, Arild. (2010). I’d like to teach the world to sing: Music and conflict transformation. (PhD dissertation), University of Exeter.
Dixon, J., Durrheim, K. & Tredoux, C., 2005. Beyond the Optimal Contact Strategy: A Reality Check for the Contact Hypothesis. American Psychologist, 60(7), 697- 711.

 

 

New project – music and reconciliation in Sri Lanka

At the end of last year I was awarded one of the Australian Government’s Endeavour Research Fellowships to develop a research project examining music development activities as a vehicle for reconciliation in Sri Lanka. Fast forward a couple of months and here I am in Colombo, sitting in a small apartment in a seaside suburb, getting my research project off the ground.

I’ve been here a little more than a week now. In that time, I’ve stayed in a guest house in the seaside suburb of Mount Lavinia, flat-hunted in two different suburbs eventually moving into a flat in Dehiwala, jogged on the beach at sunrise several times, eaten different varieties of rice and curry on a daily basis, attended a Carnatic Music Festival and a performance by the Symphony Orchestra of Sri Lanka, and joined the masses at the February Full Moon Perahera (Procession) Gangaramaya Temple in central Colombo. I’ve also had long conversations with colleagues here, mapped my way through the different activities that make up the Sri Lanka Norway Music Cooperation [SLNMC], and begun to scope out what the research project should include.

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The Sri Lanka Norway Music Cooperation is, of course, the reason I’m here. It’s a partnership between Concerts Norway and Sevalanka Foundation in Sri Lanka that aims to revive and support traditional music practices, build practical and logistical skills among music industry professionals to raise standards of live performance (for example, supporting the skills development of audio and lighting personnel, music event management professionals, and field recording producers), and engage different sectors of society in music participation. The flagship events of the Music Cooperation are the Jaffna (in the north) and Galle (in the south) Music Festivals, held in either city in alternate years. The festivals attract tens of thousands of visitors, and gather together traditional and contemporary music performers from across the country. Other Music Cooperation activities include workshop programs in universities, a Children’s Festival, training for the next generation of folk musicians (i.e. children) to encourage them to feel proud and excited by the traditional instruments, music and dances of their local area and ethno-religious heritage, a radio program, development of a comprehensive online music archive, and partnerships with three national orchestras (symphony, youth, and oriental) based in Colombo.

So where do peace and reconciliation come into this program of music development? Anecdotally, in all sorts of ways – through the opportunities it provides for performers from around the country to be exposed to each other’s traditional practices and instruments, to present their music to diverse audiences, meet in safe, welcoming, and depoliticized spaces, and importantly, the chance to talk and potential form friendships and collaborations. For audiences, it is in the cultural learning, and the demystifying of the ‘other’ (for during the three decades of civil war, the northern and eastern parts of the country became increasingly cut off and isolated from the capital city, central, western, and southern provinces). The different activities have not necessarily been designed to explicitly address peace and reconciliation needs — they are music activities first and foremost, and they have broad appeal for this reason. But participants and organizers alike feel they have witnessed and experienced positive changes in intergroup relations during the 7 years (so far) that the Music Cooperation has run, and there is a pressing need to examine more critically what impacts the program may be having on reconciliation between country’s divided communities.

And that’s where I come in. My role is to document the changes taking place in peace and reconciliation outcomes, as experienced by participants and organisers across the range of SLNMC activities. I’ll be developing research tools to best capture these changes and also allow for unexpected changes and outcomes so that we get a multidimensional picture of the different ways these music activities may impact people’s lives. I’ll then write a report that can inform future NSLMC activities and establish the baseline for future program evaluations. I’ll be doing this alongside my PhD work which examines music schools in post-conflict countries. There are lots of contextual similarities but also anomalies, and I’m curious to see if and how the emergent themes from my PhD research might play out here.

That’s the broad brushstroke picture of what’s planned; we are now working to narrow down and tighten up the scope. I am only in Sri Lanka for three months (I’ll be doing the write-up in Norway when I am there end-May to mid-July). One very interesting development that I learned of this week is that the presentation I gave for Bangladesh Music Week (at the invitation of Concerts Norway) in November last year on music, human rights, and conflict resolution has inspired a group of students from the University of Peredeniya (Kandy) to initiate a research project on their Music Cooperation activities using Allport’s contact hypothesis as a framework (this was one of the theoretical frameworks I introduced in my presentation). Hopefully I’ll be able to work with them to shape this project and include it as a component of my research.

Gillian Howell presenting at Bangladesh Music Week - (c) 2015 Live Square All Rights Reserved

Gillian Howell presenting at Bangladesh Music Week – (c) 2015 Live Square All Rights Reserved

This is my first blog post in many months, and that is largely because life took so many unexpected turns for me in the last 6 months. Sitting here in my airy (but still hot) little apartment, ceiling fan spinning reassuringly overhead, hearing neighbours call to each other in the street below, my stomach full from the egg hopper with caramelised onion sambal I ate for my dinner, thinking about the project ahead, and the PhD, and the whirlwind of events that have made up my life over the last 6 months, I find I keep thinking, “Wow. What a life!” And what a privilege, to get to engage with things you really care about (music, and social justice) in such diverse and fascinating places. Here goes! More soon.

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?

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:

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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!

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.