Archive for the ‘China’ Tag

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!

Community Music – on masters and other matters

Readers, you would be forgiven for thinking that my recent time in China was just one big bout of tourist dallying. But no, the ISME conferences I attended (the Community Music Activity Commission Seminar in Hangzhou and the Main Conference in Beijing) were full days, filled with ideas and discussions, papers and note-taking, and the excitement of being in China took up what little spare time was left.

But I’ve been processing and digesting all those ideas.The next few posts will look at some of the things that particularly caught my imagination, in relation to my current work and the work I am about to undertake in Timor-Leste.

The ‘master’ in Community Music

I started off in Hangzhou at the Community Music Activity Commission’s seminar. On the first day, several presentations looked at the way the music knowledge is transferred in community music settings, including wind bands in Bahia, Brazil, and the learning models of Capoeira Angola. Both presentations referred to the word ‘master’ (as in ‘master teacher’ or ‘band master’ or to be synonymous with ‘expert’). This opened up some interesting discussion on words like ‘master’, in particular when they are used in a community music context that may otherwise be intending to reduce or sidestep traditional hierarchical walls. “How can we ‘reload’ this term?” Lee Higgins (Boston University) asked. When does a word or notion like ‘master’ support the intentions of the work, and when could it (knowingly or unknowingly) undermine them? It bestows power upon an individual and power can be misused, so it is important to frame the word or establish its meaning in context.

Continue reading

A Chinese puzzle

Andy bought a bottle of some unknown alcoholic substance at considerable expense in a local shop. It was a stumpy ceramic bottle, kind of earthenware in appearance, and its glazed exterior covered the whole vessel, from top to bottom. No sign of a lid, or screwtop, or cork, or any such bourgeois convenience. When Andy first opened the decorative box it came packaged in, a cigarette lighter fell out. That should have been a clue to us, but it wasn’t. Various suggestions – “Maybe we’re supposed to bang it carefully on the edge of something, to break the ceramic top” – were proffered, and attempts at brute force were made at unscrewing the (imaginary) lid. Eventually three of us trooped downstairs to the hotel lobby to see if the Chinese bar staff had any ideas about how to open it.

Ceramic bottle, far left

Examining the artefact

Downstairs we found a bar tender who knew what to do. He got a cigarette lighter and heated up the base of the ceramic top (the point where you’d expect a screwtop to start).

Then he prised the top off with a bottle open, and, now that it was hot, it just cracked neatly and popped off.

Sadly, after all that trouble, it tasted rather vile.

Still, it is clearly a significant beverage here. As I wandered through the Airport Duty Free shops, awaiting my flight back home on Sunday, I saw several shelves worth of these ceramic bottles, all with the same ceramic tops. I just hope they contain some instructions in English for the unsuspecting visitors who might choose to buy based on its aesthetically-pleasing outward appearance alone.

Kampei! [Cheers!]

2 characters

Both these men caught my eye. The first was a busker I met on the street near Dongdan subway station, my first day in Beijing. I liked the enterprising way he was playing his harmonica into a megaphone. Very resourceful!

The second fellow was sitting on a chair outside the Ticket Office at the Great Wall section at Mutanyiu. He caught our attention because of the size of his pipe.

Banner count = 5

The ISME Community Music Activity Commission Seminar in Hangzhou was adorned with banners. We were greeted with banners at the hotel entrance:


Above the Registration Table in the foyer:


As a backdrop to the presentation space, which resembled a press conference on the first morning, as dignity after dignity gave a concise, celebratory speech about the Seminar and its significance and importance (I am still to source a photo of that particular event – I was too gob-smacked to think to photograph it myself. the one below is from Day Three of the Commission Seminar):


At the Welcome Banquet that was put on for us at the end of the first day of proceedings. This banner was particularly mind boggling as it was absolutely enormous. Containing the seminar logo and the words ‘Welcome Banquet’, it was clearly a single use banner. It served as a backdrop to the array of performing ensembles that graced the stage throughout the banquet evening. Again, I was too overwhelmed to remember to take photos – I will add this one when I get an image from someone else.

 We paid a visit to the local Community College, an excursion that lasted all of 20 minutes, but there was a large banner welcoming us to this place too. That one was up very high:


Five banners! All for us – a group of about 40 delegates from around the world. It was extraordinary – but also a demonstration of respect and honour, I guess, and for that I think we were all quite humbled.

 Indeed, we were hosted with such great consideration and care by our hosts the Open University of China and the local community college. The hotel where we stayed and where the conference was held was five-star and grand. In the conference room, we were provided with endless bottles of mineral water, and “bottomless green tea” which the staff would pour for us at regular intervals. Even better, each seating place included a rolled-up, cool damp flannel. Morning and afternoon tea included fruit, cakes, juice, tea and coffee, and the Hotel Buffet for breakfast, lunch and dinner included some freshly-cooked, on-request items.

 We were each met at the airport or railway station by a volunteer, and as mine explained to me, their role was to help us in whatever way we need. In my mind I began to push this idea along – were they like a personal assistant? Could I send young David (as he called himself in English) out to get a coffee for me? Probably not, but on the day of our excursion to the famed West Lake of Hangzhou, david came along and took me and some other companions on a different walking route around the lake, to the protestations of the main tour guide. And he helped me buy a silk scarf, bargaining the price down to half the original quoted price. I really appreciated his help and company – he was friendly and helpful, and very smart. Thank you David, if you are reading this.

 I’m sure we would all have been equally happy with less support if that had been what was offered (and as community musicians, that is probably what most of us are accustomed too!). But I loved that every trouble was taken to create a smoothly-flowing conference in which all our energy and attention could be turned to the papers and ideas themselves, because every other concern had been taken care of.

 Hangzhou is the main centre for silk production and garments in China, and each of us received a gift in our seminar showbags of a beautiful silk scarf. It was of very high quality – the fabric was soft and supple, the colours vibrant, and the edges hand-finished. This is how I wore it on the day of my presentation: