Archive for the ‘leadership’ Tag

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.

“But I want it to be good!”

I was talking ‘community participation’ project design with one of my young music performance students recently, and brainstorming the possibility of his community project having a performance outcome as part of one of his own gigs. I was enthusing about the benefits of this kind of model – the boost to audience numbers and increased support for his music, the impact that a larger-scale number can have in a smaller band’s gig, and so on – but I could see he was wrestling with the idea. Eventually he raised his hands, shrugged, and said,

“Yeah, but I want it to be good!”

I was surprised – it hadn’t occurred to me that the outcome wouldn’t be good. “Surely that is up to you,” I countered. “You will have the musical challenge of working out what it is that this group will be able to do so that it does sound good – just as you would do for any group that you lead.”

So much of what takes place in a community music project (or a creative music project) is built upon the musicianship and communication skills of the musical leader. But you also have to believe in the group, and what is possible for them to achieve, why they might want to achieve it, and how to help them get there so that it is an enjoyable and satisfying experience.

One of the skills that comes with experience is knowing the right questions to ask, or what to give your attention to. Even very young children are capable of playing a sound all together, in perfect unison. It isn’t easy – it requires all of them to be giving the task all of their focus at the same time… but they can do it. The musical leader has to work out what will motivate them to do it – what questions, or what kind of environment you need to create for them to inspire that response.

Sometimes it comes down to time and space. If you have enough time you can give attention to everything that you want! It can be frustrating, as a project leader, to have to focus on some musical elements and not others, due to restrictions of time and space. However, this frustration is not exclusive to community settings – it is also the case with professional ensembles. They just get better at working quickly – there is a base level of competence that can be assumed so that attention can go straight to other areas.

I hope my student will just try it out. Perhaps a performance outcome is too risky an idea for him to take on at this time, but I hope he will gather a group of amateurs and start to lead them in some ensemble work. I have a feeling he will be pleasantly surprised by what they are capable of, and what he can facilitate with them.

Big events

I am writing this in Bologna, where I shall be for the next two weeks. More or less.

Prior to getting here, I finished a big project for the Orchestra. It was on Wednesday, a Leadership Training workshop for senior managers from the (apparently) 3rd largest organisations in the world. Corporate development projects have alwasy seemed to be me to be something that could utilise the skills musicians develop in the Community Outreach program well, that could also generate significant income for the program, and for the Orchestra. But this is the first time I have been given the opportunity to demonstrate this.

I shall be a bit cryptic here, for the sake of anonymity. But essentially, the project I devised involved a scaled-down version of one of the most loved orchestral classics, played by an ensemble of 16 players. One hundred and twenty-seven corporate senior managers were involved. They each had an instrument – piece of percussion, including a lot of tuned percussion, and a big range of serious drums. This was no Toy Symphony – it needed to sound good.

The corporates divided up into break-out groups to develop a short section of music using their percussion instruments, with one of the Orchestra musicians assigned to lead and support each group. When all the break-out groups came back together, they learned that all of their small-group pieces had actually been designed to be played together, they were all to become small cogs in part of a far bigger machine. They hadn’t been told this when they were composing their pieces.

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Today I was thinking about power in a workshop setting. Who has it, how it manifests itself.

The thought comes in response to something that happened in the first prison workshop, 2 days ago. We started with a briefing session for the creative team – just 15 minutes to gather everyone together and ensure we started with a shared brief or intention. I described my idea for the workshop – but made a quantum leap (as I tend to do) in which I forget to fill everyone in on my thinking that has led to this idea. In this case, I thought we were all clear that our ideal was for the workshop to flow without any obvious form, that we would be responsive to the group, and follow leads that came from the guys. Of course. But in addition, I knew that we would need a back-up, just in case everyone felt inhibited and nothing came from the group. The back-up idea was what I presented.

Basically, (it felt like) several people slammed my idea. Wham, down, just like that. Because they didn’t want us to have a plan, that the workshop should be responsive.  A surprising kind of keen-ness to assert themselves. Maybe we all have our own ambitions for this project (although the aims stated by all of them are more about building relationships and communication that artistic or content-driven aims. Perhaps they have them but are unaware of them.)

And I wondered if they realised how damaging that kind of blocking can be. We would never respond in such a way to one of the prisoners. Why would we do it to each other? Just as we want to bring out the best in the people we work with, don’t we want to bring it out in each other? And if not, isn’t that kind of patronising? To want it for the prisoners – why? Because we feel sorry for them? That’s not an attitude I have ever encouraged in this community outreach program for the orchestra. We go into projects first and foremost as collaborators, and we work with ‘the raw materials as they are on the day’. (That’s a mantra). Non-judging, trusting our own expertise to be able to make all things work, find the strongest music in everything.

In a classical music setting it is not so unusual to block the ideas of others. It is a harsh world. But as educators we know a lot these days about what creates ideal learning environments, and the security that people need to feel in order to offer forth their ideas. We need to practise these ideals in every learning environment we find ourselves in. Anytime we bring out the best in others, we create something better for ourselves.

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Being a dominant force

Tonight I had dinner with some of the musicians from AYO (Australian Youth Orchestra) and the Cat Empire who have been working together this week on a collaborative improvisation and performance project. I worked with the AYO musicians on Sunday, and they will give a concert tomorrow night.

I mentioned to one young cellist what a great contributor he was in a group situation. I had observed him being very generous in his offers, as well as good at responding to the ideas of others. He was dynamic and full of energy and fun – a good ‘engager’ – and he was often a catalyst for getting things moving in his composition groups. He thanked me, but went on to say that he knew that he needed to be careful not to dominate other people in these settings, that there were others who might not be putting forward ideas, because he was so immediately forthcoming.

I think about this situation a lot. Sometimes it seems wrong that those who are the bright, happy, uninhibited ones – who have so much to offer a group situation, especially when working in a new area or outside comfort zones – should need to tone themselves down in order to not overshadow other quieter people. It is as if they must somehow take responsibility for others being shyer or less forthcoming. This certainly can happen in schools (I have very clear memories of teachers telling me that I should offer fewer suggestions in group tasks, so that others could ‘have a turn’ – even though those others never seemed to offer anything anyway! The indignation I felt!). But is it right? At what point should people expect others to keep making space for them, in a creative situation?

Group dynamics are never straightforward, but good collaborations contain input from all sources present, I think. Everyone is changed in some way by the contributions of the others. There is richness in ensuring a breadth of contributions from which everyone benefits, and this is an argument for creating an environment in which all voices can be heard. However, some responsibility must also lie with individuals, to be brave about piping up, making offers, recognising when they are holding themselves back out of habit, or long-held behavior patterns. In an educational setting it is right to make allowance for people to some extent, but what is that extent in reality? Is it right that a bright young thing should be holding back his incredible stream of creative ideas, simply to not make others feel bad?

I don’t think so. I told him to be as bright and brilliant as he wanted to be. The world has far less to gain from his mediocrity than it has from his brilliance. He should see himself as an inspiration and a guide for others, rather than a dominant presence. He can offer an energy that is infectious, that will give confidence to others, and momentum to the group process – sometimes intangible to those taking part, but always invaluable.

How and why I do what I do…

My focus this week is on my own methodology as a music educator, and considering where my work sits within contemporary thinking about multi-literacies. It’s an interesting thing for me to navel-gaze in this way, because I have not studied a particular music education pedagogy, in fact I have not studied ‘education’ at all. My tertiary studies have been in the area of performance and communication skills, and it was within the latter that I gained my early experience in how to facilitate others’ involvement in authentic and high-quality music experiences.

So here are my early thoughts on the question of Just What It Is That I Do in planning and leading projects and tasks in a music classroom or music project.

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