Archive for the ‘music therapy’ Tag

Hang-out time

This post is about labels in the world of music work, and about the importance of hanging out in projects. It is inspired by some ‘hang-out time’ I got to enjoy with a new colleague last Friday evening. We had one of those marvellously unrestrained, freewheeling, fast-talking conversations that two like minds meeting for the first time can have.

'Hang out time' (G. Howell)

Lucy B is a music therapist, but more than that, she is a music worker. This was one of our topics of conversation – how the labels that get applied to different roles in a musical life that a leader or facilitator may play aren’t always the right fit. In Lucy’s musical world (and in her PhD research), her work fits into the Community Music Therapy category, but at the same time, she says, it’s not always a very useful term. She works with groups, building collaborations and getting music happening within groups and for individuals. It’s not necessarily therapy, even though there may be strong therapeutic outcomes. She likes the more encompassing term Music Worker (which I like because it fits with the name of my blog :-)), likening it to a case worker who might employ a wide range of approaches in their work with a client, with the needs of the client being the primary decider, rather than the therapeutic label that needs to be applied.

Labels can be frustrating to navigate, especially when your work sits on the boundaries between other more established disciplines. When I was a student at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in the 1990s, I asked one of my tutors in the Performance and Communication Skills course how he described his work to other people. I loved his answer, and I’ve used it for myself ever since. He said,

I just call myself a musician. You know, musicians do a lot of different things – some days they will be playing and performing. Some days they will be teaching, passing on specific musical and technical knowledge to other learners. Some days they will writing and composing new material, and recording it. They will be collaborating and interacting with other musicians during all of these tasks. And that’s what I do, and some of my interactions are with young people, in schools and communities. But we are collaborating… composing… performing… It is the same set of tasks, just differentiated by degree. Other interactions will be with my musical peers. Other times again, I may be positioned as the learner. That’s what we musicians do, that’s what being engaged in the art of music everyday involves.

Back to my conversation with Lucy B. We talked about her PhD research, which I was interested in because it is partly set in a developing country, so some of the questions she is asking about music projects in that context are similar to the questions I am asking about music initiatives in post-conflict countries. Lucy’s primary interest is in collaboration, and in developing a clearer epistemology of what collaboration entails in some of the complex environments in which she is working. One of the ideas that has crystallised for her is the importance of what she calls ‘hang-out time’. This is the time that you spend just hanging out with a group, getting to know them, observing how they interact and what they respond to with each other, what they might need from a new person, before you go in and get started with your workshop or therapy program.

The idea of building ‘hang-out time’ into a project appeals to me immensely. But I wondered aloud, who (as in, which organisations or host organisations) would be prepared to pay for this? I am used to my employers wanting all the time they pay me for to be workshop time. The more days a project runs for, the more expensive it is, so there is a general enthusiasm for getting workshops started on the first day of contact. Lucy suggested that the idea of something like ‘hang-out time’ first needs to get established and understood as valuable. Having a name for this stage in a collaboration, and being able to assert its importance in meeting the aims of the project, is the first step. She said, “It’s like planning time. It’s not that long ago that no-one ever wanted to pay for planning time. Ditto with travel time. But now those things are accepted and understood to be necessary and important parts of the work. So let’s create the language, and then the understanding and acceptance will follow.”

Lucy’s at the writing-up stage of her PhD, submitting very soon. Hopefully there’ll soon be many opportunities to read more of her ideas in other publications. And here’s to more hang-out time for all of us (in projects and in life).

Reflecting on the Pavarotti Music Centre

This week I have been reading about arts initiatives in post-war Bosnia-Herzegovina, and about the work of the Pavarotti Music Centre [PMC] more specifically. I have a personal connection with the PMC, as I worked there as a volunteer music leader for most of 1998. Reading about Bosnia-Herzegovina in that post-war era is bringing back lots of memories for me and I find I am frequently going off into very vivid recollections of different events from the time that I was there. These recollections have also infiltrated my dreams. It is a surprisingly intense process at the moment.


It’s interesting that much that is written about the PMC focuses on the music therapy program. This was the strand of work that had funding for the longest time, and perhaps that is the reason it is (more) well-documented; however, my primary interest is in the strands of work that I was part of – the outreach work in local schools and refugee camps, and the workshops and classes that took place in the centre and were open to all local people.

(Another reason for this difference in documentation and analysis may be because music therapy is well-established as a research field, whereas the practitioners in the outreach and community programs came from a far more varied range of disciplines and academic experiences. Furthermore, scholarly writing about community music is a comparatively nascent field. These programs were in operation in the late 1990s, a time when practitioner-led writing about community music work was only just cranking into gear, and was still very localised to the UK. Let’s face it, the vast majority of community music practitioners were at that time, and still are, freelance artists, dependent on generating paid work to make a living. The time to sit down and write reflectively for scholarly publications was a luxury that most did not have).

There is criticism of the PMC that is emerging fairly quickly in my investigations. The Pavarotti Music Centre was a bold and ambitious operation, with a huge budget and a lot of very high-profile support. In 2001, news broke of a corruption and bribery scandal which forced one of the founders of War Child (the NGO behind the PMC development and programming) and another consultant to step down from their positions, and a new Board of Directors to be appointed.   This quote from Haskell’s (2011) dissertation, “Aiding harmony? Culture as a tool in post-conflict Sarajevo” reflects the very damaging state of affairs:

Millions of euros were donated, through the organization War Child, and then lost or stolen. The [Pavarotti Music] center’s inability to function after such large-scale investment remains a stain on Bosnia’s donor history and tarnishes future foreign investment into the cultural realm.”

Haskell’s writing on post-war Sarajevo is hugely illuminating, and I am devouring it as fast as I can. The corruption and misappropriation of funds at the Pavarotti Music Centre is definitely an important part of the story (as are the power issues at play that enabled it to happen, and are such a dominant part of cultural regeneration in post-conflict settings), but I believe there was also a huge amount of good work that the PMC did, that made a difference to the lives of those young people taking part. There is much to examine and this is why the Pavarotti Music Centre is a definite case study for me.

Reference mentioned in this post:
Haskell, E. N. (2011). Aiding Harmony? Culture as a tool in post-conflict Sarajevo. Unpublished PhD thesis. Brown University.

A strong start

In writing this blog I’ve been reflecting on what it is I do when I teach music to ESL children, and generate music compositions with them. Up until this term, these reflections have been specific to the Language School setting that I’ve been in since 2005. The blog has helped me identify some of the key strategies and approaches I use, and I am gradually working these into a more defined pedagogy, that will be the subject of some of my forthcoming research papers. Now that I am also working at Pelican Primary School, where the majority of children are ESL, but not/no longer newly arrived, I’m starting to compare the modifications I make to my approach between the two different sites. Over the next few months I plan to start defining those elements of the pedagogy that remain the same across both sites, and those that I can change.

Some key differences between the Language School and Pelican PS:

  • Language School has smaller classes
  • Language School lessons go for twice the amount of time each week (double periods instead of single periods)
  • Language School teachers (generally) play a more active role in the music classes, and more follow-up work takes place between lessons (this may chance at Pelican, as I am still establishing my relationships with the teachers there).
  • Pelican students have way more English! I talk more there, and give more explicit descriptions and explanations with some things.

This week, I identified one key part of my approach that doesn’t change from school to school. That is the importance of a strong start. The Strong Start is about the lesson having a clear beginning, where the whole group gathers together, and the musical environment is created. At the same time, hopefully, a safe and supportive environment is also created, so that people’s creative and imaginative contributions are encouraged and endorsed by the group.

Music therapists also use this technique. I’ve heard it described as a kind of ‘frame’ for the lesson. MTs will often start the session exactly the same way each week, so that the opening activity (a song, maybe a game or another particular activity or task) acts as a kind of ‘cue’ for the participants: “now we’re in music… now I am engaging my music self… etc”.

The importance that this kind of stablising routine has for me as a music teacher was highlighted this week with one of the classes at Pelican. One of the teachers asked, when she brought her class down to music, (a prep class, in the last period of the day), if they could complete something they hadn’t yet had time to do, that needed to be done that day. Wanting to be flexible and easy to work with, I agreed. But the thing she wanted to do involved one child talking through some work she had done, answering the teachers questions while the other children listened. Unsurprisingly (for this time of day, and, I suspect, because we were in the music room environment) the other children didn’t listen very well, and got pretty restless.

The same teacher gave out fruit to all her students at the start of the music lesson. They had been out of school on an excursion all day and probably needed the snack to keep them going, but it meant that their hands and mouths were completely occupied for the first fifteen minutes of the music lesson, so there wasn’t really anything I could do with them!

In both of these lessons, the strange, unclear, unstructured start to the music period meant that the children’s focus dissipated, and I never got it back. I realised this week how important it is that I recognise the way the Strong Start to the lesson ensures some good work gets done, that the same starting activity, if undertaken sometime into the lesson period, won’t work to pull together their focus.

This isn’t a criticism of the teacher, more a note to self about recognising the strategies I have in place that are essential, that lead to my lessons being effective, fun and smooth-running. The strong start to lessons is one of these, and is a constant in all the lessons and workshops I run, with all groups.

(This earlier post lists the many disciplines and approaches that have had a strong influence on my music pedagogy).

Finish line in sight

I finished my Lit Review chapter last night. I now have just my Discussion/Conclusions chapter (or chapters – not sure how it will pan out) to write, and my Introduction. It’s quite a relief to get this close!

The Discussion points are interesting. Here are some of the things I think I’ll be writing about:


The instruments are clearly a point of focus for the students. They nominate them without hesitation as the thing they like best about music. One child uses the words ‘music’ and ‘instruments’ interchangeably – which might be an issue of language (perhaps the two words are the same in her language) or it might suggest something about what she thinks ‘music’ (the subject at school) means and entails.

Why are the instruments such an obvious highlight? Is it because they are tangible, physical things (we don’t use books or much other equipment in music)? Is it because they allow a tactile experience, and require use of kinetic energy? Is it the sound of certain instruments that attracts the students (they each nominate they same two instruments as their favourites)? Do the sounds comfort and nurture the players, or offer an important emotional release? Is it something to do with their novelty – perhaps these students haven’t seen instruments like these in their countries of origin? Does that novelty suggest a quality of abundance, richness and luxury in Australia that was not present in their countries of origin? Is it to do with the suggestibility of the instruments – that you can see straight away how to play them? Their accessibility? Is it because everyone in the class always has something to play, and that there is a wide range of sounds, from all around the world, to choose from?

To answer this I’ll be looking at some music therapy sources, to see what they have to say about the qualities and appropriateness of different instruments.

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More thoughts on my teaching methodology

As I started planning the next term at the Language School I began to make a list of  some of the key principles I keep in mind when working in this environment. It is starting to look a bit like a methodology description… nearly. Here goes:

Things I learned from my research project in 07:

  • Repetition builds confidence. It gives the students time to become familiar with a task, and then to build skills. Create a warm-up sequence for each group and repeat this at the start of each lesson for about 4 weeks.
  • Lots of the children can only copy. They simply don’t have the language skills yet to understand any explanations. Therefore everything we do in music class should be do-able simply by joining in what the other kids do. Music is ideal for this.
  • Syllable awareness is a challenge for many of the students (and a significant step towards literacy as well as oral fluency), therefore a challenge worth pursuing. It is also an ideal, self-evident compositional tool. It is good to work in both directions (the rhythm of words becoming music; setting music to the rhythm of words) – this is one of the ways I work with text from books, for example.
  • Establish with the group the important skills for music work – Good Looking, Good Listening, and Good Waiting. And Working Together. I use these phrases to reinforce the ideas to the students in every lesson. The language is simple and familiar. I can add the gesture of pointing to my eye/ear to further illustrate the meaning for the newest students.  I make a point of praising students who demonstrate these skills – this gives me a further chance to use the phrases and increase their familiarity.
  • Keep the mood light and happy. School is hard work for these students – they are navigating and negotiating a lot of unfamiliar territory, all in a new language. Music should be fun, a time for everyone to feel good. Use light-hearted questions to refocus attention (eg. “Who is the teacher?” and “It’s Eric’s turn. Who is Eric?” are some tactics I use).

Ideas from music therapy:

  • The role and use of a consistent ‘framing’ song (ie. a song or chant that always starts/finishes the lesson, and frames it in the children’s minds so that they come to recognise this space as a safe/creative/non-judging space).
  • Using the idea of entrainment – matching the ‘tempo’ of the group’s energy with a task, game or song, and then moving it one notch at a time towards the energy level you need them to be at for the main body of the lesson.

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