Evolving Pathways - Musical Journeys
"Music is, literally, the thing that keeps me going." Tom, aged 15
Music in Mind project aims to be young people led and reflect the interests, abilities and needs to the groups. There was a strong consensus that the projects needed to incorporate genres, instruments and technologies in which the young people were interested, although this in itself was not narrowly defined. Projects were also planned to incorporate self-expression, through being scaffolded to learn and play familiar and unfamiliar music in groups, and also for personal and collective self-expression through exploring and developing their own musical ideas, including song writing and lyric writing.In considering musical pathways, the following aims of this Music in Mind programme were central:
The outcomes sit well with the model of ‘Potential Outcomes of Music Education’ suggested by Hargreaves, Marshall and North (2003:160), whereby outcomes of a music education can be considered to be a combination of musical-artistic, personal and socio-cultural, all built around developing self identity.
This case study is concerned with participants’ developmental musical pathways, exploring potential factors which seem to help them to achieve, thrive and progress musically in the context of this work. At the outset, Music in Mind defined a set of commitments underpinning the programme. Specifically with reference to musical journeys:
The design of the projects and the outcomes show that all of these commitments were met in multiple ways through the projects to a greater or lesser extent. Arguably, there was only limited access to ‘varied cultural activities’ beyond the confines of the sessions but much evidence of the other commitments.
Flexible approaches; exploring participants’ own musical identities and interests was a central musical aspiration all of the projects. In some projects, participants and parents commented upon the flexibility in the approaches taken by tutors to meet these wide-ranging interests and expectations.
Being successful; meeting musical expectations and being successful musically (as defined through pride in outcomes and recognition from other people) were important to the young people.
Overcoming significant personal challenges; through the bespoke activities offered, there are some examples of participants overcoming significant personal challenges and barriers within these projects. Examples include: to join in with other people, to express themselves verbally or musically, to perform in front of the tutor, other participants, support staff and other audiences, and to feel that they could have an opinion. For some young people attending the sessions regularly, having the motivation to come, feeling able to express thoughts and feelings through music and conversation, and working collaboratively with others were just some of the significant personal challenges mentioned.
13-year old Charlotte was an in-patient at Chalkhill for a period of 5 months. She had previously taken piano lessons and sang but had stopped these a while before coming to Chalkhill. Initially she was reluctant to take part in the weekly music sessions but, over time, gained the confidence to sing and join in with the small group of young people who regularly attended the sessions. A real breakthrough for Charlotte came when she asked to sing a solo in a small concert for staff, carers and parents. Charlotte sang ‘The Power of Love’ accompanied by the Rhythmix tutor. From the positive reception to this, she became more confident and was the lead singer in the band for the final three months of her stay at Chalkhill.
Through gaining the respect of others in a group for their music and musicianship, some participants reported feeling more self-confidence and being more resilient. This is evident through many of the comments given by the young people and centre staff, and related to a variety of situations – for example, to be part of the group and overcoming anxiety and nerves in group situation and for others, through performing to an audience, having the confidence to express themselves through their music and to share their ideas with others.
Some of the tutors reported that giving responsibility for peer-teaching to some of the more experienced participants helped them socially and musically. Additionally, one tutor considered that giving participants roles and responsibilities with the bands was also a successful strategy to making some young people feel more involved and a way to distract some from feeling too self-conscious. There were also comments from staff and participants about the impactfulness of the peer-teaching relationships in raising self-esteem and self-confidence. Peer-teachers noted that the experience made them “feel useful” and also described their musical and communicative talents in positive terms, based on their ability to teach someone else to successfully do something.
Self-expression and ownership nurtured through safe spaces
Projects offered opportunities for participants to develop their own musical ‘voice’ –there was no one prescribed pathway or method for this to happen and tutors guided participants as appropriate. Most projects incorporated a variety of musical genres and a combination of playing in bands, learning instruments, music production and developing participants’ own musical ideas through song writing, rapping and lyric writing.
In groups where there was a regular ‘core’ of participants, some members became more confident at bringing in ideas and work from outside. There are also examples of young people using their musical lives from formal education settings, for example, one young person wanting to create a piece of music for her college ‘homework’ which the rest of the group helped to create and record, and many examples of personal choices of music being learnt as cover versions or as the basis for new or improvised material.
Encouraging participants to experiment musically happened once a safe environment for creativity and risk-taking was established. The ebb and flow of the musical activity, between playing as a band and creating their own music, related in part to the dynamic nature of the group with young people joining and leaving the centre and the group. This was skilfully negotiated by the tutors in some projects whilst trust and relationships were reframed with new members of the group. Exploring different ways of learning
Many of the young people expressed their gratitude for the opportunity to be part of the projects, sometimes contrasting the model of learning with that which they were familiar with outside of the project and reflecting upon this in a positive light.
There were many expressions of gratitude towards the tutors, expressing thanks for helping them to play instruments, work together, perform (even in the face of adversity and fear) and express themselves through the creation and recording of their own music. The inspiring musicianship of some of the tutors was highlighted, particularly those that changed seemingly seamlessly between music production, recording, playing and teaching a variety of instruments and helping participants to write and record their own songs.
Many young people talked about the importance of music in their lives and their affinity with and preferences for particular music. Participants who had been involved in Music in Mind projects over a number of weeks often noted the importance which they placed upon being part of the groups, sometimes describing themselves in terms related to “being a musician” (participant).
There are some very clear examples of music itself and the activities and focus within the sessions being extremely important to participants, with multiple statements from participants about how much they looked forward to the sessions, particularly within the residential setting. There are also examples of participants talking about how important music and the sessions were to them. These comments relate to the ownership of the music, the sense of being a performer and the ways in which other people view and react to them and their music, and the power of writing their own lyrics. In some of the feedback there is also acknowledgement of the therapeutic function of music and/or lyric writing, as a release, a voice and as a mood regulator.
One young person, who identifies as transgender, used the programme to explore their feelings during (and before) his transition. Simon was originally at Chalkhill for a period of time during the first year of the project and got involved in the sessions, writing his own songs and playing guitar, showing a keen interest in music. Around 12 months later, when he began transitioning, Simon was again admitted to Chalkhill for a further 6-month period before being moved at short notice to another residential facility for young people with acute mental health needs.
Rhythmix Tutor Jack Kingslake described Simon as “a very talented young musician who really knew his own mind – he’s a very prolific songwriter – a very shy creative genius- he spent time with me each week. It was very hard to suggest ideas to Simon as he knew his own mind and paid a lot of attention to detail, making very specific creative choices. He would walk in hidden behind the hair every week and then it is just that feeling that he is able to express himself in a really authentic way. He made an EP of three original songs which have been uploaded to share. Most other kids jam around on a fixed chord structure but his work is much more original and the entire point of reference seems to be Radiohead.” Feedback from the staff at the centre and from Simon point out the importance of music in his life, and how “he felt that music was the only thing that worked for him and he wished that the Rhythmix project was every day” (centre staff). As part of the work with Jack, Simon recorded a track for his Dad and gave it to him as a present on Father’s Day. Of this work, Simon said: “Thank you for encouraging me and recording my singing, I gave it to my dad for Father’s day and he was really proud of me”.Multiple ways of celebrating work; most projects offered variety and choice about the genres of music explored, whether the focus was on playing in bands, music production or a combination of both and leading to a range of ways of celebrating work, for example through producing CD’s, making informal digital recordings that participants could share as they wished and informal and formal live performances to a supportive audience.
Autonomy; having autonomy over the process was perceived as important; some of the tutors discussed how they nurtured and scaffolded young people perhaps more than the young people realised in order to make sure ownership remained with the young people and that they were successful in their musical endeavours.
“I really didn’t think I’d be able to make songs this good, but I really like how the recordings turned out, I listen to them all the time… I really like that we are allowed to just do our own music and no-one tells us what to do”- Kelly, aged 17
For the young people getting involved in these projects, there are many indications of the constant importance of music in their lives. Biographical details about the young people’s musical lives often included playing instruments, writing songs, producing and recording their own music before they got involved in Music in Mind. Given that many young people have a strong affiliation with music, whether or not they play musical instruments or use technologies on a regular basis, there is perhaps a case to be made for professionals who work regularly with young people with mental health needs be more aware of the existence and potential of this kind of work, and to signpost young people on their caseload towards such opportunities.
In cases where young people have connected with formal music education after leaving the projects, there are a number of factors which have facilitated this. These appear to be related to the growth of confidence and self-belief by the participants, which is facilitated by the support offered by professional relationships and bespoke engagement pathways. These are nurtured by a limited number of key individuals (including music tutors and others within the support setting) who build positive relationships within projects and settings and continue to provide support through major transition points. Working with the tutors also appears to provide the scaffolding for some young people to see their ‘future possible selves’ (using Hoyle and Sherrill’s 2006 definition), positively impacting behaviours and motivation, at least in the short term. This is certainly an area recommended for possible further investigation in the future.
The flexibility of tutors, as highly skilled musicians with a variety of talents as well as experienced in engaging a diverse group, is key to the success of this work. These characteristics, attitudes and behaviours were often noted by participants, parents and professional staff when present and also noted when they are not! Given the specialist needs of this particular group of young people, supporting new tutors to develop their skills both musically and as practitioners are equally important.