Sharing our practice – The Songwriting Charity’s tips for successful projects with young people

Our latest guest blog is from Hub partner Ben O’Sullivan, who is based in Gloucestershire and is Director of Programmes at The Songwriting Charity. With funding from the Hub, Ben has been working with Balcarras and Winchcombe secondary schools to involve a range of young people in music making and develop their skills as vocal leaders through group singing and the building of a band. They’ve produced three fantastic videos – watch them below and then read Ben’s blog below.


The two programmes look and feel different, with Winchcombe’s focus being on instrument and vocal ensemble building (bands) and Balcarras on three-part harmony a cappella work – yet there are similarities to how they were achieved. So I thought it might be useful to identify some common elements that helped us on our way, and highlight some of the lessons learned.

The starting point for me would be to deliver with a sense of joy (even when it’s hard!) – but I guess that, as you’re reading this, you’ll already be enthusiastic about music leading, so that will be a given.

Another presumption of this blog is that you already have funds in place. When it comes to fundraising, that’s a whole other blog entry, but the principles of Youth Music’s outcomes approach is worth referencing. Almost all funders will want you to focus on what you can change, and Youth Music has a huge resource bank on how to go about this.

So, below is a list of fairly easy-to-implement building blocks that might help any project, especially when working in partnership. A lot of it will probably align well with what most think of as simply good teaching and learning practice across the curriculum and beyond, but as I come from a non-formal teaching background, I hope there might be some bits in here that all music leaders can take away and try elsewhere.

Assess need carefully

Engage the students in the planning at every stage. We worked closely with staff and students at both schools, including practical taster sessions and more cerebral student consultation, to understand the needs and wants of the young people. Giving time over to such activity is not always easy, but putting aside half a day in the initial stages (in our case, before we had any funding in place) is well worth it, as it includes students and partner schools in the decision making from the outset. Once they own it on that level, they are more likely to commit and ‘dig-deep’ when things get tough in the rehearsal room.

Establish roles

Straightforward this one, but crucial: establish the roles for leaders, young leaders and participants alike. Who’s doing the leading? Who’s planning next week’s session? Who’s uploading the homework to the VLE (Virtual Learning Environment)? It’s just so much easier to establish this early on. If roles need to change, either on an ad hoc basis or by way of a more permanent swap, this is fine, of course.

Find and create a reachable, exciting goal.

This can be a concert, a national or regional performance opportunity, or in our case a recording at a professional recording studio (Yellow Shark Studios in Cheltenham) or historic building (Postlip Hall). Again, best to include all students and staff in this discussion and decision. Be ambitious (within reason) and allow the goal to motivate everyone to help maintain a step-by-step approach to the teaching and learning. Meaning, don’t let it be a ‘be all and end all’. It’s something to aim for and can inspire learning in learners but don’t let it become a burden.

Maintain commitment

Setting expectations about what is required from students to confirm and maintain membership of the project is pretty key at the outset. Whether that’s drawing up expectations around attendance or commitment to work outside of the rehearsal room (both in these two recent projects), it’s important that the students get a sense of what is expected of them and can be called on to reflect if their commitment is waning. Beth Hayes, Head of Music at Balcarras made it very clear that 100% attendance was expected and that any absence will need to be authorised in advance. Beth also ensured all form tutors were aware of the club, and reminders were sent out each week. At Winchcombe, the groups were smaller so attendance issues were managed as and when they arose, as Head of Music Leah Turner had 3 hours direct contact with all the students as part of the 2-week timetable.

Evaluate

Plan an evaluation session before your sessions start, to baseline the students’ current ability and interest etc. In our case we base our bespoke evaluation for short programmes around the Youth Music evaluation. Valerie Warburton, our volunteer data expert then converts them into computer readable forms, and data entry (an absolute cinch compared to other systems we have used) is performed by our other wonderful volunteer, Meredith Miller over in Paulo Alto, California. You can see a video on how we evaluate one of our one day workshop programmes.

We used the themes built into the evaluation as a means for opening up discussion throughout the project, to ‘check-up’ how the students felt they were progressing. For example there are questions about energy and commitment, and we would share when we felt we were gaining or losing ground in respect of those areas of the programme in order to keep the intended outcomes of the project alive for the students. And of course, we evaluated at the end to see how the participants feel they have developed, including written feedback.

Mid-project commitment reviews

When you hit a bump in the road, it’s important to address it immediately: the longer you let negativity bumble along the more energy it can gather. Sometimes you won’t be aware that you’ve hit a bump though! So giving students and staff opportunities to give feedback throughout the project and in feedback/listening sessions is essential. In both of these projects a number of parents gave feedback part way through too, which was really valuable and if you can, it’s worth building this in to your mid-project reviews.

It’s important to remain flexible at this stage. There will be certain things that you can’t change, but be open to feedback. Sometimes simply airing a concern and having a listening session can really bring the group together and help everyone move forward with renewed optimism. Sometimes a prohibitive crease can be ironed out that you didn’t even know was there, by asking for feedback. When asking for feedback aim for the traditional ‘positive first, challenges after’ but be sure to look beneath the surface, and uncover the tricky things lurking that perhaps you really don’t want to hear.

It helps to ask for written feedback as well, as some are more confident pen to paper and others more confident verbally. Students may be happier to talk to their friends and other members of staff about issues rather than the session leader, so it’s important to maintain open communication, listen and be approachable so that you can pick up on what’s happening.

Content/repertoire

Always let the students choose what they will be performing. If they don’t agree as a group, chose something democratically. Make room to highlight the pros and cons of certain choices, so they can make an informed decision. Many educators disagree with letting students choose: they say it’s important to educate young people in music they may not otherwise experience. I agree that’s really important too. But this should be a decision that they are part of, so that they take ownership and are more likely to get involved with enthusiasm and so learn more. You could do this by suggesting that a new piece is introduced to the repertoire that contrasts with the last. Ask them to come up with suggestions but also to commission music department staff to go away and find such a piece that you all appraise as a group before agreeing.

Less is more

Be brave and limit your repertoire. Refining one song over six weeks is a test of anyone’s commitment, of course, but if you want it to be produced professionally and broadcast on the internet, it’s important to get it right. For these two programmes, we worked intensely on one song per ensemble. We made space for plenty of other sharings and workshoppings and, indeed, recordings of other songs within the sessions and in breaks, yet we were resolute in refining and polishing only the song that was in focus, to ensure quality. This was a specific approach we wanted to trial this time, and I am pleased we did, but it did take some soul searching when the going got tough.

Watch out for the weather!

Make sure wherever you’re planning to take your participants you ensure the weather is likely to be kind – or at least, be prepared! Postlip Hall is 600ft up a wind tunnel-esque valley, so when we planned to hold a recording there in March, we realised a wintery wash-out was as likely as a refreshing spring day. Once we clocked the possibility, we moved the recording day to April.

Permissions

When publishing to the web, especially with video, it’s really important to collect consent forms from parents. We managed to get them sent out well in advance for both projects this time, but you need to keep track of where they’re at to avoid a mad rush at the end.

Most of all – don’t panic and share the load

Don’t hold on to worries and concerns about the project. It’s important to share concerns and it always helps to chat through problems. Whether that’s with the students, the staff, the head of school or the funder. After all, we’re not trying to resolve a major international conflict, just helping young people nurture their musical instincts and ‘grow that little bit taller’. This may seem obvious, or inconsequential. But just as partnership is integral to Hub working at strategy and project level, it’s also important at a personal level. Relationships mean everything in partnership working – and building them properly through honest communication and mutual trust and support can help everyone involved, as well as modelling positive behaviours for young people.

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Posted on May 12, 2015, in Music Education, What's happening and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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