Things I learned

I’m at a transition point at the moment. In less than a month I will be starting on the Nordoff Robbins Master of Music Therapy degree programme, and yesterday I said goodbye to one of the groups I’ve been working with for a while. I thought it was a good time to look back over my notes and see if I can share with you some of the things I’ve noticed along the way. Some of these things may seem really obvious, but it’s a useful thing to go back and remember what it was like to be a learner – we go from being unconsciously incompetent, to consciously incompetent, to consciously competent, to unconsciously competent… as I’m about to be a novice again, I want to remind myself what it was like.

(in no particular order) Things I learned – taken from reflections of various groups:

  • always do a proper introduction with a new group – find out about people before I start
  • don’t make assumptions about people’s abilities – if people don’t join in it’s not always because they can’t but more likely because they don’t want to
  • learn to ask the right questions about a group – what a worker considers to be a homogenous group doesn’t always turn out to be
  • stick with your plan – sometimes I panic and abandon my plan when there really is no need, and when the plan would work better than off-the-cuff winging-it. Don’t panic!
  • be confident – some groups sense weakness or interpret gentleness and sensitivity as weakness
  • be brave and talk directly to everyone, even those who seem uncommunicative
  • don’t give in to people’s every whim “can’t we sing something we know?” – community music is about challenge as well as nurture – take what people say on board, but don’t be afraid to stick to your guns.
  • Explaining the rationale for things can help build rapport, trust and relationship
  • spend time working for longer on one song – people feel they’ve achieved more
  • contrast of pace, and particularly rhythmic contrast helps keep focus and interest
  • small, but challenging changes help everyone to engage and take responsibility for their music-making- partner songs, changing the words of a familiar tune, 2-part sections to a song
  • giving people some free choice over words eg “If I knew you were coming I’d’ve…..” is positive – people like to be asked.
  • Hey Ungua (from Voiceworks) is a brilliant song – rousing, rooted, stirring etc. more songs with this kind of energy
  • working at something hard can help build people’s confidence – I can achieve
  • building ‘theme songs’ into the repertoire from an early stage pays off later as we dropped the hard piece and finished with something we all knew.
  • Sometimes when working with people with memory problems they will need reminding to use their percussion instruments
  • where musical achievement might be limited (ie. not singing anything complicated), concentrate on other aspects more, for example, helping everyone engage with each other.
  • Not joining in doesn’t always mean the person isn’t enjoying it – sometimes people sit and nod along to a song they know and find enjoyment and calm through it.
  • small groups: important to boost confidence and be positive about small numbers as often people are negative about small numbers
  • when working with smaller groups, familiar repertoire works well as a confidence-booster, but don’t be afraid to work in new repertoire
  • during a session with one ‘disruptive’ client, the whole group became louder – in an effort to cover her up? it was important during this session to keep the thread going, moving the whole group along – which was difficult because usually the group prefer something more relaxed with more opportunity for informal discussion between songs.
  • Gradually putting up the pitch of songs helps people explore different parts of their range – and gradually higher notes will become easier
  • If someone suggests a song you don’t know, invite them to sing it to you, it might get the whole group singing
  • Using actions can help people join in in different ways, and it can help people learn the words to new songs
  • building songs up gradually (patiently!) over a number of weeks can pay off.
  • keep the pace going, even in more informal groups – important to keep underlying thread moving through sessions, whatever the facilitation approach
  • When explaining a more complex activity it can be beneficial to break down the different parts of the exercise into little bits, and not refer to the next section until the previous section is achieved.
  • amongst your volunteers, carers and workers, know who you can lean on to sustain a part, and who you can’t!
  • If someone interrupts you mid-explanation/demonstration, don’t get too drawn into what they are saying – it might feel like you are ignoring them, but you have a whole group to facilitate.
  • simple and up-beat songs work wonderfully in mental health groups – find a stack to keep up your sleeve.
  • short and engaging songs and exercises also capture imagination and engage when attention spans are short
  • use the warm-up to help people improve skills
  • warm-up also useful time to introduce facilitation style and to get everyone’s attention – start with activity everyone can do, even if they are still talking, eg. rubbing hands together
  • if people join a group late, ask them to introduce themselves so they feel included
  • be decisive – as a leader everyone’s waiting for you to decide how many times? how many parts? how fast? how high? etc – if people don’t like it, they will usually tell you
  • reassure people that if something ‘goes wrong’ it doesn’t matter – it’s not like spilling paint, just making a few air molecules bounce around.
  • When teaching a new song, make it very clear by pointing at yourself, then at the group to indicate when they should listen and when they should sing
  • it’s important to find ways of drawing people into a group – offering an instrument, asking someone to choose a song etc
  • the expectation when there is ‘disruptive behaviour’ is to carry on – but is this always right? Know the purpose of your group – is it for self-expression? building confidence? helping people socialise and find a role within a group?
  • Make sure the room size suits the group size
  • singing together should be fun and joyful – if it feels like a chore, something is wrong – and sometimes as a practitioner you may feel like you are repeating yourself if you are working with multiple similar groups.
  • Don’t be afraid to challenge people with the unexpected – get the nurture/challenge balance right
  • repeating some songs within a group can be beneficial for confidence and enjoyment
  • if you give people percussion instruments they will use them – give instructions before the noise kicks off!
  • unaccompanied singing is often more satisfying than accompanied because participants can really hear what’s going on
  • sticking to the plan can work – so can abandoning it! First rule of group work: write a plan. Second rule of group work: tear it up!
  • Having a ‘too-big’ plan can work because it means I’m prepared to go with whatever is on it, but it gives me the options to choose something that is most suitable for the group.
  • choose some short activities for people to join in with, or ignore and join in with the next activity
  • Gradually building things up – pulling everything apart (rhythm, notes, words) and then putting together to form a whole
  • make sure everything is printed good and BIG
  • Often a group wants to make their existing sound better and work in the middle of their ability rather than pushing the limit

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