Participatory Arts – Capturing The Learning, A Response From Laura Bradshaw, Community Musician, Composer/Performer.

In response to the lockdown triggered by COVID-19, many arts organisations have taken their work online, sharing content for audiences to view for free. However, creating participatory engagement online is much more challenging and, as a sector used to being face to face with people in their practice, it’s clear that the current restrictions change the nature of participatory arts based activity substantially.

Following a vital conversation on social media led by Guy O’Donnell, Learning and Participation Producer, National Dance Company Wales which opened a discussion on how we can deliver participatory arts effectively, a range of partners are collaborating to lead Zoom discussions for the sector where we can talk about the impact of the lockdown on our work and work creatively together to think beyond the lockdown.

In partnership with ArtWorks Cymru a series of free Zoom meetings have been set up to discuss and share current working practices in participatory delivery.

Capturing the Learning

These Zoom meetings will explore how we capture the learning from organisations and artists who are currently delivering projects. We’ll explore what methods are working well, what are we learning through this experience, and how we are adapting our working practices.

Community Musician, Composer/Performer Laura Bradshaw will be speaking at the meeting organised by Tanio on June the 11th. The meetings are free to attend but numbers are limited. Laura gives an overview of the challenges and solutions she has created to support the public to access her services in the current climate.

Hi can you tell me a little about yourself and your practice?

Hi, My practice is as a community musician and a composer/ performer. I’ve been working with the general public, as well as with specific potentially marginalised groups using music and singing workshops as a vehicle for creativity and skill building.

The amazing and very clear bi products of participation in such activities being that of community building/ confidence and cohesion  as well as mental and physical wellbeing for participants. I’ve been following this vocation for for almost 30 years. My own performance and composition skills feed quite naturally into the workshop setting.

Writing this in the knowledge of the terrible racist killing of George Floyd in USA as well as the fact that it has been confirmed that BAME people are far more likely to die of corona virus than white people show that we have a long way to go in our endeavors for community cohesion and equality in the world in general and so the I feel that the role of the community musician or community arts worker is more crucial than ever!

What challenges did lockdown present to delivery of your participatory practice?

I had actually delivered a workshop on the Monday just before the Tuesday lockdown,  there was a sense of shock at the realisation. Also performed a joint gig on the Saturday at Cardiff library with Bread and Roses(the vocal trio I sing in with Frankie Armstrong and Pauline Downas well as Oasis World Choir and Band, for international women’s day.

The immediate challenge many of us faced was that our careers – communities had come to a standstill. Firstly, and selfishly, the fact that there would be no possible income – I am freelance and if I don’t turn up to a workshop then I don’t get paid – this appeared to be the scenario at first under lockdown. Secondly a panic about all the regular people I interact with weekly through my choirs – many of whom are vulnerable mentally and physically and the lack of connection with others and the lack of participation with their favoured activity, could be a grave addition to their worries. It was almost too much to comprehend, so I found myself in a bit of a state of ‘red alert’ trying to find out ways to protect both my income stream, and maintain my workshop offerings to those who’d most appreciate them at this difficult time. The research I did was constantly engaging with one of the professional bodies I am a member of Natural Voice Network on their social media as fellow tutors helped (and continue to help) each other out with constant questions, ideas and inspiration. I am also a trustee of the NVN and there were constant discussions going on between board members but how best to support practitioners.

What systems did you put in place to ensure delivery?

I managed to get up and running in a basic way with Zoom on the free program for the first week – allowing each meeting of 40 mins then cutting out. Also an addition to the stress but by going through this it proved that the online delivery of the workshops could somehow work. So I bought the pro Zoom package allowing unlimited meeting time.

The next challenge was audio. Doing music on this platform was a huge challenge at first, as  it gradually dawned on me that there is no way on earth (as of yet) to make the live sound sinc up between all the users/ participants, so myself, as leader, would be leading a song or activity and participants were thinking they were singing with me when my reality was a lot of delay of varying lengths between all the participants – this they also experienced. To this day I don’t like ‘muting’ people – it goes against the philosophy of community music – shutting peoples voices off – however I have realised that the chaos of sound can be pretty hard work for all to be hearing all the time.

By muting participants at certain points then they experience a clean and relaxed sound – but they do feel alone in their singing  with just hearing their voice against mine – not with the usual wonderful feel of a group of people singing together.

So another challenge was to create more of a group sensation by finding long lost recordings of some of my community music gigs – songs loved from the past – which have proved to be lovely to re-visit – invoking both positive memories as well giving people hope that somehow, at some point we will be able to safely do these live events again.

Did you have any particulate challenges or success that you would like to share?

Along with the Zoom set up I had to find a way to be able to broadcast my sound well– using many original songs a well as exercises due to it now being almost like a broadcast. There was a whole way to enable original sound which is apparently better for music – it doesn’t auto correct which would make guitars and other sounds wobbly. However it does allow pick up of background sounds! I had to make use of a good mic and sound card, which enabled me to be playing a track and sing along at the same time (Colleagues who are purely using computer audio are broadcasting good sound but their singing along sounds delayed to their workshop participants). I still have a long way to go feeling secure with Zoom but after a lot of stress and a lot of support from my very patient partner I generally feel it a success. Also a big success is that now after 10 weeks of Zoom I feel it is on it’s way to precariously working income wise – I am receiving a very cut back income as only about half of my previous participants are engaging. Those not engaging either just find the sessions too alien or they can’t actually access he Zoom session – if their tech is out of date etc. I have many more elderly people who don’t have the tech but do try and if they are alone it is very very frustrating for them. Also working with people who are perhaps asylum seekers with old phones which have not allowed the recent Zoom updates. Some of those people I have been doing individual wattsap video calls with. – It’s very difficult to know how to help these people properly and really feels like they are being excluded even more from society at the moment . I feel there’s a gap in the tech that maybe some tech businesess/ charity could really help with

I also decided to create online videos for my groups to keep them feeling engaged even if they couldn’t access Zoom. I invested in the app “Acapella” which enabled me to fairly easily bring to life some of the simpler songs I’ve written whilst seeing how the harmonies fit together with a different screen for each harmony. Also this allowed a collaboration led by Swedish singer Kajsa Norburry and 7 other singers singing a song in tribute to the essential workers To The Heroes involving Natural Voice leaders from Australia, Ireland Scotland England and Wales.  These acapella App videos were kind of interesting for my participants. eg. Give me the Freedom. There were 2 motivations for this – one to immediately keep sending, hopefully interesting and fun, content to my workshops regulars; and two, to help me to prepare to finalise the material for my book of ”All Year Rounds” something I’ve been planning to bring to fruition for 2 years but never had the time! SO after all the initial stress I did actually have a little extra time to develop my round book (now available on Amazon and as an ebook with 2 bonus songs.) I also had a small amount of headspace for some exploration into more serious and in depth composition – something I’ve not had the head space for a long time.

Another challenge/success is the fact that I am one of the four people who bring Sing for Water Cardiff to the Oval basin every coupe of years involving 800 singers singing together and raising money for Wateraid.

This year was to be extra special with us lining up with Green Squirrel and “The Girl Who Wouldn’t Give Up” The “Get Creative” festival as well as Oasis World Choir and Band having a key role in leading into the whole concert with a special song and carnival  procession. So so sad to have to postpone this. However we did manage to create an online event – where project manager Sue Ellar created ticket links for people to pay £3 each – also gave the option to pay forward £1 towards anyone who might not be able to afford a ticket – also the option for ‘hardship” meaning that people could get the event link for free too. These are all things I find difficult but working as a team Sue came up with excellent solutions to ensure we could somehow receive some kind of payment for our planning of the session. 115 people engaged with that session and there will be links sent to choir members with a compilation of the highlights of the session with a motivation for them to continue their fundraising for the charity Wateraid.

Access – as I mentioned earlier due to tech has been a huge challenge with people trying and trying to join the sessions but their tech simply not working for them – we are at lockdown so those people can’t have anyone to physically show them how it works or to re-set their devices or event to buy in new tech if they have the money. Zoom updates have meant that some phones no longer allow access. People I work with are often extremely isolated for a multitude of reasons, from disability to asylum claims, to mental health issues, to simply being more elderly and living alone. This includes younger people now living and coping alone – many of whom have fully appreciated the regular Zooms – a chance to interact and participate in a positive and familiar activity together.

A huge but unexpected positive of this situation is that people who have moved away or been moved away so could no longer be a part of the sessions due to physical distance have now been re-engaging with the workshops.

I have regulars from the past who moved to Bristol and Brighton who now regularly join the Friday morning Chapter Singers workshops. Also people who have been members of the Oasis World Choir and Band project who have moved by choir to Edinburgh, Glasgow, Manchester are joining us and still feel a part of our extended choir family. Also the terrible situation where people who are asylum seekers and then suddenly moved away with no notice. This happened to one of our vey special choir members and her then 4 year old daughter – they were moved to a hotel in London a month before lockdown – they were then moved to another 2 different hotel rooms and are still in a hotel room in the London area. Thankfully they have a good enough phone to be able to Zoom in with us weekly, a fact which truly helps them to feel slightly human and normal as well as still getting all the scientifically proven additions to wellbeing that singing, dancing and laughing bring.

Amazing joy at being able to collaborate with Ethiopian composer performer and community musician Tewolde Girmay after 10 years! (Flute duet Wales to Ethiopia)

What are your plans for future delivery?

I think I will be leading Zoom sessions for a long time as singing is proving to be a less safe activity to do, Corona wise, due to the otherwise extra healthy deep breaths that people expel during the act of singing.

When it does feel safe to do so again I will need to ensure that people can decide on their own terms how and when to join, and I will have in place social distancing measures and guidelines carefully thought out beforehand.

I know for sure that I will be aiming to continue Zooming perhaps one weekly session due to all the amazing interactions that wouldn’t have happened without Zoom access and I have group members who are vulnerable health wise and are currently shielding who have already asked me if I’ll be able to include them in this way in the future. I’m not sure how to make any of it work in a financially secure manner – it’s all been a great gamble so far, but fingers crossed and on I go.

A range of organisations have worked to continue delivery of their art form during lockdown are there any that you would like to mention that you found either professionally or personally useful?

I have been paid to continue weekly workshops by Tanio through March, April and May for the Oasis World Choir project.

Oasis World Choir project

Also Community Music Wales have asked for videos for their website.

Newport Mind have continued to pay for my weekly sessions with their clients, this will be on-going which gives a sense of real security to me as a freelancer.

I have facilitated the YMCA staff choir for the past 6 years this recently turned into YMCA Community Choir  – then lockdown stopped that but a YMCA linked organisation have hired me to do some try out sessions with young carers which is a new challenge working with people I had not actually previously met. I have now done the first session which went really well so watch this space!

laura.communitymusic@gmail.com

Natural Voice Singing leader, Composer, Performer

www.laurabradshawmusic.com

Thanks for your time  Laura

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