I completed the Spitalfields Trainee Music Leader scheme in February 2021. During my traineeship I had the opportunity to work in a variety of settings and had particularly enjoyed my time on Spitalfields’ Creative Encounters project. Creative Encounters is a project designed to enhance well-being for care home residents living with dementia through co-creative art-making. Following my traineeship, I was keen to build on my experience of using musical improvisation to connect with others, particularly in care home and SEND settings. Spitalfields Music have been very supportive, and I was invited to be part of the Creative Team for their virtual workshops with East London Cares.
East London Cares is a branch of The Cares Family, a national charity who ‘help people find connection and community in a disconnected age’. Through an impressive array of weekly activities (currently online), friendships and connections are created amongst neighbours, both young and old. When I first heard about the charity I was struck by how simple, but strong their vision is. Many of my personal friendships have been created through playing music. In an environment where people are enjoying and appreciating an activity together, why shouldn’t friendships and connections naturally bloom?
Session 1: A marathon remembered
The first session took place at lunchtime and was designed to be a relaxed opportunity to listen to music in a calm atmosphere. The creative team consisted of Clare (dance and movement), Tim (percussion), Juliet (cello) and myself on recorders. Online creative music-making throws up new challenges which can create an additional level of stress for performers. However, any nerves I had were immediately extinguished when I met the neighbours for this session. There was a lovely welcoming atmosphere, and hearing chatter amongst the neighbours of local street names and events, immediately transported me from my music room in South London to a community event in East London. It was clear from the start that everybody was pleased to be in this virtual space and were keen to listen to us.
Our starting point for the session was the 40th anniversary of the London Marathon. We watched the ending of the race where the two leading competitors voluntarily slowed down and crossed the finishing line together holding hands. Watching this footage in the middle of a pandemic resonated with everybody. It inspired our first improvised piece which was entitled ‘hands’. The creative team instinctively created shapes with their hands, which worked particularly well on a screen format, and the music grew from gestures made by Clare. Due to the online time difference, playing in time together is impossible, so we approached the music-making as a conversation. Ideas were shared amongst the musicians and we took turns to come to the ‘front’ of the conversation before returning to the ‘background’. The neighbours were very forthcoming with titles for new improvisations and I particularly enjoyed our piece ‘Ethereal’ featuring bird song and chimes and our joyous ‘Jubilant’.
An informal Q&A discussion took place after our creative explorations. We discussed how the lockdown had encouraged us to listen to the sounds surrounding us. These included silence, the sounds of nature and the hum of returning traffic. We also discussed the transformative power of music and a neighbour commented that “the music transformed me – I imagined I was in the countryside standing on a hill, I felt so relaxed I could have been anywhere”. I thought it was striking how listening can be both a group activity and simultaneously a personal experience.
Session 2: Alone Together
It was lovely to see the return of some of the neighbours from our first session as well as some new faces. The creative team for this session consisted of Clare (dance and movement), Tim (percussion), Rosie (percussion) and myself on recorders. Our second session was held in the evening and was designed to be more interactive. The aim of the session was to create a space where everybody could participate in an improvisation together. To prepare for this the creative team led several exercises which introduced the neighbours to a sound and visual toolbox which they could use in the group improvisation. This included movement, playing with the boundaries of your screen, experimenting with colour, vocal effects, using mute as a sound tool and exploring sounds from everyday objects.
The group improvisation was substantial and did feel like a creative journey. The opening seemed to me to be a period of settling, people exploring and getting used to the virtual collage that we were creating. Once settled, it seemed that as a group we inspired each other and people were able to explore and develop ideas. Screens turned different colours, kitchen utensils peppered the air waves with metallic articulations, vocal drones filled space which in turn inspired hand movements and a beautiful French monologue waltzed in and out of the picture. Zoom seemed to be working hard, constantly picking up different sounds creating a busy, evolving texture. The creative team instinctively helped to shape a structure. Rosie skilfully turned the soundscape into a rhythmical groove, Clare created a memorable middle section with the insertion of a poem that inspired new sounds and Tim changed the mood to one of creative play with a virtuosic duck whistle. This co-creativity was reminiscent of the Creative Encounters project, and as Nicole (producer) remarked after, ‘there was a real sense of Creative Encounters magic’.
Learnings and thoughts
The creative team felt that this format had been successful in reaching a new audience and making connections. It was agreed that there was lots of potential in this format and creative possibilities. However, whilst we had all enjoyed working and playing together, the limitations of online music-making hadn’t satisfied the thirst for the joy of working in the same room together!
As a Spitalfields trainee I have learnt that the planning process is incredibly important. This project was no different and although the activities were improvised, time and thought were well spent on planning. Interestingly the creative team had thought a lot about how we could create a good balance of sound, but in the discussion following our group improvisation many neighbours had enjoyed the collective ‘noise’ of making vocal sounds together. Understandably, there is a sense of security in such a texture, and participants can feel free to experiment and grow in confidence. But perhaps this strong feeling is also a reflection of our times, through creating a collective wall of sound we were no longer in isolation, but together in this virtual space. I am reminded again of East London Cares vision ‘staying connected in a disconnecting time’. I finished the project with the satisfaction that we had helped to connect these neighbours, learnt something new and put a smile on many faces.