Saturday, 22 October 2011

On whose terms?

Up to several years ago I worked as a university researcher, studying rural community development and social integration. One of the questions that fascinated me was what it takes for people to become part of a new community. I found that becoming part of a new community, whether as a new resident in a rural community or as a migrant worker, not only demands that you actually participate, but also that you do so on the terms set by that community. This way of thinking provides interesting insights in issues of engagement in community music projects as well. 

The Culter Mills and Parallel Lives projects have both been larger community music projects in which I tried to reach out to people who have little or no experience in music-making in the traditional sense. What’s more, I wanted these participants to actively contribute to the process and outcomes of the project. Like other community musicians and artists I often find it difficult to convince people to participate.

Sharing memories of Culter Mills
Looking at a community music project as a community and understanding that a project involves a set of norms and assumptions about music and music-making, and expectations about these by potential participants, has helped me understand how people I try to reach out to may feel about my invitation to do so. For example, in conversations about the work I do I’ve come across the prejudice that the word choral work sounds posh while songs sounds much more acceptable.  

In order to reach out to people I try to look at my projects from the perspective of the people I want to engage. This has been one of the reasons why I’ve chosen to work with folk songs. For many people the idea of community music is new. It is much more likely that they will engage if, in first instance, I work on basis of their understanding of what music is and should be. In Scotland folk music is a genre many people are familiar with.

But is it not only with respect to the content of my community music projects that I have to think about my participants, it is also with respect to the way in which I try to engage people. For the Parallel Lives project I had no existing contacts with people from Central and Eastern Europe. To build establish contacts and build trust I therefore took an ethnographic approach, visiting a group of mothers and toddlers that met weekly. Aware that I was entering their community I realised it would not be possible to deliver a full workshop on my terms, but had to fit my work around the way in which the mothers interact in their sessions.

In both the Culter Mills and Parallel Lives projects I aimed to bring communities together. I’ve used music to achieve this. What I've learnt from the social integration research I've done is how important it is to be sensitive towards participants' understandings of what music is and should be, and the often invisible and taken-for-granted norms for social interaction.

 Copyright text and image Petra Vergunst

No comments:

Post a Comment