Everyone is talking about it…

This morning, my father sat down in his usual spot with tea in one hand and over buttered toast and jam in the other listening to his raspy untuned radio. It’s a ritual that he repeats every morning.

Today, the voice from the radio informed us that more and more of us are taking solo holidays to manage and support our wellbeing. A mocking tone in his voice, the presenter talked about how ridiculous we have all become as a nation.

Some of us are taking holidays to get away from the people we love. To reboot and repair ourselves.

I have read lots of threads from parents seeking any kind of private time away from their families. Nothing new really. There are hilarious stories about adults retreating to toilets to escape the constant requests from children or partners. We mock and joke about our desire for private time. In contrast, some of us regularly share photos of solo trips around the UK or beyond.

But, increasingly we are a nation of lonely people with growing referrals to gp surgeries for people experiencing isolation.

I recently completed a study about a local area and its “wellbeing” as a community. It is a fascinating concept. What began as a study about young people and their wellbeing, quickly became an exploration of community wellbeing and how we as a collective people work to support one another. It is virtually impossible to explore and develop plans to support children and young people’s wellbeing without looking at the whole picture. With half of all mental illness beginning by the age of 14, its gonna take a village, a town, a community to work together to support one another better. Shockingly, suicide is the second leading cause of death among 15-29-year-olds.

From speaking to members of the community, the overwhelming comments where that people do like to connect with one another. Slow down and take time to notice.

Just talk. Connect. Take notice.

Share stuff and be kind to people.

Check in with your neighbours, the ones that you see and the ones that you don’t.

#Worldmentalhealthday

Are there any violins?

I find myself in a slight predicament this week. My daughter wants to learn an instrument. A violin. The girl would like to learn the violin. We have spent a long time arriving at this decision, talking about different music, styles and interests.

In my time at school, (a long time ago) music lessons were the other. The class tables were shaped in a horse shoe to face our music teacher with an assortment of musical instruments lined up in front of us. Our poor music teacher was a man of musical passion with a class full of students who did not follow his rules or his passion for play. Instead, he faced mockery and ridicule on a weekly basis. I had no violin lessons or even thought to ask if I could.

So, fast forward to the last ten years and I found myself managing a music inclusion service. I went on to work with Wiltshire Music Service and then the MusicHub for Wiltshire; Wiltsire Music Connect. We are all musical. We can all respond emotionally to music. We know that early communication between parent and child is musical, improvised musical language. It’s a bonding relationship for us.

I could tell you stories about my lack of musicality to back up my old belief. Somehow, I let those stories or past experiences define my engagement with music as I grew up. For me, the breakthrough came with play and interaction with my child. My daughter used to hum to herself when she was being breastfed. We started singing together. As a 7-year-old she still hums to herself when she eats, particularly if it is a good meal. She continues to sing and interact with music. It now shapes a lot of our time and we use it to take notice, tell stories and share good times and laugh a lot.

So, here I am with my own 7-year-old who wishes to learn an instrument. It can be quite daunting to find out how to help your child with this, especially if we carry a voice in our head that tells us that we are ourselves are not musical.

So, here are some tips from one parent to another:

  1. Finding the instrument that they like. We watched lots of youtube videos. We went to a couple of music shops and held instruments and talked to the staff and asked lots of questions. We spoke to friends about their children’s musical journey. We listened to different types of music. We read this book: “You are awesome” by Mathew Syed. It’s not about music at all but about learning something new and getting good at it. There are a lot of youtube videos out there showcasing very talented children. It’s important to remember that they practised A LOT to become good. Finding the right instrument for your child can be difficult. Age is a big issue for when to begin and how to hold your instrument so do your research with your child.
  2. Speak to your school. This might initially be someone on reception but could also be the class teacher or the music lead for the school if they aren’t sure. If you see another child from the school with their parent/guardian with a musical instrument stop and ask them about it ! Depending on what’s available, you could explore one to one teaching or there might be a small group they could join for instrument learning lessons. If not, ask your class if there is anyone interested in the same instrument and go from there.
  3. Cost. You could be entitled to a reduced rate depending on your circumstances. Always worth asking either the school or your local music service or hub for advice and support.
  4. Instruments and hiring them. In fact, try to do that first as it will be very costly for you if you fork out a lot of cash for a new instrument only for your child to state that it isn’t working out for them. Again, if you have spoken to your class or other classes and there are a number of you wishing to learn a particular instrument this could help encourage the school to explore further. Get in touch with your local music hub or music service and ask advice. Get to know your local music shop. They are great spaces to meet and network. If your school simply cannot support the instrument that you want, you might want to consider private tuition in your home or a tutor’s home. Again, ask your music service/hub for advice or your local music shop/musicians union.
  5. Safety first! It may be uncomfortable to ask if someone has a DBS but you simply must especially if you opt for out of school tuition. It should have been issued within the last 3 years. You can go to the Disclosure and Barring Service for more advice. Regardless if another parent is having lessons with this person, ask to see their DBS for yourself. It’s not enough for someone to say they have it or to presume that everyone else checked for you.
  6. What to expect and what to ask for I think a lot depends on your child and how they like to learn and how the music teacher teaches. It is vital that you listen to your child about the kind of music that they are into and finding the best match for your child. Have a read of The Music Education code.
  7. Practice. I remember one of my dear friends who is a music teacher telling me that actually the purpose of a private music lesson is to check learning and to assess next stages and provide encouragement. This lesson is nothing without practice. So, actually the far more important element is the practice in between lessons.
  8. Trial lessons. I can imagine that for some children it just doesn’t work out with some instrument or some tutors. It is worth asking if you can review it after a couple, to check in and consider next steps.
  9. Take part. How about you enjoy it with them! Maybe venture into new territory and learn an instrument as well. A friend told me recently that she was teaching a parent and their child to learn the piano. It sounds excellent and really supported both parent and child to develop and grow their learning in the same space. Sounds good to me.

Right, off I go to explore violins…

Do we have permission?

Recently, I have been consulting people about their wellbeing.  I’ve met several different groups over the past month to talk about the different ways they manage their lives. The things that we do to feel happy, content, empowered, noticed and healthy.

I often hear people say:

“I am not creative so I don’t do that or this”

or

“I haven’t done creative stuff since I was in primary school. It’s not really for me. I only draw stick men”

I remember many years ago I took a group of older residents to a local gallery and on entering one of the exhibition spaces, one of the group members pulled me aside to ask me whether we had permission to be here. They wanted to talk etiquette, how to behave, how to interact with the space and how to enjoy it. What to think.

A lot is changing in galleries and museums and I hope this continues as we consider and develop spaces whereby people aren’t asking us if they have permission to take part. That we stop labelling people “hard to reach” or “disengaged” and we stop blaming the general public for the lack of numbers taking part or attending galleries or museums.

How about we start seeing galleries and museums as spaces that as well as beautiful spaces full to bursting with wonderful art are also spaces that are good for our wellbeing and our health?

In the last few years, I have started gardening. I began by telling myself that I wasn’t a good gardener, encouraged by my ability to kill many house plants in the past. But the garden needed tending to and I had to do it.

But, as with many new things, of course I wasnt good at gardening straight away…O the shock! How can you be good at something straight way ? I had to practice and learn about gardening. I had to read. Now, I enjoy it. It makes me laugh. I love getting messy. Making things grow from seed to table. Corny I know but it is good for my wellbeing. I have enjoyed watering weeds, potatoes, tomatoes, chillies, rhubarb, cucumbers and an abundance of flowers and fruit. Some of it has survived, some if it hasn’t but it has been hilarious and fun and makes me feel amazing when we get to eat something that we have grown from a tiny seed.

So, now I help run the school eco garden club. Me. The person who wasn’t a gardener. Who is, was and feels good when she does it. I garden not to be a gardener but because i love it and i can do it.

So, here is a wellbeing checklist from our beloved NHS. It is a good thing. It can enrich us and support us as artists and people. Just people. Try and plot your week, your month, your year with it. It is really worth it.

  • Connect – connect with the people around you: your family, friends, colleagues and neighbours. Spend time developing these relationships.
  • Be active – It isn’t about going to the gym but taking to walking, cycling or playing active games, move.
  • Keep learning – trying something new with your brain, learning new skills can give you a sense of achievement and a new confidence.
  • Give to others – even the smallest act can count, whether it’s a smile, a thank you or a kind word. Larger acts, such as volunteering at your local community centre, can improve your mental wellbeing and help you build new social networks.
  • Be mindful – be more aware of the present moment, including your thoughts and feelings, your body and the world around you. Some people call this awareness “mindfulness”.

So, you know turn your mobile off, move, keep learning, give back, and talk to people…

The passing of time

The summer is slowly disappearing from view leaving behind it as always an unfinished to do list of wishes and aspirations. Our summer was broken into three parts. We travelled to Spain. We are quite a tight unit and although G played with other children and we chatted occasionally to other parents, we generally kept it very much about the two of us. We hung out in old towns, sought out local communities, swam a lot, drew a lot and read a lot whilst laughing our way around the local area.

Stage two of our summer holiday was spent supporting my mother through her hip operation. The operation was a success but recovery takes a long time. Things have changed for now. There is a slowness to our house, our movements and our activity are more considered. Stage three involves any remaining summer fun where possible coupled with preparation for a new term at school. Six weeks feel hardly enough time to gather oneself before a new academic year begins.

But this year the passing of time has played on my mind. Three generations living under one roof, each requiring care and support for sometimes the same but different things. We mark out the seasons with a little poem or book or a collection of found objects. We move furniture to accommodate changing weather and seasons. Time passing.

Our final activity towards the end of the summer holidays is to work through all of G’s toys and clothes, discussing and discarding what is no longer needed or wanted. She is at an age now where she is able to laugh at herself and her 43 soft toys and objects which hold much desire. She is happy to make room and pass on some of these items to others. A building block with the trace of teeth marks, a first doll with all of its ragged appeal and remaining twirls of hair or a makeshift toy with re-purposed parts from broken bits of wood. All moved to feature in another story.

Another year and we have completed this task. G is marking out her height on the wall. A new uniform is ready, shoes bought and preparations are in place to ensure that the first day of JUNIOR school is smooth. And so, we watch the aging process in my house. I watch the passing of time with my daughter and my parents at either end with myself sandwiched in the middle. The passing of time. The change of seasons.

Back to work, back to a new season, back to the future. Off we go people.

The language of democracy in the arts

Recently I have begun working in my local community. It is a first. I have never entered into any working arrangement with or alongside an area that I live in. I feel slightly shy and a bit nail bitten about the proposition of my private home space and working life space rubbing alongside one another for any period of time.

It has got me thinking…How democratic are we with the communities that we are working with ? How much are they involved in deciding what, how, where, when things happen ?

I met the local history group who were really passionate about all things local. They were keen to show me photos of forgotten times, contrasting the old and the new and remarking about what had been lost, changed or torn down. They operated as detectives, exploring, sharing, shaping and piecing together moments in time. They all referenced and acknowledged, involved and offered advice to one another. One person was very keen to explain the history of hedgerows and the number of species living in them while another drew gasps of excitement for road signs and pathways. Another provided a vast array of maps which detailed moments of history, land ownerships, bridle paths as well as family homes. How was it that the local history group were able to engage me about a subject that I felt that I could participate with ? In an area that I didn’t grow up in. Quite simply, they used language that didn’t confuse me. They didn’t refer to me as hard to reach, difficult, troublesome or other. They made me welcome. Their enthusiasm was infectious. They didn’t bowl in with language that I didn’t understand. They simply showed me a variety of ways that I could take part or not whilst stating clearly that there were loads of areas that “we” could explore or not and that they were learning as well. Everything was negotiated and decided as a group. Anyone could join. They seemed to operate quite well, democratically even. They aren’t funded, they aren’t governed and they aren’t paid.

What on earth has any of this got to do with my work ?  After all, I can’t live on air so I need to be paid. Often my work is funded and governed. So, how much of our relationship with language and democracy within the arts is shaped by our funders and the policies that we create to manage ourselves?

“EVERYONE is so goddamnit hard to reach!” I remember one artist saying to me after a long exhausting day.

I know many organisations who have spent lots of time researching and developing a funding proposal. They have worked hard to develop partners and new providers in new areas. But still the numbers are low. Does it matter? Maybe the art form wasn’t quite right. Maybe the timing was off, maybe one of the partners folded (I have personally experienced this!) or maybe the entire youth service has ceased to exist, (I have also experienced this!) or maybe we just didn’t have time to build some of the key areas to help it grow. Or maybe no one wanted what was on offer or didn’t quite understand what the offer was. After all, most communities have their have own view on arts and culture.

So, If we are to talk about working democratically with/for and alongside communities surely we need to admit that we have a sometimes flawed, back to front, upside down approach. Surely we should start by developing a language alongside these communities that they feel part of ? Enough of the elitist language?

I have worked with communities that are incredibly rich with culture and arts but maybe this culture wasn’t “HIGH art” or “HIGH quality”. Therefore it needed some help to really engage. Make it proper.

“But we already have a cinema. We already show films that our community want.”

Or

“They came in with a bunch of new artists to work with our artists. People who we trust, who we knew. It felt like we were being told how to do it. We didn’t even ask them to come here”

The above is a real quote that has stayed with me from the last few years. It does feel a little like we are in danger of turning into missionaries with that kind of approach.

Not very democratic. Certainly not authentic.

Maybe we need to be more like the hedgerow local history lady in our approach with communities. Gentle, timely and clear that we are just as passionate about arts and culture as she is about hedgerows.

Certainly, go where we are needed but also where they want us. Don’t complicate language and embrace ALL art forms and culture. After all, our notion of what is arts and culture is shifting and we need to change with it.

Make Room

As part of my work with The Engage Extend Leadership programme I will be working with a wonderful group of people on our enquiry…More of that in a moment.

Firstly, a bit about The Extend leadership programme. The programme is led by Engage (National Association for Gallery Education). It is open to people who are working in learning and education roles in the arts, museums and libraries. Extend was developed in response to the under-representation of learning and education staff in leadership within the arts and cultural sectors. I am super excited to be part of this. I don’t normally align myself to anything and prefer to facilitate/coordinate or act as a conduit for others so something that challenges me and encourages me to think about my own practice as a leader is brilliant and terrifying at the same time. Bring it on.

So, my group. I will be working with a great bunch of people. A little bit about them, they are a great mix of experience and understanding.

Judith Liddle. Judith Liddle is an interdisciplinary gallery and education facilitator. Judith co-curates a number of Edinburgh Printmakers core in-house exhibitions, plans and delivers elements of their education and outreach programme, and has responsibilities in project managing their public artworks programme, offsite exhibitions and activities. Having spent most of her professional career working between Glasgow, Edinburgh, and Milan, Judith has previously written a regular column on contemporary art for Benvenuto Magazine, has sat on the managing committee of David Dale Gallery and Studios and has established an art facility in North Lanarkshire for elderly people with additional needs. Judith has worked with Edinburgh Printmakers for four years. She is passionate about print, and how this unique medium continually is re-contextualised within the contemporary field. She is dedicated to facilitating challenging, engaging, and relevant projects, and allowing absolutely everyone to share her energy and passion for contemporary art and printmaking practice.

Bethan Page
Bethan Page is a freelance Creative Project Manager with over 25 years experience of working in the arts in Wales. Previous roles include Senior Commissions Manager for Cywaith Cymru/Safle and Arts Officer for the Arts Council of Wales. Current freelance work includes leading on the Criw Celf project for Oriel Davies, a project for more able and talented Art pupils, and mentoring Aberystwyth Arts Centre’s Learning Team while they establish Criw Celf in Ceredigion. Bethan is a Creative Agent on the ACW Lead Creative Schools Scheme involving working with teachers, pupils and creative practitioners on creative learning projects. She also works with NAWR; the Art and Education Network for Mid and West Wales to identify the training needs of teachers, and to implement bespoke training events. Bethan is a graduate of Brighton University School of Art and is a fluent Welsh speaker.

Daryl Wells
Daryl is a specialist in community arts engagement with over 20 years of experience designing participatory arts programmes.  She has taught and designed curricula in New York, Washington, London and San Francisco.  In 2014 Daryl launched Art Responders (AR), an arts organisation producing art events with a social justice focus. AR has produced two acclaimed art exhibitions and an event series, and has plans to launch its second exhibition in 2018. As a dual citizen of the US and the UK, Daryl permanently returned to the UK in 2017, and currently resides in Southeast London. In summer of 2017, she was invited to join the Engage London Council, and was also selected as a teaching artist with First Site Gallery. Working with excluded students in Northeast Essex, Daryl created a multimedia installation for the gallery’s “Britishness” exhibition. Daryl has also been a youth artist mentor for the Barbican Centre in 2018.

John Whall
Artist, performer, educator and curator with a background in performance, puppetry, animation and 3D design. First degree in BA (Hons) Performing and Media Art, with additional study in Computer Games Modelling and Animation (BA) and Postgraduate in Visual Communication. Currently the Digital Participation Curator at QUAD in Derby, responsible for the development and delivery of QUAD’s participatory programme, creatively engaging people with the arts and contemporary culture through digital media. John is also a board member for the Derwent Valley World Heritage Site Partnership (DVWHSP) Vital Valley project, as well as digital lead for the East Midlands Participatory Arts Forum (EMPAF) and ArtWorks Alliance (AWA).

Our team is called “Make Room”, taken from an article by Kit de Waal. Our focus enquiry centres around Authentic participationThere is a strong belief in the group that a socially democratic approach to leading arts and culture is key to providing meaningful experiences to audiences and creating sustainable participation for cultural spaces. Through this, it is the group aim to generate findings through a participant first approach, where diverse participant voice, needs and aspirations are brought to the forefront of leadership thinking. We aim for the findings of this enquiry to empower leadership to support and guide socially engaged co-production within cultural and community spaces. Nurturing the positive effects of participation: sustainability, social inclusion, wellbeing, empowerment, learning etc. and developing positive sustainable relationships with education and learning in the cultural sector. We hope to discover models of best practice and potentially to identify new ways of working, that will contribute to leaders undertaking and understanding a participant point of view of the arts. 

As we progress, I shall update here about our progress, thoughts and learning…

Exciting future…stay tuned.

Extending my leadership

Engage Extend Leadership programme A short while ago, a good friend suggested that we both apply for the Extend leadership course. For a while i had been thinking about investing in my leadership, i had stewed over the options and had begun to consider how i could try to make it happen given child care responsibilities as a single parent.

Looking back at my formal arts training (of recent) it had become something of a short story. Not too surprising really. Maintaining a small youth arts led organisation within a local authority is no easy feat. Maintaining a small youth arts led organisation outside of a local authority is no easy feat. However, both feature a number of constraints and challenges which can limit and hinder personal growth.

Of course, you should never take for granted the role of informal learning. For me i have experienced a rich plethora of learning from young people, artists, local authority art leads and community partners which has sustained me and kept me going for all of this time. But i am ever mindful that my own learning desires have fallen short and i have not had time/made time to invest in my own artistic development.

I have allowed it to take a very comfortable back seat while i draw attention to the work of others. It would appear that i am more comfortable to draw attention to others and yet i have over the years yearned for more personal creativity and spotlight. Gulp.

So, in June 2018 i stepped into the arms of the Extend Leadership course. I attended our first residential in Leeds in June. I will take part in a group enquiry with four other people as well as my own personal one to one mentoring.

It is going to be a bit of a rollercoaster. An exciting one.

Yikes!