Alice Poppleton (Baroque Violin, 2018) is a violinist and viola player with a historical music specialism, as well as being a creative music practitioner and educator. She spoke to us about connecting primary school children with university students through her project Thinking Music and how the pandemic is stretching what it means to be musician.

Tell us about your work in participation and community settings.

I was an Open Academy Fellow and that was absolutely life changing. Music has always enriched my life, but it was during this time spent under the wing of Julian West, the Head of Open Academy, that I really woke up to music’s transformative power. From babies to adults living with dementia, it transcends surroundings, forges connections and encourages us to explore and find our space as creative citizens.

In 2020, inspired by my time as an Open Academy Fellow but frustrated by the disparity in arts provision between the city and countryside, I launched Thinking Music, an initiative connecting rural primary schools and universities to make music together. This project has forced me to look at what it means to be a musician in 2021. I originally thought my ambition was to become a full-time performer but I’m enjoying stretching the idea of what it means to be a musician.

I’m also involved in a number of other projects, including running community music workshops online with Soundcastle; a number of projects with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment Experience Scheme; and running an online strings club with Superstrings.

Have you been able to continue work on these projects during the pandemic? What changes have you had to make to adapt to the current situation?

Yes, but they are taking a slightly different shape than expected. Although there are some inevitable frustrations at the limitations in place due to the pandemic, there have been some unanticipated improvements to my projects as a result. For instance, when initially planning for Thinking Music, my intention was that the university students and primary school children would interact in school for just a couple of days. With the unpredictable waves of the virus, however, the limited interaction made the project feel too fragile. Instead, I realised that we could extend this interaction throughout the year in the form of Zoom calls and video exchanges. My hope is that as a result, the project will have a more meaningful impact on all parties concerned and will consequently have a better legacy.

I am also part of Hold the Drama, a project run by a group of Academy alumni. We deliver non-verbal, immersive shows for children that use high-quality live music to tell stories exploring issues around mental health. In 2020, we were due to embark on an ACE-funded school tour of our show Stripes. With the tour cancelled, we chose to reinvent the live show as a film – Digital Stripes – to send to schools with a teacher’s pack, accompanied by an introductory warm-up and concluding Q&A. Although the medium has changed significantly, on launching the digital tour we were delighted to discover it resonated just as powerfully with the children and provoked valuable discussion. Although we are looking forward to a time when we can perform live together, it is fantastic that this video will get to schools that were geographically out of reach for us.

Is there anything positive you will take away from this time?

I have been inspired by people’s collective determination to come together and connect, finding the energy to innovate while under duress. Although I’m hungry to get back to live music-making, I am intrigued to see how the positive effects of the online approach will blend with the pre-existing live tradition, as we embrace the ability to make and sustain geographically implausible artistic partnerships and continue to update the job spec for the modern-day musician. What a privilege to be part of the most extraordinarily creative and resilient community.

Photo by Benny Rex Vernon

Hannah Opstad (Trumpet, 2012) and Dan Parkin (Flute, 2000) work with Wigmore Hall’s Music for Life, a pioneering programme for people living with dementia and their families, friends and carers. They spoke to us about how they have adapted their projects to the online environment.

Tell us about your work with Music for Life.

Hannah: Music for Life is a programme for people living with dementia and their families, friends and carers. Over the course of each eight-week project, a small musician team works alongside a group of people living with dementia and their carers. We work in a responsive and spontaneous way, shaping each session by what we see, hear and feel in the moment. We have a selection of percussion instruments available for people to play if they wish, and we use our voices and our own instruments to improvise pieces of music. The music we create together is inspired and influenced by both individuals and the group as a whole. The tiniest tap of a toe or glint in an eye can inspire and shape a piece of music, allowing us to connect with each other in a very powerful way.

Witnessing how music can empower someone to take control and make decisions for a few moments is incredibly moving, especially when that same individual is no longer able to communicate verbally or make decisions in their daily life. It can be overwhelming, but it is immensely grounding and nourishing to work in this open and honest way. You have to let your guard down and, in doing so you make yourself extremely vulnerable. The level of trust within the musician team becomes very important. As a musician, there’s often a focus on ‘getting it right’ or a sense of expectation to play in a certain way. Being a part of Music for Life allows me to play from the heart, freely and spontaneously. It’s very liberating.

The Music for Life programme has been running weekly online choir sessions called Singing with Friends, a series of 1:1 calls with participants from a Music for Thought project that was cut short, and a project for people with young onset dementia has continued online. In addition, projects are now taking place in care homes with the musician team joining virtually, ranging from 1:1 sessions with isolated residents to creative workshops with groups of residents and staff.

Dan: Over the course of the years the Music for Life programme has developed from working primarily in care settings to incorporating a number of projects and events for people who live independently.

I’ve been working on a project called Music for Thought, which is for people who have recently been diagnosed with dementia and are still living in their homes. Before lockdown it would take place in a church hall or local community centre and begin with tea and coffee before the music session, which is quite relaxed and conversational. Music for Life is so important as through its various projects, it reaches people with dementia in so many different ways.

Have you been able to continue this work during the pandemic? What changes have you had to make to adapt to the current situation?

Hannah: We haven’t been able to deliver any projects in person since the start of the pandemic, but thanks to an extremely dedicated team of people, some projects have been able to continue online, albeit in very different ways. A lot of time and emotion have gone into trialling new ways of sharing and creating music together online. There are a lot of unknowns when working in this way, as we’ve all discovered this year, but there are additional factors to consider when working with people living with dementia. We cannot assume that everyone will be able to engage with a person on a screen. We cannot assume that an individual won’t become distressed by a video call. We cannot assume that the staff in the care home have the physical or emotional capacity to take on another task during this very challenging time.

We’ve been very open with those we are working with on projects. We are looking to discover the best ways of working, and that requires an open dialogue about what works well and what might go wrong. There’s very much a sense of all being in it together. It has been wonderful to build on the trust within the team and be willing to try new things together, although that feeling of vulnerability is stronger than ever!

I am currently working on a new project called Out of the Ordinary, which brings together Music for Life musicians, fellows and students from the Academy and participants and their families recruited through UCL’s Rare Dementia Support groups. I am struck by how willing everyone is to try something new and explore music-making in a unique way.

Dan: Moving it online has been really interesting! I’ve been co-leading the Music for Thought project with Mary Martin (Violin, 1997) and we’re also joined by three Academy students, Electra Perivolaris, Saki Kato and Antonia Berg. We’re spread across the country and Antonia even joins us from Australia.

In a session we usually create music out of inspirational starting points. When you’re in person you can do that in a natural, spontaneous way and more than one of you can be doing it at once, but online we’ve had to be more musically linear. We can’t all play at the same time and build something in a vertical harmonic way, building sounds up, so we’ve had to string things together more. It’s a ribbon of music – you’re trying to thread these connections together musically.

We’ve also found that there’s a security to being in your own home and in your own space. The anxieties around having to leave home aren’t there and everyone turns up on screen quite relaxed and ready to start. People being in their own homes with their own things around them gives you a different angle to work with.

Is there anything positive you will take away from this time?

Hannah: Out of the Ordinary is reaching households across the UK. Some members of the group would find it difficult or impossible to travel to their nearest city or town to join weekly in-person sessions, even in more normal times. It may also be the case that some participants feel more relaxed and able to contribute with more confidence from the comfort and familiarity of their living rooms.

After my first online project session, I wasn’t prepared to have such a strong emotional reaction. I knew I’d missed working in this way, but it hit home just how much I need this kind of human connection and an outlet for creative expression in my life – to feel inspired by others in this way.

Dan: I have found that participants being in their own home opens up conversations that we might not have had in the usual settings. For example, using objects in their homes or the view from their windows as inspiration gives rise to some really lovely conversations between participants.

We’ve also been able to record the sessions, which means we can go back and review our work and reflect and learn from the session in a meaningful way.

John Webb (Composition, 1994) is a composer, animateur, educator, conductor and writer. He works with many of the UK’s most well-known musical organisations, including Open Academy. He spoke to us about finding new techniques for being creative over Zoom.

Tell us about your educational work.

I’ve always felt education and outreach work, including project-based work with community groups and schools, is an important part of my career and have been involved in this area for 25 years. I work with a range of groups, from early years, primary and secondary students to vulnerable adults and families, working to create music which is very much owned by the participants and therefore encourages their own musically creative journey.

Projects can vary in size and scope. The biggest one I’ve done was with the Buckinghamshire Music Trust at the Royal Albert Hall – 160 children contributed to a piece and nearly 2,000 performed it. When I’m working in early years or special needs settings the projects are obviously on a much smaller scale and focus on encouraging spontaneous music-making, giving space for participants to improvise their own music and for me and the team to respond to it in a joyful collaboration.

With Open Academy I take groups of Academy students into primary schools. It’s really important for students to learn to use their musical skills in a way that reaches out to people, as surely that’s what music is all about. In a workshop, a musician’s skills are there to be of service to the participants – if the participant says, 'I want you to sound like a frog', you have to sound like a frog! It’s partly about letting go of one’s ego – thinking ‘it’s not about me, it’s about them’.

What are the limitations of moving your projects online?

There are the basic limitations of Zoom - you can’t play together because of the lag and often one sound will predominate over all the others at any particular moment, meaning playing together is very limited. Also not being able to make eye contact is a limitation, as during in-person sessions eye contact is important in helping and encouraging participants.

On Zoom, I find I’m planning a lot more and thinking a lot harder about how to make these sessions work online. It doesn’t feel as easily spontaneous as working in the room when you can fly off on tangents suggested by the group.

How have you adapted and what positives do you take from the situation?

Despite the problems, it’s great to be able to keep things going through this medium and build techniques for working in this new way. We can still use call and response: in one project I asked the participants to create alien music conversations with a third person interpreting back into English. They were able to explore expressing emotion through music and how this might be interpreted, and it could work online because it was a turn-taking activity.

I also bought myself some recording software so that participants can record what they are doing, send it to me and I can put it together into one piece. The finished piece replaces the final performance – it’s something for the participants to keep that shows that we created a piece of music together.

I do hope that the work I and other music leaders are doing over lockdown is making a difference to the participants. We’ve got an artistic aim to create something together with them, but it’s often really about us listening to participants, accepting and responding to their ideas, which I think is very powerful in the current situation.

Photo by Philharmonia Orchestra