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date: 18 May 2021

(p. ix) Foreword

(p. ix) Foreword

Forewords are a thankless task. Few people bother to read them, preferring to plunge straight into the main body of the text. Those that do read them expect a summation of the key messages of the work they’re about to explore. That’s, frankly, impossible in the case of this book—its sheer weight and breadth cannot be encapsulated in a few pithy paragraphs. If you’re looking for that, look no further than the introductory chapter. It provides the most comprehensive walk-through of an extraordinarily complex field that I’ve yet seen. I suspect this book will be dipped into, according to the reader’s needs, but please don’t skip this chapter.

Instead, I offer a perspective that comes from many years of observing the field grow before moving into a more mind-expanding overview. I will also attempt to place it within a personal and chronological snapshot.

The early days of UK state-funded community music closely align with my initial engagement as a practitioner: my first job in education was with Community Arts Workshop, in Manchester, UK, in 1982. It was, to use the definitional boundaries explored by Huib Schippers later, a purely interventionist role. The communities of North Manchester were significantly deprived, and we unashamedly believed that the arts existed to change the world—and there was a lot of it to change. Even then, I worried that we were trying to impose a political agenda upon a group of communities that thought they were coming along to escape from the poverty and unemployment that marked their lives, not be reminded of it. I was graphically reminded of this dilemma in a subsequent job—hired, along with some of the contributors to this book, by the UK government’s Arts Council, to bring the joy of music to the grateful masses—when I shared my anxiety about imposing my own views upon the group I was working with. I will never forget one of the participants response: ‘I’m only here because the alternative is sitting at home watching bloody Coronation Street’. (Coronation Street is a British Soap Opera institution, still running, but first broadcast in the Middle Ages). Karl Marx himself would have withered.

That was nearly forty years ago, and this sweeping analysis confirms how far the field has progressed since then. Community music wasn’t born in the political foment of Margaret Thatcher’s Britain (although to some of us, it surely felt that way). It was around, in a non-interventionist form, when the first indigenous communities celebrated social events through music-making. Its songs fuelled the great social upheavals in (p. x) eighteenth-century Europe and beyond, and it will be around long after this book goes out of print. The reason why is vividly portrayed in the following pages: community music reflects all aspects of the human condition. It is life itself, in all of its many complexities and contradictions.

And that’s why it’s as futile to ask for a cast-iron, simple definition of community music, as it is to ask ‘what is life?’ More productive questions to ask, as the book explores, would be ‘what does it do?’ and ‘why does it matter?’ In this regard, the book makes an invaluable contribution. Taken as a whole, it provides a frame for understanding the foundational principles upon which the practice is based: co-production, collaboration, the democratisation of art, the nurturing of individual creative potential, social development, cultural empathy and personal growth. Quite a list and not an easy set of contexts within which practice can be codified. And any attempt to do so would probably have been anathema to my former, Manchester-based, community music worker self. The ‘punk ethic’ that drove a lot of interventionist community music-making in the 1980s was resistant to deliberate analysis—just do it, and use the evaluation to tell them about the magic that happens, pretty much summed up our lives. But the maturation of community music, from anarchic social movement to closely-studied field of practice, has demanded that we critically dissect not only practice, but also policy, ethnography, and politics.

This is one reason why we need this handbook. At tertiary level, I studied music in a community context at a time when the conceptual canon was negligible and had to be translated from associated fields like cultural theory, sociology, perhaps a bit of dramaturgy. … All very well but, as an aspirant practitioner, that didn’t tell me much about what to do in my workshop tomorrow. Over the course of the next twenty years, the thirst for practical ‘how-to’ handbooks was beginning to be sated by books by John Stevens, Peter Renshaw, and others, though this remains an unquenchable thirst as new aspirants enter the profession, and the practice continues to reinvent itself.

The contributing chapters brilliantly encapsulate how we got to be here with community music. For that alone, it deserves to be a set text in every institution that music as a wider, socially conscious discipline is studied. But it does so much more than that. It still carries some of that restless, contentious, dissatisfied spirit that propelled the movement’s early development and, thankfully, still thrives today. In 1987, I helped organize what, with hindsight, has come to be regarded as a seminal moment in the history of community music: the world’s first conference at the Abraham Moss Centre in North Manchester. I remember it as an anarchic, almost riotous, clashing of practice and theory. It culminated in a splinter group going out into the neighbouring streets, corralling young people into the venue, and demanding the organizers listen to them define why community music mattered to them. I think the adolescents were as perplexed as we, the organizers, were.

But a few years ago, I happened upon a gathering of elderly people, raucously singing in a park in Shanghai. Around three hundred of them had given up their Sunday morning to be inspired by a facilitator and a six-piece band whose enthusiasm considerably outshone their musical prowess. I had no idea what kind of songs they were singing, so (p. xi) I made the natural Western assumption that they were traditional revolutionary songs. This was taking place within a five-minute walk of an enormous shopping mall, full of Apple and Louis Vuitton superstores. I found myself asking all the same questions we argued over back in 1987: what were they singing about, and why did it seem to matter so much to them? How do we define quality in this context? Were they aware that the drummer was half a bar behind everyone else, and did it matter? Were they coming together to protest against the capitalist drift, or celebrate it? Had the authorities organized it, or was this an act of self-actualization?

In that moment, I realized that my attachment to a Eurocentric, narrowly interventionist understanding of what community is was well past its sell-by date. The global view adopted in this book is vital to understanding the power of community music’s appeal. Not simply vital, but also timely. The book comes at a time when social learning is challenging long-held concepts of formal education, and at a time when the rise of ‘alt-right’ nationalism provides a worrying assault on the values of cultural empathy. This is why, as the editors affirm, ‘community musicians and researchers need to deliberately and systematically conceptualize, analyse, and evaluate the causal links between their practices and the changes that might be occurring.’

In my book, OPEN: How We’ll Work, Live, and Learn in the Future, I argued that information technology is accelerating our capacity to learn from each other, and enabling us to go beyond merely sharing knowledge, but to make social change happen as a result of that sharing. Social movements like Avaaz and Change.Org have millions of members evidencing this contention. I sought to understand the powerful motivations that fuelled social learning, and labelled these motivations as Six Do-Its:

  • Do-It-Yourself (Autonomy)

  • Do It Now (Immediacy)

  • Do It with Friends (Collegiality)

  • Do It for Fun (Playfulness)

  • Do Unto Others (Generosity)

  • Do It for the World to See (High Visibility)

It is striking—though perhaps not surprising—how many of these characteristics are present in the practical examples highlighted in this book. Good community music practice is the most social form of learning, and the global spread of awareness looks set to continue. Thoughtful use of technology will not only enable more community musicians to connect and share, it will facilitate the emergence of new forms of community music through online experimentation.

I also argued in OPEN that the rise of social learning is emblematic of the inexorable desire expressed in the paths we now take to learning: essentially going from traditional pedagogy (tutor-led) to heutagogy (self-determined). Heutagogy, first coined by Australian Stewart Hase, is an ugly word masking a beautiful concept—that the job of any educator is ultimately to make themselves redundant, so that people can learn what they choose in a manner that they determine. Easy to say, but ferociously difficult (p. xii) to attain. The complexity of the working contexts detailed in these pages, and the skills versatility demanded of community musicians is not well understood (though this book will go a long way towards rectifying that). What also needs to be highlighted is why community musicians work so hard to continuously add to their portfolio of skills. I believe it is because they passionately believe in the self-determination of the learner. No one becomes a community musician to get rich—they do so out of a strong sense of service to their community.

Before closing, however, I should voice my one concern about the burgeoning number of scholarly community music texts: we have to be conscious of the potential paradox of using scholarly, complex language to uncover the real heart of community music. Great community music practice takes one of the most complex human activities—making music—and renders it simple and accessible to all. Research must not just be driven by the needs of practice; it must also be held accountable to it. Academic research has largely been welcomed by those whose informal teaching in a wide range of nonformal contexts is being examined. But academic writing in the field becomes self-serving the moment community musicians fail to understand what is being said. Thankfully, the active practitioners and administrators who contributed to this handbook reassure us that such a fate has largely been avoided.

During the time taken to compile this comprehensive study, it has often felt as though the world has tilted off-axis. The hitherto uncontested cornerstones of healthy liberal democracies—inclusion, equality of opportunity, the responsibility to protect those less well off, freedom of association and of speech, and the right to speak truth to power—while not exactly collapsing are certainly being hotly contested. This is why community music matters, and why this book makes for essential reading. While its tone is necessarily impartial, its keen social conscience and the moral purpose of community music shines through on every page.

Bringing people together, to turn off their televisions and make the switch from consumer to producer; to make music collectively and express their feelings through music; to discover the truths about themselves through the creation of vernacular culture—these are powerful political statements. Understanding the intersections between formal and informal education, policy and empowerment, interventions and impact, values and utility, are as necessary today as they are timely. This handbook will carve a path through a dense and bewilderingly diverse set of factors that shape community music-making all round the world—yet recognizing that, at its heart, is its heart. Many years ago, I once heard community music dismissively defined as ‘a lot of people just banging on drums’. After reading this book, you will no doubt consider community music to be a lot more than that, and yet when it does drum, it has always—and hopefully will always—danced to its own pulse.