Monday, 1 December 2008

Music, food for the soul and much more...

I was pondering the other day "what is it about music that drives me so?" Music's influence is not easy to translate into words and I realized music has brought me many things. There are times when its influence has healed and rebuilt me, there have been private moments of settlement and calmness, then raucous times shared with others in friendship and society.

Music has been a way of expression for my emotions and thoughts; a language conveying understanding of feelings and moods, involving the small and the large of life; from a memory of a bashful kiss in a sunlit morning, to protest at the horror of injustice in a cruel world. Music has suited every purpose for me; reflected every stage of my life and every need. It is ever present in every aspect of what I do, at the very heart of my humanity, and yet so easy to take for granted.

I want to explore this relationship with music. I have learned through my encounters with others, and come to believe that the ability to appreciate and respond to music is an inborn quality in us all which remains unimpaired by handicap, injury or illness.

Perhaps one of the problems we face is that music has been commodified, we are all consumers and we buy and use rather than create and produce ourselves. We are sold expectations of musicality, where music is standardised within narrow confines. This excludes the individual's, unorthodox, unique, even ordinariness. It separates people from their own musical self, and that wonderful feeling of expression. How many times do you hear people say "I can't sing" because they have been taught not to believe in the authenticity of their own voice, and don't realize that they can develop and explore their own musicality.

I am in some ways new to creating music, I have strummed a guitar for over thirty years but it is only seven years ago that I started exploring my musicality seriously, along with my friend Denis. We started playing music together, guitar and harmonica. This led to taking voice lessons, and the shock of realizing that I could make sounds, pleasant sounds and develop and grow in my musical ability.

I suddenly found myself able to tune my guitar by ear, something I had never been able to do previously. Denis, Eve and I used to meet in our respective houses and play, improvise, create, write songs and melodies. We would start in an evening and play into the early hours of morning. It was wonderful, full of friendship, hot tea and chocolate. This was the birth of Oh Dee Mhac One and the Armley Music Feast.

That recapturing of creativity has given me back my own authentic voice of expression. In being creative I have explored my personality, and come much closer to penetrating and understanding the truth of my own existence and in sharing musical expression I have observed this is true for others too.

I have worked in the 'care industry' for the last thirty years encountering many people. Throughout I have brought my guitar and music with me, informally strumming simple songs, singing and generally having fun. This has always been about sharing, playing, singing and listening. In these informal moments it wasn't necessary to teach singing or to play an instrument, just encouraging the use of rhythm and a person's own voice enabled the world of sound and the creation of an individual's own unique musical language to be explored.

Society has a way of defining and labelling us all; A nurse, a father, a criminal, a boy, a girl, a disabled person. And in each of these roles there are expectations, roles to be played out; rules to follow. Though learning disabled people may have communication difficulties, limited social skills and physical problems, they often recognise that they are seen as different by society, a realization that is an emotional challenge for anyone.

I have seen music offer people access to important elements of themselves, making it possible to shake off if only for a moment, society's role or view and enable the person to define themselves. To be who they want to be.

Take 'Fred' for example, a young man, autistic, moderately learning disabled and shy. Fred walks with a stoop, speaks quietly and never looks you in the eye. This particular afternoon I had brought my Gibson guitar in to work and plugged it into my amp and hooked up a microphone to a stage amp. Fred picked the guitar up, and leaned into the microphone. Suddenly a wall of rhythmic sound blasted from the amp, and Fred sang his heart out, looking fiercely, proudly, directly at his startled audience of care workers and fellow residents."Look at Fred" said one nurse. "He looks different, magnificent"

And he was, he had found his voice and discovered a new side to his self, one that wasn't dictated by others but created by himself. Fred often now plays guitar and sings his thoughts to others.

Fred was transformed by music, no longer the learning disabled label, now in his own mind a creative performer telling his own stories through music enhancing the individual nature of his relationships with others. Through this musical experience Fred made his own positive changes, felt emotionally stronger and developed an increased sense of self-awareness, and enhanced quality of life.

I have many times seen similar scenes, with different individuals over the years. Making music is essentially a social activity of communication, listening and sharing. Through it we develop a greater awareness of ourselves in relation to others and discover greater confidence in our ability to make relationships and to find positive ways of expressing our selves. It is truly a form of liberation; to value each other as equal human beings in which we explore the value of our self and step outside the label society imposes on us.

(Name and place contexts fictionalised to maintain confidentiality and personal dignity).

Saturday, 29 November 2008

In the beginning...

...there was a bunch of health workers and nurses in Leeds, thinking of ways of raising some cash for the Learning Disability units they worked in. My interest in music and playing in a band naturally led me to the idea of having a fun music evening and my friends quickly attached a summer fair to it. So was born the Armley Music Feast 2008, held at St Bartholemews Hall on the day of the Summer Solstice.

And a great day and evening it was, full of fun and music and raising £600 for a great Learning Disability cause. Such fun deserves to be an annual event and the 2009 'Music Feast' is at the planning stages, hopefully incorporating music work shops during the day, as well as a variety of colourful stalls and other day time entertainments, culminating in the evening of varied bands so successful last year.

Anybody interested in helping and being part of this please get in touch.