Digital practice during the pandemic

Posted on: September 24, 2021 in: Education and Outreach

Written by Gawain Hewitt
Names have been changed to protect young people’s confidentiality

It’s mid-morning. I’m sitting at home staring at a screen, wondering whether to adjust the blinds because the backlighting is making me squint a little. Four other faces are on my screen. Just waiting. No one is saying much. There’s one blank space. A window into an empty classroom. This has become a familiar scene for me over the past year. It’s February 2021, the UK is in lockdown, and I’m sat (virtually) with a team of musicians from City of London Sinfonia (CLS) and the Bethlem and Maudsley Hospital School ready to deliver a workshop in the Psychiatric Intensive Care Unit (or PICU). The project is Sound Young Minds. Over the past three years, we have worked with the staff and young people at the school to develop a project that puts young people’s voices at the centre of creative compositional workshops. Using improvisation, repertoire, technology and our orchestral musicians, we create a space that is both accessible to all but also creatively serious. We create work that goes on to feature in interactive sound installations that feature as part of CLS concerts and have even been shown at the Tate Modern.

The pandemic has meant that we’ve had to re-examine and rebuild a project that was previously rooted in being present and in a room. We need to try and work out how on earth we are going to achieve this online. The twist is that without an online practice we wouldn’t be in the PICU at all. It was considered too risky for us to work in person as the young people are so unwell, so this is a story of something lost and something gained. And for now, we just wait. All the senses we’ve finely tuned for years to prepare us for the beginning of a workshop are dulled and replaced with the monophonic crackle of Microsoft Teams. Our vision is a narrow camera looking into an empty room. Time takes on a strange quality at these times. We’re not even clear if someone will turn up. But we are ready. A door, some voices, furniture moves, and a bundle of hype and energy enters the classroom. On screen, off screen, sat down, wandering the room. Laughter bursting out and a yoghurt in her hand, Alice is here, and I am meeting her for the first time. To Alice, I’m just one of several strange faces on a PC screen.

“Hello,” I introduce myself, but, to be honest, talk is cheap right now so I turn to Matt Maguire, Sub-Principal Viola for the Orchestra, and ask him to play a piece of orchestral repertoire1. In this case, on the theme of birds. What happens next is one of many remarkable things that have changed how I view music making and creative work over the internet. Despite the distance, the Teams link, despite not having the first idea what the sound is like through the computer that Alice is on, despite all this, the sound of live music has changed everything. Alice is stilled and is paying attention. Matt is playing beautifully, playing for Alice and for everyone on the screen. Teachers and clinical staff supporting Alice. And the essence of that is still somehow being communicated. There has been an energy shift and the room is calmed.

“Hello,” I try again. Alice makes some noise in the class and I decide to loop it, showing her immediately that I can use a looper2 to take a noise from the computer session and repeat it, then add to it to make a piece of music. This is a technique that I first started using when working in the classroom with young people and is a really playful way of demonstrating how any sound can be built upon to make something that sounds good or at least different and collaborative. It’s also just silly and playful and is about music-making without the cultural baggage that so many of us come with around who is a musician, what an instrument is and what ‘good music’ is. Alice is now involved in sound and music-making with us. Demonstrating rather than explaining has always been key to the work we have been doing on this project, and the fact that we can do this online still blows my mind. I play the full track back and finally introduce myself and the team. “Hi Alice, my name is Gawain and I’m here from City of London Sinfonia and we’re here to make music today.”

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“I want to play the guitar” – Alice is engaged. She’s with us and she’s ready to make music. We have brought all our internet tools with us but she says, “OK, great – do you have a guitar?” It turns out there is one nearby to the PICU and a nurse goes to fetch it. Alice has never played the guitar and I have no one in the room with her who can help even with tuning, so I decide to keep it with sounds and group music-making. “Make any sound you like,” I say. I’ve grabbed my guitar now and I’m showing her the frets and how you can use them to change the pitch. Alice has excellent rhythm and a real desire to explore and gets on with playing some open strings, so I ask Matt (viola) to play along. And somehow, it’s working. The combination of Microsoft Teams’ voice-tuned-noise-suppression algorithm and general internet stuff means that the sound is cutting in and out. I have no idea what Alice can hear. I have no idea who Matt can hear. But they are making music together. They are improvising and, as with all the best improvisation, they are paying attention to each other and there is respect and collaboration there. And, therefore, implicitly a non-verbal affirmation of Alice’s status with us as a musician. Of being welcome and her voice being heard, mirroring a chamber orchestra or ensemble as the leadership and music passes from player to player.

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In my experience, rapport building in non-mainstream education is the key. In any setting outside of a normal classroom, you are, by definition, working with young people for whom education is not easy to access. By this stage of the session, we have built enough trust to risk something completely different. I ask Alice if she would like to have a go at making a piece of music using Matt’s sounds. She’s intrigued, so I pass her a link via chat to a basic online sequencer I have developed, which uses a sample of Matt on his viola. This is part of a suite of tools I have been developing to extend our online practice and bring sounds and musical experiences that have direct relevance to us as an orchestra to the project3. Alice flies with the task, excited and engaged and quickly saves her work. She sends the link for the saved version back to us through the chat function. After listening to it, I ask if she would like to hear a duet of this with Matt. She says yes. One of the main problems with online music-making using tools such as Zoom and Teams is that there is a delay in the timing and often you can’t hear more than one or two things at once. Using a “save as URL” feature, we have started taking the students’ work and then playing it locally to us, in the same room, through a speaker. This allows us to get as close as possible to real-time playing together in a fairly straightforward way. Matt loads up her piece and improvises an accompaniment. Alice is thrilled – it sounds great. Her full attention is with us and the music-making, and essentially from a creative point of view, we are now all part of a team with the aim of making the best music we can, in the moment, right now.

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Now we’re flying – we have momentum. I offer Alice the opportunity to do another, but this time on flute. We have with us an Open Academy Fellow, Camille, who is a flautist. I pass Alice a sequencer with a sample of Camille in it. Again, a piece by Alice is made, saved, then passed in the chat function to Camille.

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More! We’re thinking about birdsong on this project, so I have made a birdsong sequencer, which I again pass over. This time, Matt and Camille both play with the piece created by Alice.

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“I can make a bird sound you know,” Alice offers. “Oh?” And then she does. And it’s really good. I ask for her consent to record it. I tell her that I will include it in our future work. She gives four amazing takes.

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And then, suddenly, our time is up. The end of these sessions is abrupt and clumsy. “Thank you,” “Thank you,” “Thank you.” A nurse leads Alice away. The teaching staff (some in the school building, some at home) close the Teams meeting and we as a team reconvene on a Zoom or Whatsapp for a debrief. We may never see Alice again.

The pandemic has taken away so much of our practice on the Sound Young Minds project, but it has also forced us to reimagine it in a new container. The work I describe here would never have happened had we not developed an online workshop, as we are not allowed to access the PICU in person. We are so desperate to get back in the room once it is safe to do so. However, when we do, we will be taking the best practice from both our previous work and our new online work to access all the young people in the hospital. I would love to hear about other people’s experience of working online and how new tools and techniques can enrich and extend our reach and work once we have a choice as to how we deliver workshops.

Technical notes:

1 Matt is using a professional studio microphone for this session, which does make a difference to the experience. That said, we have had other players on the project who do not have special equipment and it still works. The playing is more important than the equipment, but the equipment does help.

2 I am using a Boss RC505 looper connected to my Windows PC via USB. The Looper is therefore my audio interface in the Zoom or Teams session, which means I have the option of looping things in my room but also of looping audio coming through the meeting audio. I have a mic plugged in for me to speak, an MPC drum machine and a synthesiser. I am able to use live instruments in the room by using my microphone.

3 In preparing to take this project online, CLS set up an R&D virtual residency during the Autumn of 2020 for me and Matt. We spent ten days exploring online working, trying to find out what was possible and test it. What did we find acceptable creatively and collaboratively, and what did other people think when we worked with them? In this process we came across online musical instruments such as Patatap, as well as sequencers that allowed for the sharing of work via URL links such as Typedrummer, Typatone and Chrome Music Lab. Inspired by this I have learned to make my own, starting with a hack of Patatap – which you can try here (the screen is supposed to be black), through to simple online loopers and sequencers. I am now working on more sophisticated versions with better user interfaces and sounds and plan to start releasing them in the early Summer of 2021.

Sound Young Minds is a bespoke programme originated by City of London Sinfonia in partnership with Bethlem and Maudsley Hospital School and Lavender Walk Adolescent Mental Health Unit, funded by Youth Music, that builds confidence and self-esteem in young people living with severe mental health and psychiatric conditions through music-making and sharing. Now in its fourth year, it is the only programme of its kind in the UK and is one of the central pillars of CLS’s singular identity informing every aspect of its work from world-renowned concert stages to care homes, the digital sphere to schools. Sound Young Minds won the 2020 RPS Impact Award.