The Monthly Interviews Sarah Murphy from Wall2Wall Music and the Women in Music project – part 1

What was the initial spark which lead to setting up Wall 2 Wall Music?

The spark was a love of creative music making and a desire to engage people through immersive, inclusive and transformative musical experiences.

Initially we partnered with an artist, Marie Barrett of North 55, in Malin Head, in 2011 on her  Illuminate project where we co created music and visual images with descendants of Inishtrahull Island, their friends and their neighbours living in their local community.

The participants lived in the Malin Head and Glengad area and the music and visuals we collected emerged from stories, poems and artefacts that they shared with us.

You have grown substantially from that initial project?

Since then we have worked and partnered with many organisations and we have engaged people of all ages, all backgrounds and abilities.

We have worked with the Verbal Arts Centre, Barbican Creative Learning and LSO on the “ At sixes and sevens”  as part of City of Culture in 2013, and following that two creative Creative Labs.

We have worked with Musical Futures in Northern Ireland between 2012 and 2015  delivering training for Key Stage 3 music teachers, delivering practical music making in classrooms and running  “How to transform Music in your Classroom!” 2 day conference in Belfast in 2014

We have partnered with Music Generation partnerships working on a variety of creative projects with teenagers. A particular highlight of our work with them was in 2016 co-composing a new work with Music Ambassadors from both Donegal Music Education Partnership and Music Generation Sligo who then performed their music at the ISME conference in Glasgow in 2016.

Where it is possible we like to archive project videos on our Wall2Wall Music YouTube channel where you can hear some of the projects we have been involved with.

Is there anything you would direct people to which is a good example of what you do?

The Soundwaves project in partnership with the Donegal Music Education Partnership is something of which Wall2Wall Music is  especially proud. We worked alongside teenagers passionate about music, on a project that ran across several weeks in the summer of 2015. The project aimed to prepare them for life as a musician in the 21st century. We covered as much as we could within the project, from producing material to marketing and pretty much everything in between. The project has had several incarnations since then from 5 day projects to 1 day specials and the thing I love most is the energy and diversity of the young people involved. You can watch several YouTube videos on the Wall2Wall Music YouTube channel of participants, with many big ensemble pieces and group improvisations, band songs and music videos to instruction videos on leading and improvisation made to share with other young people, and also project reflections of young people sharing their experiences.

We have been involved in several really diverse projects and another one that had a big impact on me personally is a project with Rosetta Life. As  part of the City of Culture in 2013 we created and performed music with people living with stroke, their carers and family members, the nurses on the ward at Altnagelvin hospital and the volunteers at the Chest,Heart and Stroke association who supported them in the community.

On that project we worked with composer Orlando Gough and videographer Chris Rawlence . The project stimulated another much bigger research project in London where we were part of the consultation process. That later came back here as a dance, music performance which was part of the Belfast International Festival in 2018. As part of that performance I played a specially composed duet with another flautist called Zoe Douglas  who had experienced a stroke 15 years ago while studying music as a student. She has an extraordinary story which she shared at a seminar in Belfast  and then agreed to perform with me at the end of the Stroke Odysseys show. This was the first time she had performed in public since her stroke and I found the whole experience emotional and humbling.

Which came first, the activity or the organisation?

In the beginning, the Marie Barrett “Illuminations” project came out of her seeing the work I was doing with other organisations. I have always worked as a music facilitator. In earlier days when I mostly worked and toured as a performer with different groups  I always found myself volunteering to organise the music educational aspect of the groups activity. Then I freelanced for different organisations and became fascinated by the developing engagement and delivery styles so I would say in the end that Wall2Wall Music grew organically out of that.

Did you feel the need to create an organisation?

Over time I had worked with a lot of people who were like minded, and to do what we wanted to do, where we would all have more of a say on the design of projects, and actually, in order to deliver large scale projects, we really needed to set up some form of organisation. We still have a relatively small group of facilitators but we like to collaborate with other people working across a variety of art forms who have a similar ethos as well , so we can expand what we do with regards artistic ideas and creative music making.

What underpins the work you do, theoretically?

We understand that everyone is born with a natural affinity to music. From the sounds of the heartbeat in the womb, the connection to sound and even from the earliest age when we hear singing, we connect with sound and rhythm.

We think people are born creative and that everyone has the right to creative expression throughout all ages and stages of their lives.

There is a theorist, Ken Robinson, who says we are born creative and that natural disposition is gradually educated out of us.

How do you implement this approach?

At Wall 2 Wall Music, we are always aiming to find ways to reconnect with that instinctive creative process. We want what we do to be accessible to all ages and ability levels.

We like to set up a positive atmosphere which is relaxed and playful and where all ideas are good and worthwhile and people have permission to be creative together.

As our projects progress we want to work with purpose to create a giant team where people work with open minds and ears, producing, editing and celebrating their creations together.

Would this be a different approach to how other educators approach musical teaching?

Music is incredibly important in schools and it is important to students and the teachers who deliver the classes. Our connection to the practice in schools is through an organisation called Musical Futures which came to Northern Ireland as a project funded by the  Paul Hamlyn Foundation funded in 2012-2015 called  Musical Futures, with Wall2Wall Music awarded the contract to work in schools with music teachers at Key Stage 3 levels across Northern Ireland.

How many schools did you work in?

We worked with music teachers across up to 35 schools overall, some who attended training and some who I supported to embed the approach into their  school music department.  We also delivered some longer project work for students in schools in the Derry and Limavady areas. What we saw across Northern Ireland were music teachers working really hard in schools, mostly on their own and without much support. For this reason many teachers were delighted to take up the funded opportunity to update their skills. Musical Futures developed some very practical techniques aimed at KS3 students to engage them at their own interest level especially bringing band skills and an informal learning approach into the classroom. They  found that traditionally much of the musical teaching within  classroom teaching had concentrated on the theory or the history of music, desk work really, with the practical aspect of making music in the classroom usually focussed on recorder or keyboard. More diverse music making mainly took place out of the classroom with school choirs, orchestras, bands and instrumental tuition  from music services.

We came into the schools to help teachers to explore simple techniques, bringing practical workshopping and band skills into the classroom and to sharing informal learning approaches. We focussing on bringing in  instruments that the students could relate to, such as Bass guitar, Guitar and drums. Musical Futures approach in many ways mirrored our Wall2Wall Music approach and I was happy to be associated with bringing this to Northern Ireland over the 4 years that this programme was funded.

Young people have experienced massive changes regarding their creative possibilities and we are always looking at offering a much more practical approach to learning about music in schools.

What did your approach lead to?

Well we ran a 2 day conference for classroom music teachers  in The Mac in 2014 called “How to transform Music in your Classroom!” which shared practise and gave an opportunity for peer to peer learning. We supported a number of music teachers in adjusting their approach and taking the plunge to try a new delivery style, facilitating instrumental, vocal and improvisation inside their classroom.  I like to think of  both teachers and students learning new skills together and everyone having increased engagement in the classroom together.

Does your work take place mainly in schools?

We have worked in schools in the north and in the south of Ireland. We find that our approach works well with young people in schools but it transfers easily to community settings and people of all ages interested in making music together.

You work with large groups of participants. I would assume that would be quite challenging?

The “At Sixes and Sevens”  project had  as many 150 young people working on a project taking part  in the poetry and music workshops, and around 60 students, poets, musicians, to coordinate for the performance, so it was quite a large project.

Currently we are delivering a whole school primary school project with elements  of that project  involving the coordination of delivery to  380 children and 20 teachers.

That can be challenging at but the main way we counterbalance that is building relationships with our partners, careful planning, and great teamwork!

Mostly we are more at home working with 20-25 people per project.

How do you organise such large groups?

A lot of what we do will obviously depend on the complexity of the project, the partners involved and what obstacles we encounter along the way.

During a project we would have facilitator team meetings and discussions, we might be making little adjustments as we go through to make sure the experience is good for everyone involved.

For composition projects we tend to work in both large and small groups work with them and gradually fuse all the small groups together.

We want every participant in a Wall2Wall music project to have the best experience possible so we spend a lot of time reflecting with people throughout the projects. We ask them regularly how they think things are going.

Is the aim primarily to make original compositions?

The aim is, as I have said, is to engage people through a creative music making process. We want people to work together and explore themes, concepts and stories and then transfer their ideas into melodies, rhythms and songs. That often ends up in new compositions, songs and arrangements created together. Sometimes it is a giant group lead improvisation.

We hope that people will create new music and most often that happens but it isn’t essential that new music is created. The crucial thing is to safely explore hidden talents through the shared creative musical experience.

Could you discuss the idea of “taking people out of their comfort zone”?

Wall2Wall Music  uses simple, inviting and friendly techniques which encourage people to tiptoe out of their comfort zone. So, we merge genres, reshape  boundaries through improvising, we ask people to try things they haven’t done before, play instruments they might not have played before, playing styles they haven’t played before, and we want to make all of that as playful as possible.

Participants have said of their project experience that it was both challenging and intense at times but also that it was the most fun they have had in making music.

Why a “Women Making Music” course?

We noticed that when Wall2Wall Music  was making call-outs for additional facilitators for various projects, or if we offered training as part of a project delivery, there were many more men than women who would respond for these opportunities.

We found, through informal discussions, that there was a series of issues; a lack of confidence, an assumed lack of skills, a lack of both affordable and accessible training, and a lack of financial support for any caring responsibilities.

Women’s lives don’t often follow a linear career path for a variety of reasons. Women can have breaks in employment, many work part time in a freelance capacity, many more are fitting employment in around caring and parenting responsibilities, and all of those things and more create a series of challenges. These challenges can be, experiencing low income, working in isolation, a lack of peer group support in their work, leading to self doubt and sometimes low self esteem, and a lack of time for themselves which creates difficulties for women wanting to get involved in development and training opportunities that arts organisations might offer.

There needs to be a sensitive approach to that situation and we were very happy to have been awarded funding from Help Musicians, Women in Music Fund to run a course to address some of these issues. We cannot be more thankful that Help musicians are listening, investing and supporting some of the complex challenges that all musicians face here in Northern Ireland.

What is the aim of the course?

We are hoping that the women and non binary people who take this short course will develop practical skills in music facilitation to enable them to take on leadership roles in community music and music education as part of their careers.

The question of confidence is very important, and we would hope that the participants’ confidence would increase, and that they might form partnerships and make connections with like-minded women who would help to create a support network as well.

I will say here that while we are addressing a particular issue of representation for women, its true to say that there are many challenges facing everyone working in the arts regardless of gender. However, we also think that where campaigns are being set up to encourage and enable women and non binary people into music, initiatives that value and support more complex pathways,  initiatives that address historical imbalance for example the 50/50 campaign for equal representation in music festivals, these and more should be welcomed and supported.

Part two of this interview is here

artist forms link
New Belfast Community Arts Initiative trading as Community Arts Partnership is a registered charity (XR 36570) and a company limited by guarantee (Northern Ireland NI 37645).Registered with The Charity Commission as New Belfast Community Arts Initiative - NIC105169.