Thinking Beyond The Project: Making Music (For) Every Day

Soundcastle’s Hannah Dunster shares handy approaches and activities for encouraging music making beyond project parameters.

sticksAt Soundcastle, we work to advocate that everyone has the power to make music and the right to feel ownership of it. Musical Beacons has been running since 2012 in Bow, East London. It is a music group for families with children, with community members spanning an age range of 0-70 years in an area of social housing. During this project, the community created brand new music and songs, representative of their local identity. We challenged ourselves to further empower families to continue making music at home in informal ways beyond the project parameters, thus making music an everyday occurrence in normal life. Here, we share some thoughts and activities on ways to instigate autonomy for musicking beyond our projects.


1. Break down the barriers to music engagement
Living in a profit driven society, music is promoted as something to sell, something at which you either succeed or fail. There are the musicians and the non-musicians. Like many on the Youth Music Network, at Soundcastle we believe that music is for everyone. So how do we break down this barrier? Every session at Musical Beacons is promoted as something for the whole family to attend. Children can not attend without an adult family member and the experience is for both to enjoy. This is not a place for parents to observe their children’s music-making. This is a place where parent and child create something new and meaningful together. The parents are often more nervous than the children so our first task is to create a safe space free from value judgement or externally imposed quality standards. A space where all ideas are welcomed and valued and every voice has the chance to be heard. We spend time on building up people’s confidence, helping them to understand that music is a skill which can be learned and they have as much right to it as anyone else. Through accessible instrumentation, having fun and being silly, playing games and also discussing the important aspects and stories of community life we discover how to communicate through sounds, expressing emotions and finding a shared message with other members of the local community.


2. Create informal musicking activities inspired by the group

After establishing a safe space, we introduce ways that people can integrate informal music making into their daily lives. At the end of each session, we give families a take-home sheet with ideas for activities to try out together at home, whether that be getting out the pots and pans in the kitchen and creating an impromptu drumming session or writing a new song together. We have observed that the more informal music making that takes place at home, the more confidently people contribute to the project itself. The most important message we need to communicate to a nervous parent is that music doesn’t have to always be a special event with an audience or a panel of experts taking notes. It can and should be part of everyday life, imperceptibly woven into our daily activities.


As artistic facilitator of a famey-funily music project, there is a limitless range of creative activities that can be adapted for mixed ages. The most important thing is to use your imagination and shape whatever you do to the personalities of the community members themselves. The group is your starting point and their ideas are priority. Keep this in mind when choosing and delivering the example activities below. Are they suitable for this particular group? Will they give the community members the appropriate framework within which to express their own creative vision? Every project is different and Soundcastle advocates creative facilitation rather than generic workshop formulas. With this in mind, please use any example activities from Musical Beacons purely as starting points.


“Musical Playground Games”

Find out what their favourite playground game is and adapt it!

Throughout the course of your project you may well develop a repertoire of songs. You can use them as games and/or warm-ups in themselves. This helps the group to internalise the words and melody without even knowing they’re doing it. We use playground games to make our rehearsal practice more fun! Here, we outline Grandmother’s footsteps but there are many more playground games you could use as inspiration.


1) Choose a volunteer (Grandmother) to stand at one end of the room, facing the wall. (They should have their back to the rest of the group).

2) Everyone else stands in a line at the opposite end of the room.

3) The objective is for everyone to creep up on ‘Grandmother’.

4) As a group, start sneaking up on Grandmother whilst singing your song together.

5) Grandmother can turn around at any point. As she does this, everyone should freeze and stop singing. If Grandmother catches anyone moving or singing, they are sent to the back.

6) The first person to reach Grandmother without being caught ‘wins’ and can play Grandmother next.

Remember that you can always adapt the theme to make it appropriate for your group, e.g. Sleeping Lion (and all the other animals are sneaking up). This concept is easy for parents to grasp and takes the pressure off engaging with music at home, simply by using it as a tool within the game.


3. Hand over ownership of the process as well as the music

“Magic Wand”

leading-with-a-magic-wandIf, as the facilitator, we continuously stand at the front, directing the group, we are not facilitating honestly but rather, leading. For communities to take more autonomy of their music making, they must be given more ownership of the process itself. The magic wand activity does exactly this. It is a useful activity for empowering community members to take both a facilitatory role and an improvisatory role. It also helps people to learn about melody and how you can apply it to song lyrics. It is accessible for any age group and is ideal for mixed ages.  You will need to bring several magic wands to the session!


1) Explain that we are each going to paint a beautiful, invisible line in the air. Pass it around the circle in silence and watch the line develop. If you have a large group, you could ask for a smaller number of community members to volunteer to demonstrate.

2) Explain that we are now going to turn our line into music. Ask a facilitator to ‘read’ each of the lines painted and play those lines on their musical instrument. Encourage community members to explore the idea of high/low/fast/slow/stop/start etc. Explain to the group that they have been painting their own melodies.

3) Everyone now fetches a musical instrument.

4) With older children and adults: Appoint one community member as leader and give them a magic wand with which to paint their musical line. This magic wand is to be used to signal different musicians to start playing. The leader can now point to individuals and bring them in and out, as well as directing melodies, tempo and layering with the magic wand. There is no right or wrong way to interpret the line. The leader with the wand takes a facilitatory role, guiding the instrumentalist, whilst the instrumentalist gives a purely improvised response to the line.

5) With Early Years children and adults: Divide the group into pairs – parent/carer and child. Give each pair a magic wand and explain that if they use the wand to point at the other person, that is the signal that they can start playing their instrument. Encourage the family pairs to engage in musical ‘conversations’ by facilitating each other to play musical instruments using the magic wand.

Note: This activity is an ideal way to introduce leading/facilitating roles and can be developed with flashcards and signals. You can also refer back to melody ‘painting’. For example, if the group has written song lyrics but isn’t sure how to sing them, encourage them to experiment by ‘painting’ potential melodies and singing the words to the line. This, once modelled within the project, indicates a simple step-by-step approach to exploring and creating melodies together at home.

Following activities like this in Musical Beacons we soon saw families communicating using melody in informal ways in home settings. When asked if she and her son ever made up songs together at home, one mother replied:

“More than songs, we have a communication in singing; so, he can ask me something and I will reply to him…  It’s an easy way to communicate, and gets a response from him, to get his attention.”

Here we see singing absorbed naturally into daily life without ceremony or performance. A simple and unthinking acceptance of their human right to make music.


4. Toolkit

Music is for everyone. It is a fundamental part of being human. By working towards helping people to take autonomy for their own musical lives, we challenge the concept of outreach, instead promoting local music made by and for local people. At Soundcastle, we are advocating for a return to musicking as an active and living part of culture, fundamental to society and owned by all. As a consequence, we can celebrate the incredible power of music to connect people across language and social barriers and its profound and positive effect on our health and wellbeing.

For more ideas for activities and approaches to family music projects and ways to encourage music making in the home, you can download the Musical Beacons Activity Toolkit 2016 for free here.