by Pat Campbell
They call it “Community Music.” The ringing metallic groove of the community center’s steel band. A coming together of choristers from six faiths in a Choral Fusion festival. A project for primary-school teachers on music “from around the world.” A song-writing workshop for out-of-work young adults. Group guitar lessons in an after-school program. Country dancing — at a moderated tempo — for seniors in an elder-care home. The riveting polyrhythms of a prison’s samba band. A “Family Jam Day” of pots, pans, tuned gas pipes, and big blue barrels for moms, dads, and little ones. These are a sampling of the energies of Community Music in East London, Liverpool, Birmingham, Sheffield, Norfolk, a village in the Lakes District, a Cornish town.
In the UK and across Europe, in Australia and New Zealand, and now coming to North America, Community Music is a movement intended to bring people together through music—any music, all kinds of instrumental and vocal music, music that appeals to those who make it (who are musical beginners, amateurs, and semi-skilled or even unskilled musicians). Community Music is open and encompassing of many manifestations. It is the stuff of musical interactions for people of all ages, ability levels, and interests outside formal music institutions such as public schools, university music departments, conservatories, and symphony orchestras. Efforts in Community Music lead to engagement in singing, playing, and dancing, all of it facilitated by a knowledgeable and skilled musician intent on realizing the interests and needs of the community.
Community musicians do not didactically and directly teach: they assist others in accomplishing group aims, and they are of use to a small or larger group of people in making arrangements for music to be made. They procure instruments; they schedule gatherings, rehearsal rooms, and performance spaces; they ensure that everyone who wishes to make, create, and enjoy music can do so. They are engaged and enthusiastic musicians first, but their work is also related to the work of social activists and agents, music therapists, and those rare teachers who live the democratic “bottom-up” ideal of allowing every voice to be heard in musically expressive ways. Community musicians offer children, youth, adults, and seniors of various settings and circumstances the opportunities to create personal and collective expressions of artistic, social, political, and cultural concerns. The Community Music Activity Commission, of the International Society for Music Education (ISME), states a vision that reflects these points.
A tidal wave of musical energy in Community Music has been building in the UK since the 1960s, where it had embraced Marxist principles in allowing for collective artistic expressions that were funded by local governments and national (often public) funds. “Community Arts,” it was called then, and dance, theatre, and music projects were supported for the pleasure of the people who invented them as “people’s projects,” always with a facilitator (called an animateur) connected to the group, who could help to realize their artistic vision. British styled Community Music grew into its own by the 1980s, when it was viewed as the means of encouraging and empowering participants to come together, to enhance the life of their communities through music, and to contribute to the development of economic regeneration among the disenfranchised, the disabled, the marginalized. Musical excellence is less the point of Community Music (though that is certainly possible) than is the joy of engaging together in making something beautiful.
Community Music is about the social engagement of the participatory process — more so than about the perfected performance product. Community music resonates with the professed and lived principles of Charlie Keil, Tom Turino, Chris Small, John Blacking, Paulo Friere. Music for the joy of it, music in social life, music in (all) societies that value it, music (and other experiences) for the oppressed—as shaped by (rather than for) them. In a Community Music course at the University of Washington in spring 2009, students read and discussed these scholarly works, even as they also received first-hand stories from Sarah Bartolome, Bill Clifford, John Drummond, Charlie Keil, David Knott, Bob Pitzer, and others. Some students had come into “the grip” of Community Music earlier, with residencies of Community Musicians Lee Higgins (Liverpool Institute of the Performing Arts, now at Boston University) and Phil Mullen (Goldsmiths College, London).
All students of the UWCM seminar worked their way from readings and discussions, and from the sage words of seminar guests, into their applied projects at The Vera Project, El Centro de la Raza, the Folklife Festival, a number of community youth (and adult) choirs and bands, and music in preschool, after-school, and eldercare centers. In these venues, they observed music as it operates in the community, where it is not a standards-based music education project, nor a music therapy enterprise, nor a journey into applied ethnomusicology. For the UW Community Music students, the journey into collective music making underscored the meaning of the movement: Making music an empowering and socially fulfilling experience.
While the projects were as brief in duration as a university quarter’s term allows, more than a few have been extended by students into the summer and autumn, or have moved on to new community contexts. Community Music may be rooted in the UK, but the wave of its good energy has roared onto American shores. It could be argued that CM was always and ever here in North America, too. Certainly, musical communities are nothing new—anywhere. But Community Music is bent on working musically trained individuals into neighborhoods and city sectors where people might want to express themselves musically, for dozens of reasons, if only they could…if only someone would take the lead and facilitate for them. The difference between American-style Community Music and the practice in the UK (and in Australia, New Zealand, Europe, and elsewhere), however, is that there is the tradition of government funding elsewhere…while our American endeavors are either gratis or (if we were enterprising enough) privately funded. The development of Community Music in the U.S. along the ways of the UK, where it is integrated within social-communal infrastructures and initiatives, will rely on articulate proposals and exemplar projects that clarify the power of music to change lives. I came across UK-styled Community Music while living in Cambridge, England, in the mid-1990s, and through associations with British community music workers Lee Higgins, Phil Mullen, and David Price there and in their articulation to members of the International Society for Music Education. CM seemed not unlike what many of us do here in the US: Make music wherever musically interested people gather. And so Community Music happens when the aim is ensuring that all who wish to engage in making music can do so. With fiddle or drum, guitar or horn, and most certainly by raising their singing voices, children and youth, and adults of every age and circumstance, can participate in the joy of the musicking process. With family, friends, neighbors, colleagues, and multiple others, music makes community more human.