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Advocating for music during the pandemic

Advocating for music education, youth/community music and music therapy during the pandemic

We all know that the major stakeholders of music education, community music, youth music and music therapy will be struggling with the effects of the pandemic. Their instincts may be to focus in on what they think is essential, and to cut or reduce whatever music activities you provide or support. Anita Holford shares some tips to help you make the case for music. A version of this article first appeared in Sounding Board, the magazine of SoundSense, the professional association of community musicians, in Summer 2020.

Do you have something to add, experience or advice you can share?
Please use the comment box at the end of this blog, or reply on social media –
it will help others in the sector if we grow our knowledge and experience together. Thank you!

It seems more important than ever before that we advocate for music – particularly its role in supporting people who face the biggest barriers in their lives. Even if you think your service/support isn’t at risk, it could be in the future. The most resilient organisations/ individuals, who always seem to bounce back from adversity, are likely to be the ones who advocate for their cause consistently, going beyond simply selling their services.

Start somewhere

You probably have multiple stakeholders and limited time. Lots of people ’starting somewhere’ can grow into a force for change. A good starting point could be to focus on just one of your key audiences/ stakeholder groups, who:

  • you have the closest connection to, who are most likely to be open to listen to what you have to say; or
  • has the most power and influence over support/funding for music (eg the head of your local council’s adult social services in the case of many care homes); or
  • is most at risk of cutting back on music; or
  • has the ‘ear’ of all the above (eg in the case of schools, this is often parents particularly parent governors).

Focus on their most immediate needs/interests, not what you offer

The most powerful advocacy aligns a cause with a person’s real and pressing needs.

You’ll know only too well what pressures your customers/partners are facing. It will certainly be the cost and safety of their (and your) services. Other examples might be:

  • school heads worrying about the practicalities of bringing staff and pupils back into school safely; and how they’ll get pupils back on track in terms of their learning.
  • care home managers overwhelmed with additional medical emergencies as a result of Covid-19
  • health and social care commissioners concerned about people who’ve disengaged from services and become isolated

And while it’s instinctive to start by talking about your services, or the impact and value of music, that could have an adverse effect. They could just ‘switch off’.

Instead, identify specific ways that music can help with their current needs – and ask about any adaptations you could make to strengthen these benefits. For example:

    • school heads/leadership teams – young people who were struggling to engage in learning may have fallen further behind. Music interventions may be the one thing they’re able to experience success in, which feeds their confidence in learning. It will also help them to feel calm, relaxed, less likely to be disruptive and more open to learning.
    • care home managers – staff and residents may be more stressed than usual, leading to strained relations, daily tasks taking more time, and more mistakes being made. Music sessions improve the wellbeing and happiness of residents and staff, creating a calmer atmosphere and so reducing stress and the related impacts. If occupancy is a concern, music is also a selling-point for new potential residents.
    • health/social care commissioners – could you reshape your existing offer to provide ‘offline’ support to keep people involved and engaged, perhaps acting as a conduit between individual and services? I heard of one organisation that, alongside weekly creative storytelling Zoom calls, is also phoning elderly people and offering a chat and a short story.

In any conversation with them, you’ll need to strike a suitable balance between asking about their needs/pressures and offering solutions. Asking customers/stakeholders for feedback and enabling them to shape what you do on an ongoing basis will make you more relevant, useful and resilient. However, in times of crisis, managers and decision-makers may just not have the headspace, so you may need to steer the conversation more.

Put together a set of strong key messages and use these consistently

Key messages are short statements which summarise what you want an audience to hear and remember. They help you to:

  • explain who you are, what you do, and what value you bring
  • reinforce this, consistently sharing them through all your communication methods.

So rather than ‘this is what I do’, talk in terms of ‘this is how I can help you to …’, ‘this is why it matters to your work, your beneficiaries, at this time’. If you have key messages it’s worth reviewing them in the light of their needs/interests during/following the pandemic. Read this blog about key messages.

Decide the most effective way to approach them

You’ll know what opportunities you have to communicate with the person/people you have in mind. It could be a regular review meeting, or a written report or email update that you’re due to send them. If you don’t have any opportunities, other routes to reaching them may be:

  • calling or emailing them to ask for a half-hour phone or video call. Be specific about the time you’ll need, half an hour seems doable, longer could be off-putting. Explain why you want to speak to them – again, tailor it to their needs/pressing concerns. The more specific you can be the better. If you’re emailing, make sure the subject header is clear and leads on the benefit to them.
  • reaching them through a colleague. If the decision-maker/fund-holder is someone you don’t know well, perhaps you could equip the person that you work with to advocate your cause – and you can have a more open conversation with them about how best to do that, perhaps even working on an advocacy document together.
  • producing a short, succinct document to either precede or follow up the conversation. This can help prime, or reinforce, your key messages and/ or your ‘solutions’. Make sure it’s clear, easy to read, and easy to scan and quickly grab the key points. Use bite-sized chunks of information, broken up with sub-headers and bullet points. Even better, make it visual like a diagram or infographic or video. A music teacher recently produced a general music education advocacy video for Twitter. However the more specific you can be to the person and context, the better.

Think about the timing of your message. At the time of drafting this blog, there was a day of action planned to raise awareness of the financial plight of theatres and venues following the pandemic. But how would the public and funders have viewed this in the light of the UK government’s announcement of £1.57bn emergency funding for culture?

Consider approaching other local influencers

At a recent Music Education seminar, Hannah Fouracre, Music Education Director at Arts Council England (ACE) urged music hubs and services to write to their local MP and make their local authority aware of the crucial role that hubs and music education play in supporting young people, families, schools. There may be a template letter soon (ACE-focused but could be adapted for other countries). Read a past blog about this sort of lobbying and advocacy.

Use your networks

Follow influencers and commentators in your sector, from people active on social media sharing useful ideas and information, to organisations working on your behalf. Get involved in conversations online, and share helpful posts.

Also, people often say ‘there’s no point in preaching to the choir’. But the people who already support your cause/work may be keen to help but don’t know how. Think about how you can rally a group of supporters around you to advocate for music – in conversations at work, on social media, in the media. Help them with messages, stories, testimonials, data – and most importantly, have conversations and keep in touch with them.

Finally, share what you know, what you learn, and what you find helpful – together we can educate each other in what makes for effective advocacy in our sectors. Start by commenting below on this blog, or on my social media channels.

Other blogs about the pandemic and music:

TES: Why music will be pivotal in the recovery from Covid-19

TES: The power of music to rebuild school communities

For other advocacy examples/resources see:

The Music Education Works June enews

The Bigger Better Brains community – a resource hub from Anita Collins that helps educate music educators about the impact of music on the brain

Arts Council England advocacy toolkit

Music Therapy on video from British Association for music therapy

About community music from Sound Sense

’10 things schools should know about music’ by Music Mark

This brilliant booklet about communicating shared values


For further tips and advice about writing, communications, marketing, social media, enewsletters, sign up for the enews. You’ll also receive free communications templates/ downloads. If you’d like to improve your own or your teams’ skills in communications, take a look at my online communications courses – communications planning and strategy available now, social media coming soon. 

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