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AH: Hello, it’s Anita here, and welcome to this month’s podcast. In this episode I’m talking with Laura Hassler, founder and director of Musicians Without Borders (MWB). It’s a charity based in Amsterdam that uses the power of music for peace-building and social change, particularly in areas of war and conflict. Now there are many reasons why you’ll be interested in MWB, but Laura herself has had a fascinating track record having been active in US civil rights and peace movements from an early age. She worked for social change organisations in the US and Europe, before moving to the Netherlands to develop a career as a musician and link music to social causes. So as I’ve been an admirer of MWB for some years now, I’m absolutely delighted to welcome you Laura and thank you for agreeing to talk to me.

LH: Thank you so much Anita for the invitation. It’s a pleasure.

AH: So I’ve given a kind of tempting flavour of you and your background, which is a fascinating read on your website. So I’d like to start there if that’s OK, by asking you to tell us a little bit more about that, how did you end up where you are today, and why is it so important to you personally?

LH: Well I grew up in, outside of New York in the US, post World War II. My parents were both professional peace activists you could say. They both worked for an inter-religious, pacifist, peace organisation, and they were both incredible music lovers. I’ve often said that in a different period of time it’s quite possible that both of them might have become professional musicians and/or dancers. My mother was a wonderful dancer and loved to dance, and they both loved to sing. And I grew up in a co-operative community that they started together with a few other young couples, where there were many artists and there were also social activists. There were community leaders, musicians, people with different kinds of backgrounds. It was also inter-religious, it was interracial, a very unusual place to grow up as a child. But of course we didn’t know that then, that was just our normal life. So it was also a singing community, and I grew up within this atmosphere. My parents’ organisation worked closely with Martin Luther King and his movement during the Civil Rights Movement in the US. They were very active in the movement to protest nuclear weapons, so we were out on picket lines from the time I can remember, maybe being seven or eight years old with my parents feeling also part of that as well and proud of it. And at the same time, always making music in this community and being encouraged to take music lessons and being in public schools, but there were wonderful music programmes where we had bands and choruses, orchestras and all kinds of special projects. So, I grew up with this kind of double identity for me, where at least I could say my two legs of being if you want, that I’ve always been standing on, are on the one hand, peace-building, social change, civil rights, human rights, and on the other hand the music. So during university, I sometimes joke that I somehow got through a high-level academic institution while actually, for four years, I was mostly making music and out protesting the Vietnam war. And community organising, that’s what I was really doing all that time. So all through my life, if I was working for an organisation of social change, I was the musician in the group. So I was the one leading the singing at the demonstrations, or organising musicians to join. Or if I was working as a musician then I was trying to connect that to issues of social inclusion or social change. And when I moved to the Netherlands, and moved here because of a job with the peace movement, but for a certain amount for personal reasons, moved away from that and went back into my music making and built up a career here. That was also all about making music from different cultures, setting up choirs where women from different cultures came together to share their music and perform it together. I started what was called the World Music School within the local music school here which was designed both to introduce musics from other cultures but also to make a place which was predominantly, or maybe exclusively at that point, welcoming white, Dutch children and adults into the music lessons, but also to make people from different backgrounds also to feel welcome. So, OK, maybe this story’s getting too long?

AH: No, that’s absolutely fascinating, that’s why I’m so quiet.

LH: OK. And one of the many forms of music that has always fascinated me has been the folk music of eastern Europe and especially of the Balkans. And the reason is, I guess because of this fascination of different cultures – which I grew up with – this love of what happens when people meet up across cultural lines. So here in the Netherlands, one of the things I started doing was pulling together some people with voices that could sing that music. So I’m talking about the folk music of Bulgaria, the former Yugoslavia and of that region, where you see sort of the rhythms and some of the vocal use from Oriental societies, meeting the more Western influence of music. And you’ve got music of the rhumba and the Jewish diaspora, all of these coming together in this area and producing these amazing, to me, amazing forms of music. So I loved singing music from the Balkans, and I did it for years, and I taught it for years. And then you have the Balkan wars. And then you’re sitting and seeing – I’m talking about in the nineties – horrible, horrible reports of burned out villages and mass graves and concentration camps and refugees and petty dictators and all of these horrible stories. And I guess you know, the two legs of my past decided to stand together. I guess you could say it that way. And it was kind of an inspiration after a war memorial concert where we sang music from the Balkans during the Balkan wars, and music from different people, you know folk music, and decided, ‘Well, couldn’t we use this amazingly powerful art form that we have, this music, that everybody has in their culture, and every person has in their body, the capacity to make music. Couldn’t we use this as a contribution to peace-building and to social change within the context of war and armed conflict?’ 

AH: It feels like almost this work, and this organisation, kind of chose you rather than the other way around. I was sort of thinking when I was thinking about the questions, that you know we’d hear about your life journey and you suddenly got to a point where you thought, ‘Oh, I’d like to do that’. But it feels as though it chose you.

LH: Yes, I think that’s right. I think that’s absolutely right. And you know, there have been a number of times, because when we started this idea nobody took it seriously. Funders didn’t, governments didn’t, people who were in traditional fields of peace-building didn’t. So you know, for many years we were just piecing it together and doing the best we could. And I sometimes joke, but it’s the truth, the first three years that we existed as an organisation, the only one working in the organisation who had no salary was me. Because I had two part-time jobs, and I was leading three choirs and running singing workshops on the weekends to kind of stay alive. And then I was leading MWB. So you know, but somehow, every time that it felt like we weren’t going to survive, something came along and we did. Suddenly there was a contribution when the bank account was empty, you know. So I think, yes, it did choose me, that’s absolutely right.

AH: Yeah. And so where were you living when that happened, when the war started and when you started doing something through music?

LH: I was living here in the Netherlands. I’ve been here a long time, since 1977. And when I first came I had started a small music practice for teaching guitar and folk singing to children. And then moving from there into singing with groups, and then moving from there to leading choirs. So when this all started I had a chamber choir that I was conducting. I had an acapella group that was singing mostly Balkan music, and I had a choir of women from, at that point, about 21 different cultures singing together and putting that music on the stage. And I was leading our local, what was then called the World Music Department of our music school, and working as a consultant in cultural diversity for the arts. 

AH: Oh my goodness, what a lot you’ve done. So when MWB started, it began in the Netherlands and you were working with people there. And then you took it abroad?

LH: Yes. Well the first idea was, could we bring the music that we knew, could we somehow connect with musicians from the Balkans. But the first thing that we did, because this was during the Kosovo war in 1999, and we didn’t really know enough yet and didn’t have enough contacts and we didn’t have enough funding but we had raised a little bit of money for this and what we did was, we rented buses, coaches, and we brought teams of musicians and singers and players, and donated instruments to the refugee camps that had been set up in the Netherlands to receive refugees from Kosovo. There were about six thousand people that were given temporary refuge here. And so that’s how we started. And when I think back on it, a lot of what happened just in those few months, sort of laid the basis. So you know, we just had this idea of let’s take this concert and see if people enjoy it, if we can bring a little bit of lightness into the lives of people who’ve had to flee their country and are now living in tents. But then a friend who was a professional music teacher for children, he said, ‘Well I can do workshops for children, shall I come along?’. And I said, ‘Sure’, and he did. And you know there were these wonderful participatory workshops with kids doing body percussion or singing, and another friend brought along 25 darbukas and did drumming workshops with children with non-verbal teaching. Now looking back, that was the beginning of our workshop programme for children. That’s where it started. And you know we heard through the refugee authorities that there were some musicians in one of the camps and they’d lost their instruments and one was an accordionist and another was a violinist, and there were some people who had lost their guitars. So our accordionist said, ‘Well I’ve got a second accordion, and I’m happy to give that away’, and our violinist said, ‘Oh, I have a violin’. So we brought these instruments along and gave them to these musicians who’d lost their instruments, and to see the surprise and the joy on their faces when they suddenly realised that they could actually keep these instruments after we’d left, was unbelievable. And then they joined us, you know in the following weeks to go to play at the other refugee camps. And looking back, that was the beginning of our instrument fund which we’ve been running since then. We’re collecting instruments to donate them to people who’ve lost them during war. So, all of the sort of beginning strands were there, and then suddenly we were invited to bring our concert – our musicians, whatever you want to call it, this kind of growing collective of people who were grouping around this idea – to Bosnia. Invited by a woman who was part of an effort to start after-school activities for children in post-war Bosnia, and whether we would come and perform at the opening of their programme in Sarajevo. And somehow, and I still don’t know how, we pulled the money together to do it. We all got on a bus at five in the morning to drive to Frankfurt where we could take a cheap flight to Bosnia and ended up there also, besides performing for this opening, we ended up in a refugee camp where there were people, you know, living in tents in the mud – this was December – and managed to get children to join in a percussion workshop, and get people to dance, and found a few musicians. So it kind of grew that way, and we started making contact with people, and the first few years it sort of went that way. But, within another six months we were touring through the region, with 17 musicians in a touring car. And meeting people, and participating in festivals. There were festivals for peace that we joined in Macedonia and in Bosnia. We travelled through Kosovo the year after that – we were invited by a peace organisation to join a visit to Kosovo. We met rock musicians there who were looking for ways of working with young people. It grew organically, as you can hear!

AH: Yeah. It sounds like a story of learning on your feet, thinking and acting on your feet. Organic growth responding to need, almost definitely on a shoestring, and it must have been just overwhelming sometimes, being in those communities with those people who’ve been through such awful experiences?

LH: It was overwhelming, and it also gave a lot of, I could say satisfaction, in the sense of, and a lot of musicians that came with us, professional musicians also said, ‘Now I’m really seeing why I became a musician’. ‘This is why I became a musician, to see the impact that making music can have on people who have lost everything’, and to get that joy coming back at you. To see the passion in people’s eyes, or even just a kind of bit of encouragement, you know, if it’s a group of old women. I can remember one of our singers was a dance therapist, and she created a dance out of their motions. And to see these women dancing together and moving together, and the smiles, these kind of shy smiles that started. You know, there were a lot of risks, and it was very uncertain. There’s a wonderful writer and teacher named, John Paul Lederach, who’s a professional peace maker, teacher, professor, but also somebody who’s actually been involved in negotiations to end actual wars in a number of places around the world. And he writes very often about the artistic imagination and the need for artistic thinking in peace-building. And he talks about, if you’re really serious about peace-building and reconciliation, one of the things you really need to have is the ability to, as he puts it, expect the unexpected. Which is what artists are always doing. 

AH: Absolutely.

LH: And looking back on this whole history, I think that’s all we were doing [Laughs]. Expecting the unexpected, and getting it, and having to respond to it. And, you know, I can remember one time when we were on my bus trip and it was the year 2000, the summer of 2000, and we were trying to cross the border – it would have been from Montenegro into Croatia – and we were stopped on the top of a mountain, which is where the border was. And the border guards were, you know we had a lot of instruments in the bus which had been donated and we were kind of giving away as we went when we met musicians who needed them or people who had projects with children and didn’t have enough instruments and so forth. But the border guards were clearly planning to get some money out of this, and so were searching everything, and we had somebody from the region who spoke the language, and he came in at a certain point, we were all sitting in the bus, and he said, ‘You know it’s not going to work Laura, we’re going to have to pay money to get through here’, and at a certain point I though, ‘Wait a minute, ‘Lepi Juro’, it’s a beautiful Croatian song and most of the people in the group knew it, and I said, ‘OK, everybody remember Lepi Juro, and let’s sing it through once’. And we sang it through once on the bus, then everybody out of the bus, and our guy said, ‘No, I wouldn’t do that, I don’t think it’s right’. So I said, ‘Everybody got out of the bus, smile, go and stand in front of the customs hut, and we’re going to sing Lepi Juro’. And as we start the song, and you see all these border guards well up [Laughs].

AH: Oh, wow.

LH: You know, and I have a picture of that hanging on my office wall, that moment. And at the end they were all wiping the tears off their cheeks saying, ‘Welcome to Croatia. Come in, you’re welcome’, you know.

AH: That’s incredible. In your annual report you actually describe music as the ultimate expression of human connectivity, and that’s a beautiful example of that isn’t it. You say, I’ll quote you because I thought it was lovely, ‘Beyond entertainment, beyond fame, beyond arbitrary scales of personal talent’. And it’s so important to talk in those terms about music isn’t it, and to use examples of where music just totally breaks down barriers?

LH: Yes, yes. You know, music has been, I think this is one of the things that’s interesting in this period of Covid, of revelations of what’s going on, of the issues, think about the Black Lives Matter movement that has so grown in this period. And the revelations of injustice around the world have just so been magnified, and to me, one the crucial things about understanding what music is, or can be, is to understand the ways in which music has become a kind of a product in our societies. 

AH: Absolutely.

LH: It’s kind of a thing, you know. It’s seen as something external that you have to learn, that you have to study, that you get judged on how proficient you are, according to arbitrary standards made by somebody. That you either get to be a great star, or you get to aspire to be a great star, or you’re sort of relegated to being an amateur which seems not very good. Or, you know, all of these kinds of ways of categorising and judging and commodifying music.

AH: Yeah.

LH: To me, the two pieces of what art does, the two pieces that are so essentially human, is for one thing it connects people, it’s something that everybody can do, and it builds community. It connects you, it strengthens empathy. It’s possible for everyone to make music at some level. And the second thing is, that the arts are there to hold up a mirror, and to be critical, and to say something about who we are and where we are. And how we can, what we need to be better, and to look critically at our time. And exactly those two parts of music, to me, get left out so often.

AH: They certainly do. And those two parts of music have come to the fore during this pandemic, and this period really.

LH: Yes.

AH: The importance of music in connecting people just beyond that whole thing of learning music as a skill. And also holding up the mirror, people becoming more aware of disadvantage and injustice. You’ve also spoken about the people that you work with, you know, uncertainty is a reality. The pandemic has made us all, in the wealthy areas of the world, really feel that now. Hopefully it’ll make us have more empathy for people who face really unsettling experiences all the time, the sort of people that you work with. So we were talking about the sort of musicians that you, this band of happy musicians that you pulled into a car and kind of drove across Europe. You also mentioned, you know, yours and their ability to be flexible, to adapt, and I’m always really impressed by that in musicians and artists. Both in that kind of bravery and also that ability to think on their feet, adapt, be flexible in the face of quite unusual situations sometimes. In your case, quite traumatic situations. Even in, you know, a school. An unusual situation with a child behaving in a certain way. You know, some of the best music leaders are the ones that can just think, ‘Oh, I don’t need the lesson plan, I’m gonna respond to this person, as a person.’ And that sort of brings me on to, I wanted to talk a little bit about your practice if I can. Obviously this must have evolved hugely over the years, and at the beginning I’m guessing you brought together musicians who you knew, who you felt had the sort of right values and behaviours, I guess? But weren’t necessarily trained community musicians, or trained music therapists, so I’m really interested to hear about how you evolved your practice and how you have developed the musicians that you’ve worked with.

LH: So you’re absolutely right. In the beginning the musicians, and actually it’s still kind of true, the musicians who joined often they came of their own because they’d heard about it, and there was something in what we were doing that spoke to their condition, I guess you could say that. I think in many cases these were people who had their own developed ways of working which were inclusive, and which were joyful and which made children feel safe rather than criticised. And you know some of the first ones were musicians who had been working in Amsterdam public schools where, I can remember in the early 1990’s, more than 60% of the children in the Amsterdam schools system were of non-Dutch ethnic background. And a lot of children were rather recent immigrants or you know, so there was working in an inclusive way, sometimes using non-verbal ways of working with children. It was a way of levelling the field and encouraging children to participate and to develop and it sort of enlarged the understanding about what music education could be and what it could mean within an educational system that was also struggling to accommodate to a very diverse student population. And it happened that I knew some of these people and through my work with all the different varieties of music from around the world I had also met musicians who were also doing teaching as part of this and they had brought African drumming into the school system, or Indian dance or you know, different forms of music. So there was a kind of a group of people to draw on. And I think, in a lot of what we’ve done, both in terms of the people who have joined us, it’s been often like that. For the last five years we’ve been offering what we call ‘Trainings of Trainers’, where musicians from around the world come for a week or six days – something like that – and work intensively together with our trainers. And what we’re really intending to do is to share what we’ve learned over the years in ways that make it possible for people to take what we can offer, bring in what they have to offer, and take that back to their own communities. But of course we also kind of watch out for people who participate and say, ‘Oh, that one might be actually a very good trainer for us’. So actually in that sense, choosing people, or finding the right people has always been a kind of an instinctive thing, it’s just that it’s usually not me any more who does it. And in terms of sort of developing a technique, that’s also in the same way often been kind of retrospective. You know, we were at a certain point, after we’d done a couple of years of these sort of exchanges in the Balkans and we connected with a young woman who had gone to work as a volunteer in Srebrenica, right after the, well it was the scene of the genocide in 1995 and a so-called ‘ethnically cleansed’ population. So the Serb kids were in the town and Muslim Bosniak kids were mostly in villages or in refugee camps. And she wanted to do something that was more structural, and we supported her in that and that became our first long-term project. And then she decided, being there, ‘Well I really should involve some local musicians and dancers’. And then we thought well we could send this person and that person who can teach them to do this and that. And so that was the beginning of our work in training people. And then after we’d done that for a few years, we thought, ‘Well maybe we should actually make a book, a manual with some of the songs we’ve taught, some of the ways of approaching people, how do you do this, how do you do that, body percussion. So we were really basically describing what we’d been developing. And then a couple of years later we thought, ‘Well if we’re training people, maybe we should know ahead of time what it is that we want them to be able to do by the end of the year, for example, and how do we structure that?’. So a lot of it was, well kind of learning as we go or codifying or formalising the work as we were learning from it ourselves. And actually, that process continues today. I mean, we now have all of these things. We have training modules, but we’re constantly reformatting them, and we’re constantly looking to say, ‘Well, what would fit here?’ and what can we draw on that this place needs. And then a couple of years ago we really should have, well we were told by a couple of our donors, we need to see your Theory of Change. So also there, it was a question of basically looking back. What have we done? What do we see there? What are the issues that we’re trying to deal with? And how could you crystalise this into a number of words that would fit on one paper? And through that whole process, we were able to sort of define what we call our Five Principles within our community music work, which really refer back to, I guess you would say, the interconnection of the two basic threads of MWB, which is the connecting power of music, and I would say the principles of non-violence which I see as our conscience, you could say. 

AH: Just for people who are listening who are sort of feeling drawn to your organisation, you do have training available every so often during the year that they can take part in. 

LH: Well normally, yes. At this point the live trainings have been suspended, but we have trainings at three levels. We have a two-day introductory training, we have a four-day training and workshop on leadership techniques, and we have a six-day Training of Trainers where we’re often using the same kind of material but at three different levels you could say. So in that last one we’re not training people how to work with participants in a classroom, but we’re training people how to train others to do this in their own environment. So you’re also looking at the situation in which each of the participants is working and how we can understand these approaches within your system. So that’s one element of training, and I hope we’re gonna be able to start that again in February. We’ve also been developing a number of online training options, but the whole Training of Trainers isn’t there, that’s a really physical encounter and I hope we’re going to be able to do that again soon.

AH: Absolutely. I can imagine it wouldn’t be the same doing that one online at all. You do have a training manual don’t you, which I think is freely available as well on your website.

LH: I think that’s an old one actually.

AH: Ah, right OK.  

LH: That was version 2 [Laughs].

AH: It gives a really good sense of your kind of pedagogy then, and that’s something I wanted to go on to ask, it sounds to me, not from necessarily just what you’ve said today, but actually what I’ve read. That your practice seems to be a combination of community music and music therapy. Would you say that that’s the right way of describing it, or can you tell me a little bit about your actual practice?

LH: Sure. Music therapy, a couple of times we’ve had actual music therapy. One of our programme managers is a music therapist. He set up the first music therapy post in Rwanda, while he was also managing that programme. But in general, most of the people who work with us are not music therapists and we don’t describe it that way. What we do, well we work from five guiding principles in our community music training programme, also just to say that’s not the only thing that we do is MWB, the community music. But within that we’ve identified five principles that we follow, and they are: safety, is number one, inclusion, equality, creativity and quality. And those are kind of the pillars of the trainings that we do, and around those pillars we design the training within our projects based on what’s needed. So, for example, we’ve been working for the last three years almost in El Salvador where at the request of Unicef El Salvador and their Ministry of Education we’ve been training about a hundred music teachers, school music teachers, and cultural leaders who work with children, with the goal of finally helping to protect children from the impact of violence on their lives. Much of the country is basically run by violent gangs, and many children live in neighbourhoods which are run by violent gangs. Many children are recruited into gangs. There’s a culture of violence, this is also a culture that relates back to the 12-year long civil war which was never really resolved. There was never really any procedure for justice, for truth and reconciliation. It was just kind of stopped. But there’s history of wars there. So within that context, a lot of the training that we’re doing is about how you use these five principles of safety and inclusion and so forth. How do you create an environment within your music classroom where children feel safe, where they feel included, where they feel honoured? Where you’re growing what we would call a culture of non-violence, using your musical skills to do that. That becomes the formative question in that project. In another project in Rwanda for example, there we’re working in collaboration with an HIV clinic. And there we’ve been training young people, who are themselves affected by HIV, to work with children from that clinic. And there you’re dealing with the questions of marginalisation, exclusion, stigma, dealing with the impact of a disease. And behind all of that, the history of the genocide in the country where everybody lives with that history and that inheritance. So that becomes a quite different kind of a format, but we still base that on those five principles. Every project can be very different. If you look at our work, especially in the Balkans in Kosovo, and now in Macedonia, there we’re working in ethnically divided neighbourhoods. We started, I think, in Europe’s most ethnically divided city in northern Kosovo, Mitrovica, and this was a town that before the war there had a very vibrant rock ‘n’ roll culture. It’s an industrial town, and a lot of garage bands, and kids teaching kids, and that whole culture disappeared during the war as did rock music as kind of the voice of youth. So there, our project was to set up a rock music school, where young people from the two different sides of this ethnically divided city could meet each other in mixed bands and work together based on their shared passion for rock music. So it’s a very different model, but again you have to make sure that people feel safe, you have to make sure that people feel included, that they’re welcome, that their creativity is encouraged. So this gives us a kind of a framework to see our work however different the specific context and history and immediate issues are, you can see these within a framework of using music for, you know I sometimes say I’m sowing the seeds of a peaceful society, or sowing the seeds of inclusion and connection across borders or within communities.

AH: This idea of safety and trust is so important in working with people generally isn’t it.

LH: Yes.

AH: And I think that music tutors often are the people that young people really look to for that safety and trust when they don’t have that in their family background possibly?

LH: Yep.

AH: It can be the music tutors who create that safe environment. Sometimes they’re the only people that some young people might trust or the people that they look to as mentors and role models. Musicians can have such an important role in society can’t they. I’m particularly interested in the idea of safety and trust, relating to your work around trauma, and I believe that that’s a little part of your practice? I don’t know if you actually train people to have an understanding of the impact of trauma on the nervous system and how they can work with that in their music work. Could you tell me a little bit about that?

LH: Sure. Well one of our trainers is Darren Abrahams, who I think you’ve met also? And Darren is himself a trained musician who had a career in opera as a tenor. And then also re-trained and went back and is also a trauma therapist. And Darren has worked within our training team to develop a module which has become very central to all of our work really. Which is about music and the nervous system. And we are not, except for Darren, none of us is a trauma therapist. I think one of the things that many people grapple with, who work in situations with marginalised people, is understanding what the impact of trauma is. But also understanding the limitations of that concept for somebody who isn’t specialised in trauma. And understanding also that one of the most important things is for the practitioner to be able to regulate their own nervous system.

AH: Yes.

LH: A lot of this training module is for one thing about understanding what happens when somebody has been through a traumatic event and is not able to handle what happened in a way in which to re-regulate, you could say. Because we all have periods where our nervous system gets deregulated by a very unpleasant experience. And the question is: what’s the impact when your body has not been able to sort of get itself back into balance again. So sort of understanding how that works so that you are better equipped to work in situations where people may have experienced traumatic events. But maybe in some ways, even more important, recognising that for one thing that people living in so-called ‘safe areas’ are not exempt from having had traumatic experiences. 

AH: Absolutely.

LH: They’re way wider spread than we often think. The first stories I remember Darren telling was when he spent some time in Calais in what was then called ‘The Jungle’, the very large refugee settlement, fully expecting to see, you know, residents who were exhibiting signs of trauma. And he said, ‘What I saw actually, the most signs of trauma weren’t among the refugees, it was among the volunteers who’d come to help’. And so recognising within oneself the need to take care of your own response to stress, and the need for yourself to be safe. You are trying to create a space where people feel safe with your music making. You have to watch out that you yourself are safe. You have to watch out for your own regulation and sometimes just being that safety is the most important thing as a practitioner. And then also understanding how music can have a calming effect on people, on groups, how music can have a regulating effect, and how to do that as a musician. Not seeing oneself as a therapist, because we’re not, as I said, except for Darren.

AH: It’s such an important area of practice I think, particularly as music is required more and more, for example in music education, more and more to support young people in challenging circumstances. Often the musicians, the music tutors, community musicians who work with those young people, unlike music therapists they might not have the supervision that music therapists have and the opportunity to talk about how they’re feeling, how a young person made them feel and made them react, and that is really, really important in you being able to deliver your music work really well and support those young people isn’t it?

LH: Yes.

AH: It’s a really important part of practice that can get overlooked?

LH: Yep. We’ve also in the last couple of years, we’ve also internalised that within our own organisation. So we have two wellbeing counselors and structurally it’s expected that when people come back from a training that they have, not only a debrief with the project manager, but also a debrief with one of the wellbeing counselors just to be able to process whatever it is that you’ve seen, and participated in, and heard. And we make that possible for everybody within our organisation as well because we understand that we’re all, you know, we’re all trying to save the world [Laughs]. We’re out there and the job is so big and we’re so small, and you know there’s always much more work than there are people to do it. And so the idea of internalising that, and trying to take care of each other, is very important. And also, and I feel this very much as director of an organisation, you know, people want to work so hard, and I also think, you know, we have a very international staff, half of our staff have families living in other countries and if you need to go, go. If you have a sick friend who’s in the hospital, go, you know. If you’re not feeling well, go home and rest. Let’s not burn each other out. Let’s take care of each other, we’re not a shoe factory you know [Laughs].

AH: Yeah, it’s amazing. So many arts organisations end up becoming a bit like that because people are passionate about their work, aren’t they, they really care about it, but often they do suffer from burnout and that doesn’t help anybody. It’s amazing to hear that your organisation is considering that so deeply and offering that support.

LH: I think it’s incredibly important that we hold on to each other and that we see ourselves also as a community. I mean because people are so isolated in many ways and separated from each other, and that was true before Corona of course, you know, I mean the individualisation of our societies. And if we’re really about social change I think we have to be the, try to be the change that we want to see as well, and not try to overwork people. And not this idea, this kind of from our industrialised, capitalist societies, that you always have to be producing, producing. People used to laugh at me in the office, and you know our office faces a beautiful garden, and I could often be found standing next to the window, you know, looking for the parrotts [Laughs]. Staring at the birds, you know. Because there’s things going on in your head, and processing and having ideas and those are important parts. I think I said something earlier about the, yeah, we talked about the commodification of the arts and of music. It’s one of the things if we’re talking about social change, if we’re talking about really going to the deep values that are important, most important in human existence and as defining ourselves as dwellers on this shared planet, it’s about caring for all the aspects of being human. Not just for working. Not just for producing. And I think, if anything, we work too hard.

AH: I couldn’t agree more with what you’re saying about this absolute obsession with being productive and we all suffer from that. Partly sometimes it’s because we care, but partly it’s because society has influenced us to be producers not creators and hopefully that will change. I mean the pandemic has made us all think really deeply hasn’t it, it’s given us time, no matter how busy we’ve been through the pandemic. I’ve got so many questions more for you Laura, and it’s been fascinating talking with you. We’re running out of time, so I’m going to have to wrap up, but I wanted to finish by asking you if you could give us either three practical pieces of advice for either musicians who want to do the sort of work that you do, or make the sort of change that you make, or maybe three calls to action for others working in music for change. 

LH: You know I’ve read through your questions which you kindly shared with me ahead of time, and this was the one that I really didn’t know how to answer. I mean it’s probably the best one also. I mean, I guess one of the things that’s been going through my mind so much in these last months is the inability to know where everything is going. And I guess, for me, the most important things are to be brave, you know, to be courageous, to work together to form more alliances, to be open to working with others. And I think also we talk about music and change, we need to reach out to others who are active in the area of social change, not only the musicians. Other artists, other activists, because I think we’re, you know, a pandemic is a portal. This was so beautifully written by Arundhati Roy in a column about this period. You know these global pandemics are always, they always usher in new things. And as humans we have choices, how are we going to walk through that portal? And what’s going to come out? Is it going to be more of the same? Is it going to be more of business as usual? Or can we actually be the agents of real change, and deep change? And I don’t mean just bringing nice music activities to people who need it. I mean seeing that within the context of the shift of consciousness that we need to arrive at as human beings in order to save our planet and to continue the existence of the human race. So I think maybe the answer to your question is to think in the global perspective, really to think in the planetary perspective. And to see our arts and our music as this amazing quality that we have, this amazing part of being human, that can hold up the mirror and that should be holding up the mirror, that can connect to people and should be connecting to people not just in our rhetoric, but actually in our work. 

AH: Wow. I thought you said you couldn’t answer that question – that’s amazing. Really thought provoking and really inspiring. Thank you Laura, and thank you so much for making the time to chat to me today. All those years ago when I first started hearing about your work, I never thought I’d be speaking with you, so it’s been wonderful, and I really hope MWB continues to go from strength to strength, despite these really difficult times all across the world right now. 

LH: Thank you Anita. I think, you know, if we can manage to continue that artistic way of thinking, you know that learning, that organic growing, and what I said, expecting the unexpected, which is really, I think, to me, the core of being artistic, being creative, it’s expecting the unexpected. And I think if we can do that we’ll keep going. And I wish that for all colleagues around the world.  

AH: Oh, thank you. That’s so true. If you want to read more about MWB I’ll share the link to their website, and resources and case studies in the show notes. And thank you for listening.

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