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Music for education & wellbeing podcast [24] TRANSCRIPT: Catherine Birch, senior lecturer in Community Music at York St John University

AH: So hello, it’s Anita here and welcome to this month’s podcast. In this episode I’m talking with Catherine Birch, who’s a senior lecturer in community music at York St John University which is also the base for the International Centre for Community Music. Why I thought you’d be interested is that a project that Catherine is currently using as the focus of her PhD, which is the York St John Prison Partnership, is a really good example of a university sharing its expertise and building partnerships and potential growth areas for music in its local community. So welcome Catherine, and thank you very much for joining me. It’s really great to be able to talk about your work. It’s fascinating.

CB: Thanks so much Anita, it’s really great to be here, and I’m really looking forward to our conversation.

AH: Yeah, absolutely, me too. To begin with, how did you end up where you are today?

CB: So that’s a great question, and I think there’s been a lot of roundabout in terms of how I’ve actually ended up in this position at York St John. I did a music degree and initially went into sort of more formalised practice in terms of working as a peripatetic music teacher. I did PGCE, worked in secondary music education for a number of years. I did my masters in community music at York University back in 2003, and that was really a launchpad for understanding more about community music practice, and really developing a different skill set in terms of working in more informal contexts and thinking more about sort of situated learning and contextualised learning within community practice. And those two strands have kind of run side by side in terms of the formal and the informal nature of my work. And they’ve really culminated in this job that opened up at York St John four years ago which was initially in the education department. So I worked as a mentor for secondary school trainees and then took over the running of the community music courses back in 2017. And then started my PhD research a year later, so two years ago now, through the ICCM supervised  by Professor Lee Higgins. So it’s been a really interesting sort of culmination of different sides of my practice over the years. I think now I would absolutely class myself as a community musician first and foremost, but I’m really aware that those formal education opportunities have really strengthened my practice and have also led to this moment.

AH: Brilliant. And your specific specialism is singing and songwriting, isn’t it, and that’s what you do within the Prison Partnership Project (PPP). Is that right?

CB: Yeah, that’s right. So a lot of my community practice over the years has been as a vocal leader and you know running community choirs or I’ve worked with Opera North on their Harmony Project working with a school in Hull. Vocal practice has absolutely been where I’ve specialised as a community musician and working as a choir leader. And then the PPP,  the opportunity came up to start a singing and songwriting project two years ago. So it was already a theater project, so the PPP was set up in 2013 by Rachel Conlan who is a senior lecturer in theatre at York St John University and is also a trained drama therapist. And she has spent a long time as an applied theatre practitioner so kind of 20 plus years as an applied theatre practitioner working in prisons. And so the PPP is her initiative and her project and still operates as a theatre practice. But when I started my role three years ago, Rachel and I started having conversations and there had been a lot of interest from the women in doing a singing project. So Rachel was really keen to develop that strand and invited me onto the project two years ago. 

AH: OK. So, and what does the project actually involve? What does the music element of the project involve?

CB: In non-Covid times, because obviously since March, the prisons have been closed down to any external visitors, so we’re not currently practicing. But before that point we were running weekly singing and songwriting sessions, so three hours every Monday afternoon. And the original idea for the project was really thinking about working kind of with creative collaboration with the women and giving them opportunities for self-expression, creating and enabling a sense of community, and a safe space for them in which to work. And also building positive working relationships particularly through negotiation of the creative process. It’s not about us coming in as this kind of expert team, that actually we’re all working together, and in that sense, we’re kind of on an equal footing creatively. The whole idea with the prison partnership is this collaborative relationship between the university and the prison. And so we work both with the staff and the women at the prison and also with staff from York St John and we take undergraduate students into the project as well which is an incredible opportunity for them to experience a very specific kind of practice in a very specific and very complicated context. And the weekly singing and songwriting sessions tend to have a similar structure where we work on vocal technique and improving breath control and all those kinds of things that you would expect in a singing project. And also really  understanding the connections between singing and wellbeing, that tends to be a very important part of the process where we’re really kind of focusing on warming up and thinking about you know how to relax together and how to breathe properly and I know a lot of the women have commented on how important that’s been for them. And you know there are studies now going back sort of 20 years ago, a big wealth of information now about the connections between singing and wellbeing and it’s really, it’s a context where you can see that really tangibly. You know you can see sometimes the women coming in with you know a lot of physical tension you know sometimes a lot of emotional tension and you know they’ll walk into that space kind of closed off or withdrawn, and actually as soon as we start doing those exercises and working as a group, by the end of three hours you can have a really tangible sense of transformation and you know women going out laughing and singing and clapping and dancing. It’s not always like that, but when it is, it’s really powerful and it’s been incredibly eye-opening for me as a practitioner working in that space.

AH: There’s a creative element obviously. I think one of the things I really liked, I was going to ask you what change you hoped to bring about for participants? So obviously one of the things is a sort of greater sense of wellbeing, and I also read this description which I really love, which is: ‘You’re aiming to unpack the processes by which participants can find their voice, and the impact this can have on a renewed sense of identity, belonging and self-worth’.

CB: Yeah, so the collaborative songwriting has become a really important part of the project and it’s interesting that there’s often a lot of trepidation around that for the women …

AH: I’m sure.

CB: … the bit that they kind of express the most nerves around you know, but we work with different songwriting processes and the idea of being able to enable a space in which the women can be creative and have opportunity for self-expression has become really important. We work with things like freewriting, or the women might be responding to some kind of creative stimulus in the space, it could be an image or some text. And what we’ve noticed is that actually as they engage in those ideas and engage in those processes that they get more and more involved, and more and more sort of passionate about working together and creating things. We’ve created at least one group song for each of the groups we’ve worked with, but then often there’s kind of more material. There’s some incredible writers that we’ve worked with, some women who are poets and storytellers. And you can see as they start to work together creatively, you can really see how individuals find opportunities for self-empowerment by you know taking the lead and making suggestions, coming in with thoughts or ideas, or dropping in some text that everyone loves and suddenly that becomes the chorus of the song. And you can really see that shift in a way in their understanding of their own narratives. That, you know, within those moments they’re no longer incarcerated citizens, but they’re seen as artists and you know they’re seen as co-collaborators in that process. And that’s been really important for thinking about what we can do as a team in enabling those moments of them being able to identify in those ways.

AH: That sounds amazing. Does that actually also impact on the prison staff? And how they see those people and the relationships within, between prison staff and those women? 

CB: Yes, so, I mean we work with incredible staff in the prison and they are so key to that process. I mean they are, you know I talk to my students about gatekeepers of projects, I mean they are literally the gatekeepers for us. They’re the people who keep, metaphorically, the door open for us to keep coming back on a weekly basis, and they’re the real advocates of the project. They’re also the ones that really know the women. They’re spending time with them in the week in a way in which we’re obviously not able to. So there’s a real safety net there, and a real level of support both for the women and for us. And there are moments where, like the warden that we work with, you know, will just come and join in. She’ll hear us singing a song and just kind of come and be part of that process. And I know she’s sometimes been sceptical of the processes that we’re using, particularly the songwriting or  particularly when it might be something might be very emotive or very triggering for some of the women and I know she’s expressed concern at different points. But I think that she also has seen the real positives and she’s seen those groups really coming together. You know women who don’t necessarily know each other, have never met before they’ve come on the project, and you know working together and creating together and then being so kind of excited by the end product you know when we finally get to record the pieces that they’ve written. But also we’ve had opportunities to perform within the prison which has been brilliant. We’ve collaborated with the theatre group and done some afternoon performances which the women have been able to invite people to. And we’ve had the governors, the prison governors coming along and staff members that we’ve invited or that the women have invited and want to be there. So we’ve had these really lovely, positive afternoons of sharing their creative work that feels, it’s felt very important for all those relationships and for developing that understanding particularly for some of those staff members. Like I said, you know, for the women to start self-identifying in a different way but also for the staff to see them in a different way as well. 

AH: There’s obviously massive changes for the women you’re working with. Some changes also for the prison staff and their sort of perceptions of what music and the arts can do and also perhaps perceptions of what people are capable of. I wanted also to ask about the changes for the university and obviously you’re hoping to get some learning out of this. You in particular are doing a PhD particularly about how trauma-informed approach can benefit community music practice. So perhaps talk to me a little bit about what you’re hoping to learn from this project.

CB: Yes, thanks Anita. So I know when Rachel set up the PPP she was really clear that this was a kind of two-way learning process. So anyone involved in the project, whether the women, the staff, or you know the staff members here at York St John, or our students, are involved in a shared learning experience. So for our undergraduate students that has been really impactful for them in terms of you know using these experiences, reflecting on them, reading, writing about them for dissertations, it’s impacted career choices for some of them. I’ve got a couple of students who’ve gone on to do social work …

AH: Amazing.

CB: … as well as students who are wanting to work more in these areas, and also continue on the prison partnership, potentially as postgraduate students. So it’s been very impactful for all of us involved in the project. And I started the project, the singing/ songwriting projects, as I was starting my PhD, and my PhD initially, was really trying to find a connection between working with a voice and that sense of kind of self-efficacy and positive self-identity and all those things, which seemed very deeply connected to the PPP from day one. But what I hadn’t anticipated was that because we are working with women who very specifically have experienced trauma, and when you understand more about women within the criminal justice system, and statistics around experience of prior trauma where there’s a very high percentage of women who will have experienced trauma in the form of abuse, adverse childhood experiences, and often you know that can be sort of directly connected into why they’re there. And the Prison Reform Trust has very sort of clear set of statistics around working with women in the criminal justice system in the UK. So as I started to understand some of those things, and Stephanie Covington, who’s an American academic but who works very specifically in creating trauma-informed approaches for working in a prison. And she has collaborated with a UK-based organisation called, One Small Thing, in designing a very specific trauma-informed approach that we use in the prison. It’s not specifically designed for creative practice but it’s designed for anyone working within those contexts. The idea is based on a 2001 publication by Harris and Fallot called, ‘Using trauma theory to design service systems’ – where the idea is that there are five values of trauma-informed care which is: safety, trustworthiness, collaboration, empowerment and choice. And taking all those things into consideration, and really sort of trying to understand how practice can be shaped by those values. I started to get really interested and really engaged in this idea of trauma-informed work, and also really interested in the fact that I hadn’t come across it in a community music sense. That there are contexts the people are working with as community musicians where it’s very clear that participants have experienced trauma. But I hadn’t come across this. I heard of trauma-informed practice when I started working on this partnership project, so actually where my PhD is at now, is the connection to voice is still there, but I think the explorations around voice in a way have become more philosophical, but the trauma-informed practice has become very key to my research.

AH: It’s such an important area isn’t it. But I think that some people that are listening may well be thinking, ‘Well, not really sure I know what trauma is’. People’s most common idea of trauma could be post-traumatic stress disorder, so people who’ve experienced war zones. That type of thing. So I just wondered if you could kind of tell us briefly what exactly you mean by trauma and the sort of situations where trauma arises?

CB: The word trauma itself comes from the Greek [language], which literally means a ‘wound’. And one thing I’ve found really interesting about that as a definition is, that actually it connects into the word ‘vulnerable’ as well. So within my PhD research I get very interested in words and their roots and when you look at where the word ‘vulnerable’ comes from, from the Latin [language], it actually means ‘wounding’. I found that so fascinating when you’re working with people you know and understand have experienced trauma, and you can see that vulnerability. You can really sort of tangibly sense that. So that in terms of the root of the word trauma. But I think what’s really important to note is that trauma isn’t the event. Trauma is the body’s response to the event. So it’s a response to something that is so deeply distressing or disturbing that it overwhelms the body’s natural coping mechanism. And so this is where the feelings of helplessness or diminished sense of self, and inability to feel a full range of emotions and experiences comes from. So it’s what happens after the event that is the trauma. It’s the body’s response. There’s an amazing publication by Bessel van der Kolk, who is an American psychiatrist and working out of the trauma centre connected to Harvard University, and one of the things that he talks about, and this is a direct quote from his publication, a 2014 publication called, ‘The Body Keeps the Score’, where he talks about: ‘trauma produces actual physiological changes, including a recalibration of the brain’s alarm system, an increase in stress hormone activity, and alterations in the system that filters relevant information from the irrelevant. We now know that trauma compromises the brain area that communicates the physical, embodied feeling of being alive’. He encapsulates this idea of, actually trauma really separates people from themselves. It kind of fragments and fractures your inner workings. There’s this idea of, like fractured trauma narrative. Somebody who’s experienced trauma can’t tell it chronologically. They can’t start at the beginning and work their way through and get to the end. It doesn’t work like that, because their remembering of it is broken up. A bit like a shattered mirror or broken glass. So you’ll just get these little, kind of bits and pieces of trauma. But trauma is not just impactful after the event but also can have very, very long-lasting and deep psychological and physiological impacts. Particularly when there’s been trauma that is connected to things like adverse childhood experiences, or ongoing domestic abuse, or you know situations of repeated trauma can be impactful. 

AH: Absolutely. That’s why I think that trauma is such an important perspective to view any working with young people from because, you know, you have a classroom of young people and you have a certain number whose behaviour may be really challenging. It’s not always trauma, obviously, but it’s more common than we might think. And understanding how young people may not be able to cope with certain situations in the classroom, certain things that are being spoken about, certain levels of stress that the other young people in the class can cope with perfectly, really sort of helps with your work with young people. I mean I’m particularly interested in trauma because my daughter is adopted, she went through adverse childhood experiences, and so she’s sort of one of those young people you know who has had really challenging situations throughout school. And her behaviour at times has been challenging for teachers, but I know it can also, I mean trauma is so wide-ranging, it can also be as a result of adult domestic abuse. 

CB: Yeah, absolutely. And I mean, one of the things about trauma as well is, that it’s hidden. You know, it’s not necessarily visible. It might be visible, like you said, in the behaviours, but that’s not necessarily understood by the people who are seeing it. And Judith Herman in her 1992 publication, ‘Trauma and Recovery’, talks about this idea of trauma being unspeakable. For practitioners, for community musicians, for music educators working in whatever context there actually needs to be an understanding that trauma is a lot more prevalent than we think, and I certainly had that experience within my own family context, where a situation of domestic abuse was disclosed a few years ago that had been hidden for sort of over 20 years. And actually really understanding the long-lasting impacts for my family and the people involved in that situation, and that was a moment for me of really understanding that trauma is not something that’s out there. And trauma is not something as well, that just impacts people who live in a particular economic situation or a particular context, or you know this is something that’s frighteningly common. But, like I said, can remain hidden. You know, for me with this project, it’s been a very sort of close, personal connection to the work because I’m really passionate about working as a community musician with people who’ve experienced trauma. And now I understand more about its prevalence and also about the long-lasting impacts. But also about the role that music can play in trauma recovery – I don’t say that lightly because I’m really aware there’s a connection here into you know possibly bordering on the realms of thinking about things like music therapy – and I think we’ve got to be very careful as community music practitioners about really making sure there’s clear boundary lines around our work. And I’ve had that question quite a lot about my practice which is, you know, ‘That sounds a lot like therapy’, you know, ‘What is the distinction there?’, and I think the distinction for me is the fact that we’re not working directly with trauma narrative, we’re not trying to engage the women that we’re working with in opening up their trauma narratives. We’re focusing on making music. We’re focusing on singing together, we’re focusing on developing vocal technique, and we’re focusing on collaborative songwriting. So the goal is always about music making. The goal isn’t about trauma recovery or, I’m not a trauma therapist, I’m not a music therapist, I’m a community musician working with making music. But that’s where the trauma-informed frameworks are so key to the practice because what that does is provide the safety net for practice. And it’s the understanding of the impacts of trauma and its therefore, ‘How do we work responsibly, sensitively within that space?’, when we know people have experienced trauma. 

AH: That’s really helpful to bring that musical element in too, because I’m often in the podcast, and in my work, I mean it’s kind of exploring areas that people would say overlap with social work practice, or overlap with therapy practice, and often the challenge is, ‘Well, we’re not social workers’. But the point is, and I think you sort of said to me a few weeks ago, we’re not dealing with the trauma we’re adding to the toolkit, and becoming more effective practitioners, better able to work with people and therefore enable them to make high-quality music, and make music that’s meaningful to them. It’s really important to bring it back to the music isn’t it?

CB: Yeah, absolutely. And you know the women sign up to the project because they want to sing and because they want to make music. They’re not signing-up to the project because they think in some way it’s going to be a counselling session or deal with their trauma or, you know there are other services within the prison that they can access the things that they need to support their recovery. So in that sense it’s even more important that we’re clear on our motivation within that project, that it is about creative engagement and creative collaboration and it very much is focused on the music. And I think it’s also trusting in those processes, that you know, there may well be therapeutic benefits, and I think as a researcher I have to be very careful. I know I said earlier on, you know, you can really see those tangible changes sometimes within the practice, but I also have to be very careful as a researcher about how do I capture that and how can I actually develop an understanding of what’s happening in that space, within some kind of theoretical framework, but also within the context of really rigorous scholarship. So that’s definitely a challenge, to really think deeply about. As a practitioner I’m seeing, or I think I’m seeing something, and I think I’m seeing some really positive changes here, but actually, how do I get to the heart of what that is, and how do I really explore that in a way that’s authentic and potentially then, you know, useful in furthering the field.

AH: Can you tell me what you’re learning about trauma-informed approaches in community music? What are your key takeaways at the moment?

CB: I think the first one is about, it’s contextually based. Trauma-informed approaches and the very specific model that we use within the PPP, you know, when you think about those five values: safety, trust, collaboration, empowerment and choice. These are things we talk about a lot within community music practice, and that was something that struck me initially. But I think it’s made me re-engage with, ‘What does that actually mean?’. And then particularly within the context that we’re working in, ‘What does that look like in practice?’.  And I think what I’m also really aware of is this framework, while it could be a really useful model, actually has been specifically designed for working with, not just within the criminal justice system, but very specifically with women within the criminal justice system. So I’m conscious that other projects that use trauma-informed approaches, so Musicians Without Borders is one really clear example of where they’re working often in post-war conflicts, and they have a very specific model of trauma-informed practice. They have very kind of rigorous training events, and as an organisation are very clear about, actually very similarly again you know, the focus is music making, but they understand that they need to have a trauma-informed approach. But that model looks different to the model that we’re using in the PPP, so that understanding that there is something very key about the context within which you’re working. And maybe the types of trauma that you’re working with as well, or potentially are coming across, so you know the difference between working with ex-military or working in a post-war conflict zone, as compared to working with women in the criminal justice system. You know, there are different things at play, so that’s something that I’m really interested in exploring further. 

AH: And then one of the common things across all those though is, and across all community music is, reflective practice. And I’ve got a quote that I think you shared with me from Kim Etherington which was about becoming a reflexive researcher, and she defines  reflexivity as: ‘A skill that we develop, an ability to notice our responses to the world around us, other people and events, and to use that knowledge to inform our actions, communications, and understandings’. Which sounds to me like a really good definition of reflective practice. And I realise that this is nothing new to a lot of people, and we all use that approach in our everyday lives – learning from experience – but, yeah, just interested to hear from you a bit more about reflective practices.

CB: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, and you’re right. I mean as community musicians, as music educators, in our different contexts, it’s natural that we reflect on our practice. And there’s the philosopher Donald Schön’s understanding of reflecting in action and reflecting on action. Those two different approaches that, you know, within the context of a teaching session or of a community music workshop, you are reflecting in that moment, you’re reflecting in action, and then, sort of, what happens outside of the session, which is reflecting on action where you’re looking back. You know, suddenly something different will come to mind, or you’ll kind of recognise what happened in that moment, or maybe that, you know, that challenging interaction, you know, how you could approach that differently the next time. The difference with reflexivity is that understanding of your internal processes. What is happening for you in that moment? And I think in a really freeing way, she talks about, actually you can’t separate yourself from your research. You know, you come to your research bringing what you’re bringing, and in a sense you come to your practice bringing what you’re bringing. And we shouldn’t be trying to separate ourselves out from that, or take a very unemotional or you know very objective stance. As a practitioner, in those moments, you know, you will be holding that space, noticing and responding to, reflecting on what’s happening in those moments. But also the reflexivity is the understanding of that, under the surface, internal working, what’s happening for you. And often it’s at a later stage, like I said maybe a few days later, where you can start to unpack some of those things. And certainly within PPP, we take a lot of time to reflect. We write written weekly reflections, we’ll get together as a team to do that as well, and to spend time reflecting on the session as well as, you know, thinking about the next week. Reflexive practice is definitely something that’s become more and more crucial to, not just the work that I’m doing, but also for me as a researcher.

AH: Is there any sense that you’re able to involve the prison staff in your reflective practice?

CB: So they are with us in the sessions. That might mean that they’re kind of actively engaged in the music making. It might mean that they’re in the space. The warden we work with has an office which is kind of attached to the space we work in, and often she’ll be getting on with things in there. But she, I know she is absolutely there and engaged, and participating whether she’s physically in the space, or just next door. And, you know, there have been moments when she has stepped in very deliberately because of something that’s happening, and in those moments we will make the time after the session to really talk about what happened. You know, if someone’s become very distressed, or you know sometimes conversations you know can turn in a not very helpful direction, and I know that she will be engaged in that workshop space, whether she’s actually standing in the space with us, or just on the outskirts. And those weekly conversations have become really, really important.

AH: Oh, that’s great. And finally can you give us three practical pieces of advice, or three calls to action for others working in community music and music education.

CB: I was thinking about this this morning, and the first piece of advice would be, and it probably sounds really obvious, but to really invest in training in your area of specialism, whatever that is. Take time out, and again going back to the idea of sort of reflecting, but also reflexivity, developing those things where if you have time and space to engage in reading about things that are connected to your work, or engaging in training programmes. It’s so worth the investment, it’s really worth taking that time. So, that was the first thing I wanted to say. And I think the second thing was about developing of networks, and again it probably sounds really obvious, but one of the things that I’m really struck by is that as community musicians we are often working in isolation, and we are often working in really complicated and complex environments, and there’s not always somewhere to go with that. And so when I’m talking about developing networks I’m thinking very specifically about having opportunities to connect with people doing similar work in similar contexts. And I know how important it’s been for me, with the PPP, to know that this is not me in isolation. This is me as part of the team. And that has been so crucial to that work. I sometimes run those sessions on my own, but I will always have the warden in with me, and I will always have other members of the team, maybe involved in the theatre project that I can speak to about things that have happened during the session. And that development actually of you as a reflexive and reflective practitioner needs to not happen in isolation. So finally, I think the final thing I wanted to say was a really a call to action, and to anyone who’s listening who’s engaged in community music practice, or music education, whether it’s in a formal or informal sense, is to really understand that trauma is prevalent. And to maybe think about how you can engage more deeply with an understanding of trauma, of its impact, and actually, how then to think about your practice and think about how to be responsive in your practice. And to understand that trauma is not always visible, and it will not always be the case that you will necessarily ever know that some of your groups, or participants, or pupils, will have experienced trauma. It can remain hidden. I think this is an area that is beginning to develop more and more widely.

AH: Oh, thanks Catherine. Those are three really useful and practical pieces of advice that sort of sum up quite a deep and complex area of work that I realise that, you know, it might seem overwhelming for somebody to start to look into this, but you’ve at least given us some really good insights. So thank you so much for coming on. And if you want to read more about the project I’ll share the link to Catherine’s profile on the university website, and also I think Catherine you were going to share some more resources and links as well. Thank you so much for coming on.

CB: It’s an absolute pleasure, it’s been really lovely talking to you Anita.

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