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Music for education & wellbeing podcast [30] TRANSCRIPT: Rachel Perrin, co-founder of Soundcastle

AH: Hello, it’s Anita here, and welcome to the latest podcast. In this episode, I’m talking with Rachel Perrin, who’s a co-founder of Soundcastle. Soundcastle is a community music organisation that runs projects in the south east and south west [of England] and also has an online community to support music practitioners across the UK. It’s kind of so much more than a community music organisation if you look on their website. So I’ll let Rachel talk a little bit more about that. But it’s a really interesting model Rachel, and is definitely addressing a need and a gap in the market for community musicians and inclusive music facilitators. So welcome, and thanks very much for joining me today.

RP: Thank you, it’s a pleasure to be here.

AH: Oh, you’re welcome. It’s just great to be talking after such a long time. So to start with, could you tell me briefly, how did you end up where you are today? And why is it so important to you?

RP: I’ve ended up here for many, many reasons. I think I’ve ended up as a musician because music is and has always been at the heart of my life. My dad writes children’s musicals and was a primary school teacher, so music was always present in my family – a very musical world to come from. But also because my mum worked in social care. And I was, I guess, being very conscious of that world as well. So I kind of grew up understanding the musical world, but also the social care world. And I guess it makes a lot of sense to have ended up running Soundcastle with the history and the backstory that I have. Worlds came together, I suppose.

AH: So how did you kind of start your journey towards being a music facilitator? What happened at school, and what happened after school, and then what brought you to Soundcastle?

RP: I think I was always interested in different forms of music making. As a teenager, I ran my own band and was very interested in all elements of music making, not just the actual music, but the kind of entrepreneurial space around it, what it meant to work with people and to arrange things and to set things up. So that definitely set me off on a track of wanting to build something of my own. And then I went to Guildhall [School of Music and Drama] to study the clarinet, which was a hugely formative and wonderful and challenging time. And I think through my journey there, realising that actually playing the clarinet was wonderful but it wasn’t the end game, was a huge moment of realisation that actually, that wasn’t the destiny that I was kind of on track for, in terms of skills for education it was not quite the right one. So there was a bit of a shifting point during my time there where I found myself exploring more collaborative practice. Working with actors, working in movements, thinking about education, and other uses of music that made me feel creative in a way that performing music didn’t always do.

AH: Interesting. And so where did you go after Guildhall? How did you find that place where you could develop as a facilitator?

RP: So I actually did stay at Guildhall afterwards, because they had the right programme. But I think in my third year – I was on a four-year undergraduate performance degree – and in my third year, I hit the wall of, ‘this isn’t my path, I don’t know where I’m going’. I was very emotional. It was all a lot. And that’s when I fell into the kind of leadership space as the Guildhall had a masters in music leadership, which is closed now. But that was an amazing programme, and I started to find myself in the right conversations with people that were on that programme, and being able to go into some of those workshops carried me through my fourth year and then on to the masters degree, which is where I met my wonderful Soundcastle co-founders.

AH: So the leadership [course], was that course more community music based?

RP: Yes, yeah, leadership is a funny term. I think it was about community music. It was about finding your voice as a practitioner, as a facilitator. It was basically about using music, however best suited a community you found yourself in. So that may have been in a professional capacity working on recording, but it was, a huge amount of it was about other contexts and cultural contexts. We did a lot of travelling, we did a lot of exploring of other approaches to creative music making and how our voice might fit and where, where our own practice might fit within the landscape of community music.

AH: And so was the masters similar?

RP: Oh sorry, that was the masters. Before that, it was more that I was kind of dabbling in little bits of project work that masters’ students were doing.

AH: Ah, okay.

RP: But yes, the masters was very much about helping you shape your story and your voice as a community practitioner.

AH: And so from that point to here, running a community music business, I guess with a social purpose. So how did you get there?

RP: Good question. And yes, we are now officially a charity too, so I can say that.

AH: Oh, that’s brilliant, well done because it’s a big process isn’t it?

RP: Yeah, it is a big process. It was one we treated ourselves to during lockdown. But we’re there. Ten years, and we are a charity.

AH: That’s amazing.

RP: So how do we get here? We got here because there were four of us on our … well there were eight of us in our year on the masters programme, and four of us had an incredibly shared energy and vision and drive for working in a very specific way, and challenging quite a lot of the ways out there of making music, and we knew that we wanted to continue working together. We weren’t quite sure what that would be. We were all co-founders and musicians, no one had any business background, so it was quite interesting to form a business. The inspiration was because we saw a poster that said that if you came up with a good business idea, you could win £10,000. And we were like, I think what we what is that seed funding to do something really exciting. We’re not exactly sure what it is. But let’s make it and this was in the April of our final year of the masters we had a couple of years before graduating.

AH: Wow.

RP: We were like, ‘Okay, let’s do it. Let’s form a business. Let’s go all in. Win £10,000, use that to set ourselves up, and then work out what next’. So that was the moment where we were like, ‘Okay, we’re gonna do this. Let’s make a logo. Let’s get a website. Let’s do the things that make you, to other people, look like a business’ and then inside, really think about the practice and how we can work together and which communities we want to work with, and what is it we’re challenging? So yeah, that was the inspiration, I think.

AH: Oh, I have so many questions. I’ll try to keep them to a minimum, because we’ve got some other questions to go through that they’re equally interesting. So where was that funding from? And did you get support from them to sort of develop those types of skills for running an organisation and business skills, that type of thing?

RP: Yes, we did. We won the award, it was the Deutsche Bank pyramid award, which doesn’t exist in that form anymore. The Deutsche Bank awards do still exist just in a slightly different form. And they did also offer us a year long business mentoring programme. So we had a mentor from Deutsche Bank, and we had quite a few training sessions in business start up and what that was.

AH: And that was 10 years ago. And so now your website says that you support people and communities to make positive change through creative music making coaching and training. So can you tell me a little bit more about what your organisation does now?

RP: Sure. So Soundcastle has kind of got two main spaces we work in. Firstly, we work in community settings. So we run really long-term embedded programmes, often quite invisible programmes in hidden spaces in communities. So we have two main programmes, one’s Musical Beacons, which is working with families, and one is People’s Music, which is working with adults on a journey of mental health recovery. And they exist or are developing in London, Bristol, and along the south coast [of England], between kind of Worthing and Hastings. And then we also have our sector development work. So we do quite a lot of coaching other musicians, running training, we run an online platform called the Soundcastle community. We have about 300 community musicians from up and down the country, and internationally actually, who connect and share practice and ideas. And we launched that during lockdown. And that was a really lovely space for people to really share a lot in during lockdown and we’re just working out what’s next for that. And in terms of other sector support, we do a fair amount of consultancy for music hubs or other arts organisations that are looking to challenge their practice or make their work more inclusive, or think about how to best reach their communities.

AH: That’s really interesting. And what a good time to launch that support network because it’s so needed anyway, I guess that also, you know, really needed through knockdown. I’m really interested in something, it’s just popped into my brain, that I saw on Twitter that says something about disrupting. So can you tell me a bit about that?

RP: Yeah. So I think from the beginning, the idea of Soundcastle was not just to create cozy, lovely, happy music projects. We’ve always had an energy of disruption and wanting to challenge the system and the status quo and to really question how things happen. But it’s finding, I think what’s been really interesting is doing that in a collaborative way. So finding ways to be disruptive whilst also being nurturing this is kind of our constant challenge. How we hold a challenge in a kind of coaching way. So the majority of the director team are qualified coaches and we work a lot through a coaching approach. And coaching is all based around a band challenge and meeting people at their level of challenge. We have coined a term through our mental health recovery group, the people’s music collective, which is permission challenge, which is really working out where somebody is, or an organisation are, and then meeting their level of challenge on the day that you work with them. So it might be that some days, we really aren’t disruptive at all, we just hold people and we just support them, and we nurture them. But there may be other days where we start to push a little bit more, or to test, or to explore, and challenge where things are. And that might be a musical creative thing, or it might be something like … we talk a lot with partners about contracts, and it sounds quite dry but it’s actually quite interesting when you dive in there around the language, for example of partnership agreements. So we talk a lot about how we don’t use the term ‘participant’ we say ‘community member’, because we believe that we co-create communities rather than people participating in Soundcastle. We kind of co-create and co-produce. So there’s this kind of subtle disruption within like testing how, if that’s okay with partners, how that sits with them, testing language, through to more direct challenges, I guess, to the sector around how practice is delivered, how co-production happens, whether things really are truly inclusive, but always from a place of how can we nurture collaboration? How can we support things to be better rather than from a critical point of view?

AH: So organisations can bring you in as consultants who, almost sort of critical friends, with a coaching and mentoring approach. I think that’s really fascinating, by the way, because community music to me seems so similar in approach to coaching and mentoring. And I’m sort of surprised almost that those two worlds haven’t collided more really, or it’s not mentioned more, because that’s absolutely what you’re doing, isn’t it? Music mentoring?

RP: Yes, yeah. And when we all when we did our coaching qualifications, it was amazing to sit in that room and realise that the majority of the coaching practice was facilitation practice, and so much of it, we were like, ‘Oh, this is just, this is what we do’, though this was so grounding and having the qualification is brilliant, but it was also really validating to realise that that is how we work. I think it’s important to note as well, that’s how we run the business. That’s how we work behind closed doors, as a community of practitioners, as a director team, as a wider staff team. We adopt a coaching approach throughout the whole business, as well as in the consultancy and in the programmes. And that’s always been really important to us.

AH: And so was coaching, that coaching training, did that come up you know, when you worked with Deutsche Bank and had that business development support, or did it come up after that?

RP: It was a few years back, and we were all teaching and co-writing a BA for Guildhall in performance and creative enterprise. So supporting young people from different mediums through guilds or looking at their craft, but also looking at enterprise and how you can be both an artist and an entrepreneur and what that means. And through that, through writing that programme and developing our practice as teachers, we all did our coaching training.

AH: Oh, right. Okay, you’ve done so much, and you’re doing so much, so many different strands. Do you have something that brings it all together, like a theory of change?

RP: Yes, we have both a theory of practice and a theory of change. Our theory of change is the newest one. And we’ve been working on that and it’s still actually online – I think it will always be live. But it feels very live at the moment, we’re still editing it daily. But I think, yes, it is bringing everything together. And it’s exciting, because for the first time, we’re now lining up our evaluation across the whole business to fit with the theory of change. So everything we do, and every person we come into contact with. The impact we have, and the value that we bring, and the interaction will all be captured through the evaluation. And we should, in theory, hopefully line up with the change that we want to see in the world.

AH: That’s so interesting, I’m not even going to get into the evaluation conversation, because that’ll be probably four hours of a podcast. But it is really interesting, and I suggest people sort of check that out and see where you are on that journey. Because, yeah, we can all learn so much from each other about evaluation. So can you summarise your theory of change and your theory of practice, just in, you know, literally two sentences, that might be a bit mean to ask?

RP: No, that’s great. So our theory of practice is all about the creative process. And it’s really about autonomy. The fundamental of it, it’s about autonomy, and how much creative autonomy the community member has and the facilitator has in the space and how we hold that and how we support people to hold more autonomy over their creative space. So that’s the theory of practice. And then the theory of change. It’s all about supporting people, practitioners, organisations, to use music making as a tool for their own mental health and wellbeing. We manage that through increasing confidence, reducing isolation and enhancing wellbeing.

AH: And so do you have a sort of, is there any part of that that’s about change in the sector, in community music, in how community music is seen, delivered, practised?

RP: Yeah, that is hugely important to us. I think we really value advocating for, kind of different approaches within. I think in terms of the theory of change, it’s so, the overall business that people are embedding music in a really effective way for their mental health and wellbeing. And that’s where the sector development comes in, that we challenge some approaches as to whether they are really effective or whether they are the best approach or the best match or whether they’re co-produced. So again, it’s not the main aim of Soundcastle, but it is a really important element that sits around all the changes that we want to see. And it’s important because we’re all about the ripple effect. Like we work with tiny numbers of people. We work with really small communities for many years. So we fought that with funders for so long now that the funders seem more and more to understand that. And now it’s about working out how we can have the wider impact that we want to have through the ripple effect of training, and speaking and consulting. But keeping the projects safe and small, as they need to be for the work to be true and authentic.

AH: Oh, really interesting. So I know your organisation is founded on collective leadership and non-hierarchical structures. Can you tell me a bit more about that in terms of how you work within the organisation and with partners, for example?

RP: Sure. So within the organisation, we have a co-director team of five, and actually an evolving staff team, which is really exciting as well, and we’re recruiting again at the moment, and we recruited this summer, and everything is based around collective decision making. So we do a huge amount of work on how to hold each other positively accountable. Like how do we, we’re always exploring, creating a culture within Soundcastle of healthy challenge. As I said, like the community music practice really ties in with the professional practice within the team. So it’s basically all about every voice being equally heard and valued and everything being shared responsibility, but people having their areas of expertise and leadership that they focus on. I think more recently, we’ve been talking a lot about stewardship and stewarding areas of the business. So somebody might be stewarding our individual giving, for example, but that doesn’t mean that it’s their job to do it, it just means that they make sure that they’re supporting people to do it, the best they can. It’s kind of instead of managing I suppose, instead of managing or working in traditional hierarchical systems, we try and use tools that help us collectively manage or steward. Everything is based through the coaching approach, which again, is about assuming the best. Like always, there’s so much love and so much trust in the organisation. Everyone holds everybody in the highest positive regard at all times. And if things slip, then it’s about how do we support that work to happen? How do we support that person to feel safe and healthy? If anything does slip that’s because we collectively aren’t doing everything we can be doing, rather than anything ever being one person’s responsibility.

AH: You said that you provide consultancy for organisations, so would you provide that type of work as, you know, a consultancy project for an organisation say … you know, I know that most people in the arts are liberal minded, and would absolutely understand what you’re saying, but there are many organisations that are quite old, they’ve been around for decades. And so those hierarchical structures are there already, you know, it’s quite hard for an older organisation to suddenly bring about that change to be less hierarchical and more around collective decision making. I think everybody knows the value of that now and the value of that for people feeling happy in work. But also for innovation in organisations, so I suppose my question is, do you work with organisations to bring about change in those areas? Or would you?

RP: Yes, yeah, we absolutely would. I think it’s interesting, often when people bring us in, as consultants, they know that what they’re bringing in … the reason they often I think join the Soundcastle, is the energy and the listening. The way that people are drawn to the way that the team listens to each other, and that we make decisions and that communities are heard. And I think that is often the initial attraction. And it’s often just getting through the door, once you’re in an organisation, then you start to have the really interesting conversations. So I think even if somebody doesn’t necessarily think that that’s what they want, often it ends up being a really interesting part of the work because so much of any partnership has to be around decision making. So it comes out through all of our consultation, even if it’s not the key focus.

AH: Yeah, absolutely. Completely understand that. So what are you mainly asked by organisations to do with them or for them?

RP: It’s a real range. I think at the moment, the thing that people are asking most for is support with developing new programme models or embedding more co-produced inclusive practice within their hubs. It’s mainly music hubs at the moment that we’re working with.

AH: That’s interesting.

RP: Yes, sometimes more grassroots arts organisations, it kind of goes in spirals. But at the moment, there are a few music hubs. So two of them are more specifically around Musical Beacons, our inclusive family practice, like how do they embed that kind of thinking in the organisation and how do they develop models. So Musical Beacons is a practice, is an approach rather than a project. We don’t sell it as a franchisable project, it’s very much an approach to inclusive family music making. And we can go in and train people and work to recruit and develop the culture of inclusive family music making within the hubs. So that’s what a couple of them are doing with us right now. And then we’re about to start working with a number of the South West London hubs looking at youth voice around digital inclusion and how their use of technology through the pandemic supported or didn’t support young people’s learning and what the response has been from young people to that. So that’s gonna be really interesting working with a lot of young people on their reaction to their online learning. And that will help the hubs develop a digital strategy to go forward into 2022-23, and whether technology is a part of that we don’t know yet it’s going to be really interesting.

AH: Wow. So this links with this wider push towards equality, diversity and inclusion in music hubs and music services, and some of the work that Youth Music have done with the Alliance for a musically inclusive England, I’m sure you’ve heard about that. So this is sort of fascinating to know that you’re working in that space, too. So that’s, you know, all about bringing some of the community music practice into hubs, which has been talked about for for many, many years, really, but also, I guess, facilitating people already in those organisations who have those skills, those understandings or those sort of desires to bring that to work? Would you say?

RP: Exactly, and they know their people, they know their young people, they know their bases, their environment, I think. So often, what we’re able to bring is just a slight perspective shift or a slight challenge that just enables those practitioners to find the creativity within themselves that sometimes it’s hard if you’ve been in one space for a long time working in a certain way. It doesn’t need to be a huge shift of, here’s a programme to learn, it’s just a shift of, let’s take the space to think and to talk and to explore what this might look like, and what could this look like? And what’s relevant for these people that you know, and how can any of our backstory or experience support where you might want to go? It builds on people’s knowledge and expertise rather than attempting to replace it or retrain them specifically.

AH: So we’re kind of talking because we understand these parts of the sector in this part of working, but I just wondered if to recap, you can kind of talk to me a little bit about community music practice, community voice and co-production. So for example, a music tutor from a music service who hasn’t encountered that type of working before, you know, how would you explain how you work and how that might be something that would excite them?

RP: I think to a music tutor, often one of the things we talk about is using the examples that if you were in a music lesson, and you have your music stand, and you have your young person with their instrument, there’s a glitch, like they keep playing something on the page, and it keeps glitching, then they’re missing a note or something’s always out of tune, like it’s just not landing. And you work through your kind of approaches to that and it’s not quite sticking. Where community music comes in is it’s almost like the next layer out. If you can almost zoom out of there and imagine that you’re 10 feet back and you’re looking in, and you could just shake it up like they’re in a snowglobe. You could shake those two people and the instruments and the music stand up, and then land them again. What could that have been? What can happen that would land that snowglobe, and mean that that glitch didn’t happen anymore? Like what is it that might help them get to that space? And sometimes if you’re used to standing there, looking at the music stand and the student it’s hard to get 10 feet back and do something completely different or creative or just out of your repertoire of tools. Because sometimes we just need to get out of the repertoire of things we know that work, and we will always meet students that doesn’t work for. So where do you, if you step back and find your creative space as a tutor, and take the time to think it might be that actually what we need to do is step away from our instruments or move or draw something or stand back to back and play whatever it is, like how can shaking up impact on that moment in time. So it’s not about it being that that student needs to learn to improvise. And that’s often a misconception in community music. It’s not about improvisation, or just clapping in a circle or doing something completely left field from what you’re trying to do. It can just be about that shifting perspective to help both of you find your creative voice that helps you get to the moment you want to reach.

AH: That’s really interesting. Another aspect of your work that’s really important to you I know, is practitioner and staff wellbeing both in your own organisation and those you work with. So how does that affect your organisation, the way it’s run in the way that you work with people?

RP: It’s embedded in everything. I think from the way that we start our meetings. Like we don’t start a meeting without a wellbeing check in.

AH: Oh, nice.

RP: Yeah, it’s nice. Sometimes it’s slightly derailed, but it’s beautiful and important.

AH: I tend to sort of launch into meetings because I’m so focused on what we have to do. And I’ve realised recently that it’s so much more helpful to take a little bit of a breath sometimes if people allow you to do that, if people welcome that, yeah.

RP: Yes. And that’s true. You have to meet people where they are but I think our team now are so used to that. But wellbeing is embedded in our meetings and our team days, it’s there. We offer external supervision for practitioners working in particularly challenging settings beyond the support of the core team.

AH: That’s a thing that a lot of community musicians say they don’t get or musicians generally, that’s so great.

RP: And we can hold a certain amount of that in-house using coaching practice. But sometimes it’s incredibly useful to have an external supervisor. We’re also really agile as an organisation. If there’s a personal situation for somebody that means they can’t be there, or they need to work online or they need to juggle things, we will always sub-in. Like, we always find a way to juggle. So we do anything we can to hold each other to make sure that no one ever feels, well to aim that no one feels guilty, or that Soundcastle is a weight or a burden. It needs to feel like a creative, inspiring, supportive space, or we can’t serve the communities that we exist to serve. So that takes a lot. But it means we’re still here after 10 years, and I genuinely do not think we would still be here if we hadn’t lived that approach for that time, and helped each other through the things that we’ve been through as a team. And now it’s exciting because we’re expanding. And we’re working out how to write that down, and how to shift that from a basis of love and friendship and respect, to still be those things, but also to be policies and to be practices and to be scalable working practices as we grow, and things that we can support other organisations to embed and develop as well and not be scared off.

AH: Another thing that I’m always really interested in with organisations is how they communicate and market their work, particularly when you’re an organisation working for a social purpose. It can feel as though it’s not comfortable, or people can almost not like a socially sort of engaged organisation marketing too heavily. I mean, it’s never really about marketing, is it, it’s more about relationships. But yes, I’m just interested in how you communicate and market your work and how your values affect that?

RP: I think that’s super interesting. We’re exploring this all the time. I think for us, it’s always about having an asset-based approach to everything that we do. So it’s been interesting actually, in the shift to becoming a charity, and looking at a lot of the charity narratives and how to stay on the asset base side of that. So always celebrating the achievements of people we work with, or the journey they’ve been on, or the music that they’re making, rather than diving into sob stories effectively, or like the gritty. And when we could we really could go there like, we work in tough spaces. And it is heartbreaking work. But that is not what the people in those spaces, that’s not their relationship with Soundcastle. So we aim that anything we ever say, or market or present, that somebody involved in the work is proud to be represented in that way that they would look at that and identify themselves as a creative part of the organisation who’s on a journey with us, rather than as somebody that’s being saved by something or helped by something and that kind of outdated charity model, I guess. So.

AH: Yeah. And I like that they’re almost part of the team, part of the creative practitioner team.

RP: Yes. And we take case studies back to people, we make sure that everybody is entirely comfortable with the story that we’re telling the world. That’s really, really important. That is a huge value, and one of our core organisational values is optimism. And I think that’s important that that runs through all of our comms and our storytelling, but however challenging things are, we stay optimistic and we support people in all these settings to be optimistic.

AH: Who is your market then?

RP: We got into this discussion on Monday. [Laughs]

AH: How weird. I was just thinking in terms of, you know, is it a charity model, sort of, you know, your main market is funders, or do you have commissions from, I don’t know, mental health trusts, local authorities?

RP: It’s really mixed. And it does make it challenging to be consistent with messaging and who you’re speaking to. Which is why we always come back to, if the people that we work with are proud of the message, then that’s on point. And that’s okay. And then it’s just who sees it. But I think we’re still predominantly grant funded, and actually predominately project funded still, we’re on a mission to achieve core funding, as I’m sure many people listening to this are.

AH: Yeah. Good luck.

RP: Thank you. So that’s where we are, like financially, but we also do bring in other revenue, so for example, through consultancy or coaching and our training programmes. It’s still a smaller part of our revenue, but it is an important and ever increasing one. So it shifts, our market shifts from being funders, whether that’s national or very regional, local funders, to individual community musicians, to hubs, to grassroots arts organisations, or to individual givers. Like we’ve launched an individual giving programme, so that’s a whole new world of thinking about donors and how people can support and how to make sure the message is there that you can support Soundcastle because until now, financially, it wasn’t such an easy thing.

AH: That sounds a really smart approach because you need to diversify your income strands all the time, don’t you? So I think we’re probably running out of time. But finally, could you give us three practical pieces of advice or inspiration or maybe tips for others working in music and social change?

RP: Yes, I would say listen to your instincts. I think that is hugely, hugely important, whether that’s about where you go with the organisation or how you interact with a person, one-to-one in a setting, trusting yourself is hugely, hugely important. I think being part of the community is vital, being part of the conversations, having friends and community music and music education, celebrating what that is to connect has been huge for us. And I would recommend that to anybody. And thirdly, I would say it is about optimism, believing that the sector can be better, that we can all be better and that we can reach more people. And if you believe that, then your work will reflect that. If we all think that and believe that then the sector will magnify and the reach will magnify, and the whole country will be singing and beautiful, and music will be healing. We just need to do it together and not in competition with each other.

AH: Lovely thoughts. Those are some brilliant thoughts to end on. Thank you so much, Rachel, it’s been great talking to you. And I’d love to talk to you again. Let’s talk again soon.

RP: Absolutely. I would love that. Thank you so much.

AH: Oh, thanks, Rachel. If you want to read more about Soundcastle I will share various links in the show notes from this episode. And thank you for listening.

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