Work in Culture?

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I have been invited to talk about what I do for a living at a primary school’s Careers Day by a friend who volunteers there as a reader. He works in catastrophe insurance, so he is planning to bring wooden blocks to demonstrate earthquakes. I am wondering, of course, how I will manage to present what I do to a bunch of 7-year-old kids when I can barely explain it to anyone beyond my immediate circle of colleagues; but also whether there is any point in trying to convince anyone to follow in my footsteps when work in the cultural sector is only getting more precarious and discriminatory by the day.

Should I talk about the cost and length of training? A degree in any discipline is now £9,000 a year, and I’m not sure what you get to do these days without a Masters (I have two and am not especially overwhelmed with job offers). Then there’s the cost of Continuing Professional Development, to finally get to learn what they don’t teach you at school, keep up-to-date with the latest trends and do some crucial networking – all the conferences, courses and seminars that employers don’t necessarily put you forward to attend and are difficult to afford as a freelancer. And then there’s the ever-increasing sector precarity – zero-hour contracts becoming the norms in museums and venues, artist fees not quite a given, short-term and freelance contracts replacing secure jobs in organisations of all sizes. Not to mention the bullying, socio-economic and ethnic discrimination, unpaid internships

Maybe I should just stick to the brief: what I do, how I got there, what I like about it and what kind of skills I need to do my job, a few simple points to be covered in 5-10 minutes.

Maybe I should also remember that it’s not just about convincing kids that my job is the best. There’s a huge opportunity to make them realise that if working in arts & culture is a serious occupation, alongside all the other professions represented that day – people working in health, sport, law, IT and insurance – it’s because it’s important in everyone’s everyday life. Art is for life, not just for school, as this Guardian Teacher Network blogger eloquently puts it: even in the few schools that still offer arts subjects, young people are stigmatised for choosing them, even though the transferable skills and increased self-confidence alone should be reasons enough to encourage them.

As early as primary school, dance, art and drama were offered in clubs because they aren’t the “real subjects” that we need for “big school”… There’s this stigma with the arts that only “unintelligent” students take those subjects. I still struggle to be taken seriously for taking arts subjects… But more than a year later, I’m reminded daily that taking GCSE dance was the best decision I ever made. While everyone complains about the subjects their parents forced them into, I am in the dance studio every lunchtime. Dance gets me into school. Dance gives me something to pour my head and heart into. It gives me a feeling of belonging, creativity, security and freedom… The skills that I get from the arts also help me hugely with work across the curriculum, from improving my analytical skills to making me more self-confident.

 

So, to answer the questions:

What does a Festival & Arts Coordinator do?

I organise festivals with music, art, theatre, food… and also smaller events, like writing workshops, one-off concerts and guided walks across the city.

I work with artists, venues and schools to create these events, then with designers and journalists to make sure that the event looks good and that people know about it.

Some festivals last 10 days and can take 1 or 2 years and a huge team to prepare. On the day of the event, I make sure that everything goes according to plan – there’s always something that goes wrong, from the weather to the main artist being stuck in a traffic jam, but it’s part of the job to fix all these problems, and usually no one even knows about what happens backstage!

How do you become a Festival & Arts Coordinator?

There are many ways – but you really need to love art and music, enjoy working with lots of people, be very organised and also happy to do things that are quite unusual or unexpected – it’s never the same every day!

I studied Humanities – English, French, German, Philosophy, History, Art… and Business Management, then I started working on a tourism conference. My first festival job was with the Manchester Jazz Festival, which was perfect for me because I love music – I played the piano, violin and guitar when I was younger, now I’m learning the cello.

There are a lot of different festivals – it could be about sport, food, theatre, film – it can also be a bit of everything at once. The best way to get experience and see if you like it is to volunteer for a festival: it’s fun, you’ll meet lots of people and you’ll get to see how it works from the inside.

What are the best things about being a Festival & Arts Coordinator?

  • It’s fun – I meet lots of people, I listen to a lot of live music, sometimes I also get travel to other festivals.
  • It’s very varied – one day I could be choosing the image for the brochure cover, another day visiting a venue with an artist to check that their band will fit on the stage, or training a team of volunteers.
  • It makes people happy – that’s really the best part of the job and it’s worth all the hard work.

What did you like at primary school that led to you becoming a Festival & Arts Coordinator?

Every year my primary school would put on a School Fair, a whole day of games, food, music to celebrate the end of the year. The children worked all year on a performance for the Fair – it could be theatre, dance or singing… I really loved the whole day – all the parents and children would be there, and older children who used to be at my school would come back just for that day because it was so much fun. I loved that we prepared for it all year – the children doing a show, the parents preparing food to sell at the stalls or making up games, like sack race, egg in spoon race, coconut shy … and then on the day everything and everyone would come together.

 

(image: Josef Franz, from an exhibition I saw recently at MAK Vienna)

Breaking Bread

Spotlight

A little while ago, I started compiling a list of Toronto-based food-related projects and people for a friend going to North America on a professional research visit. Some of them are based, like me at the time, at the Centre for Social Innovation – such as Aruna Handa’s Alimentary Initiatives, who mixes art, food and social interaction in her Future Food Salons to “examine and taste what we may be eating in the future”; others are well-known and liked institutions, at the forefront of education, social justice and community engagement, like 30-year-old foodbank The Stop; others still had just sprung up during my time living in the city: surplus urban fruit harvesters Not Far From the Tree (presented in the video below by founder Laura Reinsborough) or ethical catering company (and B CorporationPaintbox Bistro, which employs and trains residents from Regent’s Park, one of Toronto’ so-called “priority neighbourhoods”.

I recently came across a few new food-sharing initiatives in France and the UK that make a great start for a closer-to-home list – so here they are.

 

Alimentary Upcycling: The Real Junk Food Project

The Real Junk Food Project is a “global, organic network of pay as you feel cafés (that) divert food destined for waste and use it to create delicious and healthy meals”. The first one opened in Leeds in December 2013 – and there are now about 50 affiliated community-led outlets in the UK, Europe and as far as Australia.

As founder Adam Smith (delivering his TEDx Talk above) puts it, “it’s wasted food, not waste food”.

Here’s a look inside the latest Real Junk Food Café in Manchester, entirely furnished and equipped with donated gods:

 

 

Digitally-enabled Local Sharing: OLIO

Like FreeCycle for food! “OLIO is a free app which connects neighbours with each other and with local businesses to exchange their edible surplus food. Think food nearing its sell-by date in local stores, spare vegetables from the allotment, cupcakes from an amateur baker, or the groceries in your fridge when you go away.”

First launched in London’s Crouch End neighbourhood in July 2015, OLIO has already expanded to 6 boroughs in London and is planning to expand its offer to Bristol and other UK cities.

App users can upload items they want to donate or sell (at no more than 50% of the original retail price).

OLIO screen grab

Other users can then contact them to arrange a pick up – either at their home, or at a registered Drop Box location.

The app developers have made sure to include a few guidelines to ensure that all exchanges are respectful and responsible – starting by “Only add items that you would be willing to eat yourself”.

 

Targeted Fundraising: Ernest

It’s not just happening in the UK – in France too, food-related charities – foodbanks, social groceries… – have seen the demand for help increase and public funds decrease in recent years.

Ernest was set up in 2015 to run fundraising campaigns with partner restaurants that contribute to specific needs of identified local charities. For each meal consumed in a partner restaurant during the campaign, a few centimes are added to the bill and redistributed to a selected local charity, generally towards a capacity-building project (the current campaign in Toulouse is raising funds towards buying fridges or renovating the kitchen for three foodbanks).

They aim to create “local solidarity networks” by linking restaurants, their customers, charities and their clients around the notion of sharing.

This week: start of the ERNEST campaign +0.20 € added to your bill on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays

This week: start of the ERNEST campaign +0.20 € added to your bill on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays
Image © Lucky Miam (www.luckymiam.com/ernest/)

 

 

The Art of Change

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You must be the change you wish to see in the world.
– Mahatma Gandhi

I haven’t been blogging much lately but I’ve been productive in other ways.

I produced two festivals for the Cat’s Back

and got great coverage and great crowds for both.

  • The Putney Folk Debates in May (in partnership with Howard Monk from The Local): a lovely – and very busy – day bringing together contemporary folk artists and local activists and campaigners.
  • Neighbour Day in August, or to give it its full name, Bring-Your-Neighbour-To-The-Pub Day, because there’s always space in the calendar for a new national day: with live music from Brazil and Congo –  choro, bossa nova and soukous -, an all day BBQ and family, friends and yes, even neighbours, dropping by en masse from noon to midnight.
Time Out Clipping Aug 2015

Time Out “Things To Do this Bank Holiday Weekend” August 2015

I worked with chamber opera company OperaUpClose

on a short-term contract to provide grantwriting, contracting, book-keeping and administrative support. I also acted as Company Manager on a few dates outside London, with the added bonus of lovely long train journeys with the cast, where I learned that opera singers are very thirsty after a performance. And sometimes even a little bit rowdy.

I spent a few days in Paris with musicians from the Manchester-based Efpi label / collective

as part of a project I initiated with Jazz North to facilitate creative and professional collaboration between artist collectives. The UK side of the exchange was represented by Anton Hunter, Johnny Hunter, James Adolpho (who form the Anton Hunter Trio), Cath Roberts (who co-runs the LUME nights and collaborates with Anton on a few projects) along with Ben Cottrell (musical director of Beats & Pieces Big Band and co-founder / director of Epfi). The French hosts were the Onze Heure Onze collective, headed by pianist / Rhodes player Alexandre Herer and coordinated by Stéphanie Knibbe. I’ll post a summary of the project report in the next few days, in the meantime here’s a musical moment captured by Nigel Slee (Jazz North).

I witnessed the second-ever public performance of Rodrigo Constanzo’s dfscore system at the Manchester Jazz Festival

The first happened at Rodrigo’s (and Anton’s) monthly randomised improvisation night The Noise Upstairs, quite early on in the project timeline – a great test for everyone involved, as it enabled Rodrigo to gather a group of improvisers to try out the system, write a few compositions, invite Sam Andreae as guest composer, and give a public outing (with a sympathetic audience) to a project in its R&D phase. The first gig was great – as the musicians involved testify below – and it helped Rodrigo to take the system to the next technological phase of development, a fully browser-based version, which was used for the Manchester Jazz Festival performance. As above, there will be a fuller project report ready soon, as well as more videos from the Manchester gig, which I’ll share in a future post.

I ate oysters in the Jardin des Professionnels, the VIP section at Jazz Sous Les Pommiers

and saw many great gigs in the few days I attended the festival (primarily to discuss the future of the Jazz Shuttle Franco-British exchange scheme). My personal highlights: Airelle Besson, who presented a new project but also appeared as guest performers in several other gigs, a nice way to embed an artist-in-residence into the festival; Ensemble Art Sonic, a gentle and playful take on the wind quintet with the luminous Sophie Bernado on bassoon (we shared a train journey back to Paris, where I learned that she is also a rapper and educator in tough suburban schools); and just like the previous year, I really enjoyed the Concerts-Promenades, this time with Ablaye Cissoko (kora and voice) & Volker Goetze (trumpet) in the barn of a 12th-century Abbey, and Didier Laloy (accordion) & Kathy Adam (cello) (video below) in the slightly disturbing setting of a provincial auction room (‘salle des ventes’). Last but not least, I was again completely blown away by the dedication of the team, volunteers and staff, who make this huge machine tick to perfection.

I did a bit of thinking and a lot of talking

which is leading me towards new ideas and collaborations. I will be relaunching the Art of Festivals website in the next few weeks to reflect this change of direction, and I’m also working on a new parallel project that will see the light of day around the same time.

Children’s Corner

Spotlight

The theory of relativity occurred to me by intuition, and music is the driving force behind this intuition. My parents had me study the violin from the time I was six. My new discovery is the result of musical perception.
– Albert Einstein

I’ve been playing the piano from the age of 5 and haven’t discovered anything yet – but I can certainly feel everyday the benefits of having studied music. Growing up in a musical family made it easy not just to pick up an instrument, but also to stick with it: my parents and older siblings were there to help me understand and accept that the road to perfection, or at least to being able to play to satisfactory standards, is paved with hours of practice.

To follow up from my previous post about music and the brain, and more specifically the Royal Conservatory of Music’s advocacy for early years music education, I’m looking now at a few schemes that introduce children to music. The examples below are actually only about classical music, mainly because being hosted by large institutions means that they come with structured learning programmes, nice videos and evaluation reports – and also that they’re easier to find.

 

El Sistema / In Harmony / Big Noise

Back in 2009, I got to spend a full day at a primary school in West Everton to observe musicians from the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra teaching pupils (and their teachers) for several hours a day, from singing at the morning assembly to practicing their tiny violins in small classes then rehearsing as a full ensemble in preparation for their performance at the Royal Festival Hall. This was the very first year of In Harmony Liverpool, a learning scheme inspired by El Sistema, the Venezuelan “system” based on intensive instrumental practice and orchestral performance embedded into the daily life of underprivileged children with an overt goal to promote individual and collective change. Or in the words of its founder, musician and politician José Antonio Abreu:

An orchestra is a community where the essential and exclusive feature is that it is the only community that comes together with the fundamental objective of agreeing with itself. Therefore the person who plays in an orchestra begins to live the experience of agreement. And what does the experience of agreement mean? Team practice – the practice of the group that recognizes itself as interdependent, where everyone is responsible for others and the others are responsible for oneself. Agree on what? To create beauty.

El Sistema has attracted its share of praise over the years, but also criticism – most recently by British academic Geoff Baker, who has just published El Sistema: Orchestrating Venezuela’s Youth (previewed by Baker in the Guardian, and reviewed pretty much everywhere – I especially like the responses from El Sistema-specialists Tricia Tunstall in Classical Music Magazine and Jonathan Govias on his own blog – watch out for the aggressive comments by the reviewed author himself!).

Wile the debate is raging, El Sistema-inspired schemes are still going strong in the UK and have grown to 6 official programmes in England, where they are called In Harmony, and two in Scotland, where they are known as Big Noise.

Children & the Arts: Start & Quests

Children & the Arts is a national charity backed up by the Prince’s Foundation with a mission to introduce children who are least likely to discover the arts to high-quality artistic experiences. Their approach is based on long-term partnerships between venues and schools to develop year-round engagement programmes, with regular visits, participatory activities and embedded learning. I found out about them through the Relaxed Performance Project that they piloted a few years ago, enabling children with special needs and their families to enjoy live theatre together.

They offer two main types of programmes: Start, fostering partnerships between primary schools in deprived areas and cultural venues that are geographically local to them yet a whole world apart; and a series of year-long Quests focusing on one area and one single art form at a time and structured around teacher support, workshops with professional artists, access to free performances and opportunities to create and perform. Quests have so far explored architecture, poetry, theatre, orchestral music, dance, opera and visual art.

They also run Start Hospices, work with children’s hospices to enable children with life-limiting and life-threatening conditions to enjoy a cultural outing with their family in a welcoming, friendly and very supporting environment.

Evaluation reports, case studies and free teaching resources are available on their website.

Orchestras Live: First Time Live

I came across Orchestras Live recently via their new music scheme Beyond the Premiere through my ongoing research on new music commissioning. They also run a large-scale national outreach initiative, First Time Live, a touring programme that not only brings orchestral music to young people, but also involves them in repertoire selection, production and presentation of the concert.

In 2013 and 2014, First Time Live – Youth brought 20 concerts by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the City of London Sinfonia to young people aged between 10 and 14 years living in 10 locations in the bottom 20% for arts engagement across England (Hull, Scunthorpe, Doncaster, Grimsby, Luton, Harlow, March, Peterborough, Thurrock and Mansfield).

Here are a few selected quotes taken from the evaluation report of the project’s first phase, from both Young Producers and teachers.

‘It just felt like it wasn’t something we were ‘allowed’ to experience but we were the ones creating the experience’. Young Producer 

‘I’ve learnt that I definitely want to be a music teacher, because the [project] experience has shown me how really accessible music is to children, no matter what age and I want to support and encourage that’. Young Producer

‘The children were very impressed and gave standing ovations – which took us teachers by surprise. I think this demonstrates the strength of their feelings towards the concert. They chatted about it for days afterwards too’. Teacher

The project has now entered a ‘legacy‘ phase, building on the success of the first tour to develop and consolidate new outreach and participation models. In Barrow-in-Furness, 30 young producers aged 12-15 organised two concerts by the Manchester Camerata for their school peers; in Spalding, young people devised their own collaborative concept for a concert with the City of London Sinfonia and young local musicians; in Harlow, a group of students worked with composer John K Mile and the City of London Sinfonia to commission and promote a collaborative piece with young musicians; and in Luton, young musicians created and performed a new orchestral piece with the City of London Sinfonia on the theme of Carnival (work-in-progress documentary below).

Music on the Brain

Spotlight

It’s been nearly 15 years, but I finally have a piano back in my life, and I’m enjoying playing again so much that I’ve even taken up the ukelele to have a second instrument I can carry with me everywhere.

I played music for several hours daily from an early age – first piano, then also violin and guitar –  until I moved away from home to start university and it all became a bit too much. In my early teens, I was seriously considering a career as a piano teacher, and I often remind myself that what I do as an arts administrator and producer is very much along the same lines of sharing my passion for music and the arts and trying to get people to appreciate them from within.

As I continue to research what art is and does, I like to organise my findings into more-or-less structured lists, so here are a few resources I’ve recently come across about the effects of music on the brain. Nothing exhaustive here, just a few starting points for further enquiry that can perhaps support advocacy efforts.

 

Musicophilia

Like all other books by the neurologist Oliver SacksMusicophilia (2007is a surprisingly entertaining and enlightening dive into the mysteries of the brain, looking at the biochemistry of music perception through case studies based on clinical observations of Sacks’ own patients and correspondents. A keen amateur pianist himself, Sacks probes into the musical phenomenon with a rigorously scientific and deeply empathic mind, sharing fascinating insights into the role of music in people’s life: sometimes a burden, for example when it takes the form of intrusive auditive hallucinations, most often enriching and transformative.

The video below is a 90 minutes’ talk that Sacks gave at the Cambridge Forum about the book, where his personable storytelling style shines.

The Benefits of Music Education

The Toronto-based Royal Conservatory of Music has recently published a pamphlet on The Benefits of Music Education, using neuroscience research to convince parents to sign up their children for formal instrumental lessons (another publication details how Structured Music Education is the Pathway to Success).

Promised benefits include:

  • speeding the development of speech and reading skills;
  • training children to focus their attention for sustained periods;
  • and helping children to gain a sense of empathy for others.

It’s also peppered with quotes from successful people who studies music in their youth, such as writer Annabel Lyon:

Music study made me disciplined, and it’s helped me to understand that you don’t need to feel brilliant or inspired all the time to know that you’re moving forward.

Or Olympic champion and motivational speaker Jeremiah Brown:

…piano lessons were my first experience sticking with something over a long period of time. This set me up for being able to pursue goals that did not come with quick rewards.

I also found on their website a nice animated video conceived by music educator Anita Collins about what happens in the brain when we are playing an instrument.

Neurosymphonie

Meanwhile, back on this side of the Atlantic, the French public broadcaster Radio France is organising a series of conferences on music and the brain entitled Neurosymphonie between March and October 2015.

Gathering prominent neuroscientists and musicians and aimed at an audience of music, health and science professionals, the conferences examine questions ranging from the differences between the brains of musicians and non-musicians, the links between music and memory and between music and health. Video highlights will be made available soon.

musique-et-cerveau-3-bd-article-585-x-390

How Music Works

The first instalment of this series of conferences featured a discussion on amusia, a congenital or acquired condition whose sufferers can’t ‘hear’ music. Amusics have difficulties in processing pitch, rhythm and melody; depending on the severity of their condition, they can be keen amateurs but a little tone-deaf, rather indifferent to music or downright hostile to it: for some people, music is an unpleasant or even painful experience.

What makes music music rather than noise? That’s one of the many questions that classical composer and physics professor John Powell set out to answer in his 2010 book How Music WorksIt’s quite simple really: a sound is a ripple travelling through the air that hits the eardrums with a certain pattern; the eardrums then translate the information to the brain. The difference between a musical note and a noise is that notes have a regular pattern – whereas noises are erratic ripples.

Powell goes on to explain why the minor mode sounds sad and the major mode triumphant (or rather why we think so), why harmony sounds good and other historical, psychological and scientific musical facts. It’s an entertaining book that covers a lot of ground to help readers become better listeners.

Here’s a trailer that gives a good sample of the questions explored in the book:

 

(featured image by Matt Kish – from his awe-inspiring Moby Dick in Pictures: One Drawing for Every Page project).