Starting points for young people: what are the key ingredients for an effective engagement in music making?

How do you go about successfully engaging young people in music-making?

I was recently asked to feed into a review of support for musical progression in the UK, drawing on the work of the Musical Progressions Roundtable amongst other things. This is spread across three blog posts: this one on sparking up engagement, one on supporting progression and one on measuring progress.

How do you spark up someone's engagement in music and how do you keep that flame alight? There are perhaps three elements to this: 

a) Enquire and ask people good questions about what motivates, fires, excites or engages them musically and listen carefully to the answers. In most cases, the musical spark is already lit and music, neuroscientists tell us, is something that works very deep within our brains. So fighting against someone's musical tastes is likely to be counterproductive, and possibly offensive to them. But finding out what they already like or can do is a good starting point for developing that (e.g. Music-based mentoring), or enriching it with some new, different things (e.g. good Musical Futures practice / John Finney's work on 'Managing intergenerational wisdom'). 

b) Inspire people with music, and find out what they already find inspirational and respect. Inspiration - which is often about newness and engaging people through exposure to new things - is a key way of bringing people into any form of music-making. You don't have to do the inspiring yourself (indeed you might be the wrong person in some cases) so think about other sources of inspiration as well. Often the inspirational element isn't 100% musical - it might be about trends and fashions, personal stories and achievements, physical dexterity, live experience etc. - but these are part of music too.

c) Empower people, by showing them step by step that they can make music, or do things with music. Help them realise the joy of music from a hands-on perspective, and make sure that they do feel empowered, rather than overwhelmed, inferior, belittled or second-rate.

These three things are, of course, closely interrelated. For example, if you try to inspire people with something you find inspirational, without having enquired or asked about what they find inspirational, your efforts may backfire if the two starting points are poles apart. Accessibility, familiarity and approachability are important for initial engagement. The same thing applies with empowerment: if you try to tell a child that they can do something, without finding out that they really are very unlikely to be able to, then you will disempower them. Equally, if you find a spark and then inspire someone with some amazing music-making, but, in doing so, make that music feel unreachable/unattainable then, again, you may disempower them from wanting to engage with that music themselves.


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