Leeds School of Arts

Virtual Harmonies: exploring music and social cohesion through online songwriting workshops

'Virtual Harmonies' is a project focused on trying to deal community division through music and songwriting workshops.

A screenshot of a zoom chat where all participants are holding up a sheet of material they have created a bird related pattern, image and/or text on.

‘Virtual Harmonies’ is a project I developed using a Leeds School of Arts' small funding grant to deliver online songwriting workshops. Produced in collaboration with Touchstone Bradford, an interfaith charity focused on bringing women from different faiths and cultures in Bradford together through short-term arts initiatives. Bradford is a diverse city with significant cultural and religious divisions. It is possible for people to go a lot of their lives without significant interactions with those outside of these communities, this can lead to mistrust which is often further fueled by divisive media narratives. Touchstone’s remit is to bridge these divisions at a grassroots level through their art-based projects. As part of my research into music as a tool for social cohesion, I teamed up with creative music workshop leader Emma Smith (freelance musician and Musicians Without Borders trainer) to produce a workshop series focused on collaborative songwriting. The specific research aim of this project was to examine how tactics used in music social cohesion workshops could be converted effectively into a virtual format and, more broadly, effectiveness of music on building intercommunity links.

The Virtual Harmonies workshop series ran from mid-May to mid-June with four sessions plus a ‘viewing’ session for the final product. Prior to the start, each of the 14 attendees (none of whom with prior musical training) was sent a tuned chime bar, a permanent marker, a large piece of fabric, some thread, and some earphones. Attendees reported that this ‘welcome pack’ created a sense of belonging before the series started. As we had limited time in the workshop series, Emma decided on a theme for the participants to songwrite about. The theme was about swifts – remarkably resilient birds that spend most of their lives in the air and migrate from southern Africa to the U.K. every year – a path similar to those followed by African refugees. This resonated with the participants, many of whom (including myself) are from immigrant backgrounds. Obviously, latency in online platforms (in this case Zoom) makes singing or playing in unison an impossibility. As a result, we built the track bit by bit, starting with a melody the participants created with the chime bars. They did this by dividing into small groups and then coming up with a melody using the notes from the chime bars. The melodies were then played to the whole group and woven together to form the melody for the whole song. Lyrics, rhythms, and movements were created in a similar fashion (only in groups of two). These were created in the session and then the participants were asked to record their parts on their phones and send the recording to myself and Emma. Finally, participants were asked to create a backdrop with the other items in their ‘welcome pack’ focused along the theme of swifts, which can be seen at various points in the video.

While interviews about the project are ongoing, survey results have revealed that participants found the workshops to be empowering (as they did not know they had the capability to produce a musical product) and also felt positive connections with each other through this project (many of them have now connected on Facebook and plan to meet ‘in real life’ when restrictions allow). We are currently collating lessons learnt from this pilot project and developing it into a larger endeavour which will incorporate both online and live musical workshop elements.

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