Group of young people stood next to a piano smiling. Some hold instruments, one in the middle is holding a white dog.

Questioning ‘quality’ – Soundabout Choirs and Emerging Leaders

The latest issue of Sounding Board by Sound Sense includes ‘Questioning ‘quality’ – Soundabout Choirs and Emerging Leaders?’ – written by Soundabout Choir Co-ordinator, Ellen O’Brien.

This article originally appeared in Sounding Board 2023 Issue 2 and is reproduced with permission. Sounding Board is the quarterly journal published by Sound Sense, the UK professional association for community music. 

Soundabout, as the name suggests is all about sound! However, the true centre of Soundabout is the participants, Learning Disabled people and their families and support system. We provide musical opportunities for these people to engage with music and sound in many ways. The music is often a method of communication, a means to be together but also, something to be celebrated. Sharing the musical output of Soundabout has been a relatively recent area of discussion for us, one which was highlighted by Covid when all our provision moved online. It is interesting to discuss this in relation to two aspects of our work; the Soundabout Choirs and Emerging Leaders Programme.

My main role within Soundabout is to coordinate our network of choirs. These choirs, for Learning Disabled people and their support circles, aim to be as inclusive as possible with members sharing their musical voice through vocalisations, playing instruments, through technology, signing and any other way they express themselves.

Group of young people stood next to a piano smiling. Some hold instruments, one in the middle is holding a white dog.

Recording Music in Soundabout Choirs

Especially since covid, a lot of this expression of sound has been recorded and shared during sessions and for video performances. This caused us to reflect on the actual sound that was being produced and provided opportunity to reflect on how we wanted to present the Soundabout Choirs musically. Before, choir sessions were very much spontaneous, practitioners responded to sounds and vocalisations in the room which were the basis of songs and musical jamming. But when the performance is recorded for a video performance, it is edited, which can create complications. Questions of power, authenticity and agency. The purpose of Soundabout Choirs has never been about ‘quality’ of musical output; however, participants love watching themselves in performance and during covid this meant recording. The priority in our recordings was that it sounded like a ‘Soundabout choir’, if possible, like the choir did before we had to move online.


Our backing tracks were made by the accompanist from the in-person choirs, so we made space for choir members to play instruments and used songs that they recognised. Then, we asked them to send in their recordings. We emphasised that the recordings should be as long as they wanted, could be one sound or the whole song. Each rehearsal, more voices were added, and the members could hear themselves in the recording. Over time this process evolved, and we now make videos each term as ‘performance’ pieces. We learnt so much during this time, facing decisions about whether to change volumes of voices, whether to edit instruments to be more ‘in-time’, whether to make songs into arrangements or have all recordings playing throughout. Overall, we decided the priority was the ‘Soundabout’ sound which included limited editing of recordings in terms of the sounds themselves but balancing the voices so participants could hear the range of sounds. With additional practitioners involved, we aim to continue prioritising the ‘Soundabout’ sound over traditional standards of musical ‘quality’.


The moves to virtual choirs, and now hybrid choirs have, in many ways increased our accessibility, especially for members who join from a hospital or care setting. Of course, there are still limitations to the format, especially for those who have less access to technology. We now have a network of 15 choirs across the country, most of which are partnered with a local music hubs. You can watch our music videos on this playlist.

Emerging Leaders, ‘A Million Dreams’

I would also like to reflect on a very different music project at Soundabout and the considerations of musical quality that came with it. The recent project was a video and recording of ‘A Million Dreams’ from the Greatest Showman. It was part of the Emerging Leaders programme that is designed to develop leadership skills and confidence of Learning Disabled young people through music. The whole programme is built around the skills of the young people, their preferences, creativity and ideas. We meet on zoom for an hour each week in groups of around 4 people. This particular project grew from one of our ‘sharing circles’ when one of the young people shared ‘A million dreams’. Others instantly recognised and liked the song, and several joined in with some of the signs. Because they were already familiar with it, and really liked the song, we thought it would be a great starting point for a project to develop leadership skills, where they had full agency over the arrangement, recorded all the sounds, and created the visuals. I urge you to watch the video above before reading any further!

The process of creating this music video took about 8 weeks, much longer than we had planned to spend on it! We began by thinking of musical ideas then created and recorded all the music before starting on the video, signs and pictures. To inspire some musical ideas and explain that we were creating our own version, we watched and listened to three different versions of A Million dreams. One was A Capella (CaraNua Version), another with Makaton signing (Singing Hands) and a third was a Alex Boyé cover featuring many voices and a vibrant music video from Dixie State University students. Participants commented or identified things that they liked from each version and later these contributed to their version.  

After choosing sounds and instruments we began recording rhythms for a loop, inspired by the drum beat in the chorus of Alex Boyé’s cover. Everything was recorded through zoom so required some editing. On a personal level, I was careful not to edit the sounds themselves, only take out additional voices heard in the background or other elements that were caused by the recording. I did however need to turn several recordings into a 8-bar loop for us to record our next sounds to. The loop included shakers, drums, tapping on the table, clapping, water bottles and many other sounds!

The group had identified a section of ‘ooh’s’ from CaraNua’s cover of ‘A Million Dreams’ which they also wanted to use and we recorded ‘ooh’ sounds over the opening 4 chords to start to build up an accompaniment. Some of them matched the long ‘ooh’ sounds from the CaraNua cover, others made much shorter sounds or used a soundmaker to record. At this stage we introduced graphic scores to the group, allowing us to celebrate the diversity of sounds from the group. It was still based around the opening 4 chords which they started to become familiar with.

To explain the idea of graphic scores we gave examples using Garage band samples, for instance dots which signalled pizzicato strings, long lines to signify held chords. They really enjoyed listening to some of the samples which also informed their addition to the mix. Once each person had made a graphic score we set their recordings and the garage band samples to make the basis of the accompaniment. You can see reproductions of their graphic scores and music here:

Musically, from here it was much easier as we had a backing to record vocals too and each week, they could hear the progress as new sounds and voices were added. The group were extremely creative in many ways, so we also added the visual element including signing and their drawings. It also gave us an opportunity to talk about ‘dreams’ more widely. Dream holidays, dream houses, dreams for the world; contributing to a beautiful video.

For this project the musical output wasn’t the goal. However, the music they produced was fantastic, and the video enhanced that further. By building this project with the young people at the centre, they developed skills in leadership, collaboration as well as creating music that they were extremely proud of, knowing that every element was created by them.

Conclusion

So, is the question of quality helpful in our work at Soundabout? If ‘quality’ is about musical enjoyment, music we are proud of and music that is shaped by participants then yes, it is at the core of what we do. We constantly question and strive to improve the quality of musical experiences for our participants and the musical experience is often much more than the ‘music’ that can be recorded or presented to others. Through the choirs, emerging leaders projects and many other programmes within Soundabout, inclusion in musical experiences is our measure of quality.

 

Ellen O’Brien

Choir Co-ordinator, Soundabout

https://www.soundabout.org.uk/