Street Arts Project workshops

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Street Arts Project workshops

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As you'll know from various earlier reviews, both of Street Arts Project releases & of their associated launch gigs, I thoroughly support this marvellous initiative which supports street sleepers, homeless and vulnerable people in Stratford upon Avon.

However I'd always wanted to sit in on one of the project workshops at Stratford Playhouse in which their music is composed & developed and I'm so grateful to the group for letting me do so a couple of times this month (on 1st & 15th February).

Some of the songs are essentially conceived by individual group members & then brought to the workshops to share & develop communally. Others are totally group written with everyone pitching ideas in.

As you know, quite a few professional musicians facilitate the group (most of whom we have featured in the magazine doing their day jobs) such as Jack Blackman, Wes Finch, Katherine Abbott, Jono Wright, Geoff Carr (from Generation Jones) and Nigel Clark (of Dodgy fame): though not all could be there for the sessions which I attended. However I was intrigued as to their role: with their vastly greater experience than the other group members, did the latter feel inhibited? Did the songs tend to go the way the professionals shaped them?

Naturally, knowing them, the experienced musicians would not wish such a dynamic to evolve, but it is hard to see how it might not unless handled with insight & sensitivity. Over the two sessions I witnessed, it certainly did not due to those attributes being central to what was going on. Even more so, I was taken with the overall ethos: this was totally democratic and I've never seen such mutual respect in a group situation: I wish I'd managed to encourage it in some of the classes I have taught. Everyone listened to each other without any interruption whatsoever. (It is illuminating that project co-founder Doug Armstrong told me that key aspects of the environment they fostered included "respect , honesty and we never judge. We are all equal in that room"). In addition, group members encouraged & drew each other out & praised each other's contributions.

The role of the facilitators was largely that of amanuensis: Wes in particular acted as scribe to free people to come up with ideas. Their contribution was described to me as "putting pieces of a jigsaw together" and I can agree that's what I saw. They also tended to keep the tune going while the ideas were coming in: this allowed members of the group to fit lyrical ideas into the music easily and to join in on their own instruments when they felt confident they knew the structure. (I'd also add that while I was there, Geoff was providing one to one instrumental tuition too).

What wasn't particularly expected was the speed at which songs came together: seeing as I'd only ever experienced them finished, I had no idea how long they had taken to refine: I rather assumed quite a long time. However on both of my visits, songs came together jaw droppingly fast: and I'm talking good quality ones on a par with those on the released albums. Obviously full arrangements & totally completed lyrics weren't there yet, but the essence was.

Generally the group focuses on matters personal to themselves & their lives in their writing: the process clearly helps them articulate themselves (though as I've commented on in the album reviews, the tone is always optimistic despite the very considerable challenges they have faced & continue to face in their lives: so it's hard not to see this process as offering them forms of esteem raising & empowerment). So on my first visit, I heard a song which may end up being titled "In the Future" coming together and this week one ("It's All Going On") documented their own writing sessions. Other subjects which you may get to hear on album number four include "Lifestyle Choices", "New Horizons" and "You in My Bed (Happiness is a Hot Water Bottle)": the latter of which only contains the words "hot water bottle" in the title: it's not in the lyrics, so listeners will need to figure that one out. The songs you see may touch on the simpler joys of life but are not necessarily simplistic in their composition. I also got to hear group member Craig's solo song "Falling" which the group worked on. Members variously added guitar, harmonica and ukulele to the arrangement as they felt appropriate.

Though I was aware of the workshops as an activity & the three albums to date, I hadn't fully grasped the complete range of what the Street Arts Project have done: they've now held over a hundred separate workshop sessions but there have also been eight concerts plus two plays and poetry days too.

In fact we are coming up to the fifth birthday of the project (which I hadn't realised) so what a great chance to wish them a happy birthday. Once this current round of workshops & subsequent recordings is complete, the resultant tracks will again be released on Spotify & Bandcamp and there will be another concert.

I'm obliged to project founders Doug Armstrong & Jackie Lines for filling me in on some of the facts I didn't know. Like an iceberg, much of their work is not fully visible: which of course is why I was keen to explore the process as well as the outcomes, but there are also aspects around supporting the wellbeing of group members including provision of sleeping bags, clothing etc which must necessarily remain more discreet in its delivery & publicity.

Equally my little episodes at peeping behind the curtain to see how the songs come together cannot compete with the insights of those who are part of the group & so I am appreciative of some of them for sharing their testimony here:

Craig Giles "It's a life saver really for some of us. If gives people a bit of a focus to do on a Thursday and through the music and learning to play it brings you together as a community. People have made friendships here and you can't fault it"

Wes Finch: "The Street Arts Project creates a regular, relaxed and welcoming space for people to connect and be musically creative. We provide songwriting workshops and guitar lessons and then encourage people to record the songs we make together and then perform at our concerts. We have a lot of fun and a great sense of camaraderie and achievement from it."

Katherine Abbott: "The thing I love about Street Arts is that everybody feels entirely equal and on a level as soon as we sit down in that room. It's a space where everybody can express themselves freely without fear of being judged. We laugh a lot together.

Jack Blackman: "The Street Arts Project is a truly wonderful thing to be part of. To be able to meet once a week and be creative with the participants is a joy and a privilege. It's so special and lifelong friendships have blossomed. Big love and appreciation must go to Doug Armstrong whose enthusiasm and support keeps the Street Arts Project rolling and long may it roll!"

Jono Wright: "I have been involved with Street Arts for about 2 years. It is such a wonderful project that brings together extraordinary people to do amazing things. Doug and Jackie have created such a wonderful environment and I love being part of it."

Though I haven't a date yet for the next Street Arts Project concert, there is one significant date for your diaries. Several of the facilitating musicians have banded together as WLDFLWRS and are playing at Stratford United Reformed Church on 30th March (matinee & evening performances) in aid of the project. The theme is the Martin Scorsese/The Band movie/gig "The Last Waltz" and so they and some of their friends will be looking to emulate the setlist of that concert.

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