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11 tips for making music online with young people

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Lucy playing an instrument
Lucy Wallace

Written by Lisa Meech, Youth Music NextGen Contributing Writer

A relaxed, friendly atmosphere often feels essential to a well-run music session. But, as we all know by now, that can be difficult to create online. 

Despite this, Brighter Sound, a creative music charity working with young people and artists in the North, have run amazing online courses. Participants create, write, record and produce songs via online workshops, that are shared through livestream performances. During the pandemic they’ve continued to take referrals from mental health charities like 42nd Street, working with them to create accessible music workshops that support young people’s wellbeing.

I spoke to Lucy, the project lead at Brighter Sound, who shared her top tips for running online music sessions with young people.

1. Find ways to break the ice

Starting conversations, even in person, can be difficult, so running online sessions requires creating spaces for socialising. Make room for chat and games in your session plans. Think of the screen as an additional barrier you need to break down to meet the social needs of your participants.

Brighter Sound starts sessions with music playing and a whiteboard set up where people can play and interact. This creates a comfortable, friendly start. It breaks the ice and stops that awkward start-of-a-group-call silence. As sessions went on participants played their own music and socialised more. But it required Brighter Sound creating the space to allow that development.

2. Look after your facilitators

Moving to online may be a big shift for facilitators. They may feel nervous about ideas taking longer to develop due to slower communication online or participants being less responsive. As a project manager, Lucy has been taking the time to check-in with them, reassure them and celebrate the victories in sessions together. 

3. Have a dedicated host

A host can look after the chat, break-out/waiting rooms and anything else tech so that the facilitator can 100% focus on running the session.

4. Make the most of online tools

Now that we’re on screens for sessions, Brighter Sound has found that production has come into its own. At first this may be through allowing participants to take remote control of the facilitators screen but later they had participants setting up their own Bandlabs (an online music software) and creating their own tracks.

The young people can create their music from start to finish and develop their digital skills. Many have loved having total ownership and their confidence has increased because of it.

It's about making sure participants have access to the right equipment to be able to participate - so whether that's lending them a laptop, getting them a broadband dongle or ensuring that they can participate via their phone. They spend time before the sessions phoning round and seeing what participants have and how we could support them. 

5. Breaks, breaks, breaks!

Breaks are important but often neglected. Turn off screens, make a tea, or step outside. Lucy shares that Brighter Sound has insisted on staff and participants taking breaks. For full day sessions, they have separate Zoom links for the morning and afternoon to make sure everyone logs off for lunch.

6. Have a dedicated mental-health practitioner

In some projects Brighter Sound has a mental health practitioner present the whole time. Her presence is normalised by participating in the session, but the participants know if they were overwhelmed and need a moment, they could virtually step-out with her.

7. Regular participant check-ins

Lucy has found that to reduce anxieties 1-to-1 contact is important. Phone calls before to run through what to expect, check they have everything they need, and reassure them that they can take a break whenever and don’t have to talk. Then having regular follow-up calls to make sure participants are comfortable, have what they need, and have opportunities to express any concerns.

These calls take time but to make the session as accessible as possible it's necessary to keep that avenue of communication open. 

8. Leave time for thorough debriefs

This is an important time for facilitator communication, where any concerns and observations can be raised. Particularly as participants are often in breakout rooms meaning facilitators can’t always see everyone. 

9. Use the chat

Speaking online can be uncomfortable for people but they might be happy to engage using the chat. This might lead to speaking or even turning the camera on. To build confidence and communication, the chat is a good place to start. 

10. Have offline activities

Just because it’s an online course, we don’t need screens the whole time. Find moments where people can turn their cameras off and do some independent lyric writing or have a move around to avoid screen fatigue.  

11. Performances are possible

Brighter Sound has run some incredible livestreams, with participants using the share-sound function or playing live. Many young people felt more comfortable streaming their pre-produced tracks than they would’ve in a live performance and received encouraging audience feedback through comments sections. This really increased participant confidence and was a fun and relaxed introduction to performance. 

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