The following blog was written by Music Bridge trainee, Dónal Kearney.
At the end of a stormy January, I enrolled on the Music Bridge training programme in Derry’s Cúlturlann with a vague idea of what lay ahead. I’d been looking (wishfully) for an experience that neatly combines my interests in music, human rights advocacy, and community-oriented work. This may seem like a strangely specific blend, but I was naively hopeful. As a singer living in Dublin, I’ve spent the past year or so performing and teaching around Ireland. Prior to this, I was working in the UN in Geneva after getting a Master’s in Human Rights and a Cambridge Law degree. Through my professional human rights experience, I developed a particular interest in the intersection between rights & identity, and the ways individuals express themselves in differing cultures. More recently, as I began to earn a living by singing, I delved into folklore and song as a way to understand the world.
I now see the Music Bridge training programme as a space to explore these questions in a very practical way. As a constituent programme of Musicians Without Borders, Music Bridge partners with musicians worldwide and with local and international organisations operating in the fields of peace, human rights, and development. Irrespective of musical background or genre, players and singers can engage with local people to help strengthen cooperation across cultural and ethnic lines, building positive and inclusive individual and community identities. Music Bridge is both a local response to conflict in Northern Ireland and a universal approach to peace.
Founded in 1999, Musicians without Borders (MwB) is an international network organisation that uses the power of music to connect communities, bridge divides and heal the wounds of war and conflict. MwB organises concerts and international conferences on healing and reconciliation through music, and runs projects in the Balkans (Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia and Kosovo), Africa (Rwanda and Uganda), the Middle East (Occupied Palestinian Territories), and works with refugee children in The Netherlands.
On the Music Bridge training programme, I am learning how to facilitate music workshops. Music is essentially a community activity. It brings people together since both listening to music and actively making music are communal experiences. For a singer/player, the act of expressing oneself can be a powerful creative experience. Likewise, witnessing a performance allows us to share in something deeply personal.
One of my strongest memories from the training course in Derry was our interactions with a large group of charming young Italian students. We worked with them two days in a row and helped them to make music as a group. Although most of them knew each other, it was amazing to watch the different young personalities change throughout the workshop process. Some went from anxiety to flamboyance within an hour. We watched them shed inhibitions like cocoons. A few of them spoke movingly afterwards of the meaningful experience they’d just had. And this was the first time I realised the power of this work.
The training also involved discussions of pedagogical approaches to leadership and teamwork. I know that these tools are invaluable to me, regardless of what I go on to do in the future. The process of considering effective strategies and then actively developing the necessary skills has already been an empowering one for me. This training course has also shed a new light on musicianship as a skill in and of itself. Whereas many educational institutions view music as extra-curricular or subsidiary to other subjects, Music Bridge encourages music as a tool for communication and self-expression. It has renewed my own appreciation for music, something I am sorry to even have to admit to myself.
MwB explicitly refers to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in its statement of fundamental principles. Specifically, it clearly promotes nonviolence in all its activities. Another of the things that struck me about the MwB approach is the attitude of tolerance with which participants are faced. There is no such thing as a wrong answer. There is no incorrect response. Everything is accepted – and put to good use! Whether it’s a rhythm in a game, or a lyric for a new song, everyone’s input is valued. Everyone can participate, regardless of experience or talent. A participant’s success is measured not by an arbitrary standard, but by improvement based on each person’s starting point.
The workshops also create a space for participant improvisation. This was something I personally found difficult. Danny, the workshop leader and trainer, did wonderful work with us in Derry. A big part of our induction as new trainees was involvement in workshops as participants. In these workshops, Danny created the space for us to express ourselves individually, whether through movement, rhythm or by singing. As a professional performer with years of youth drama experience, I thought I’d handle the workshops with no problems. In the workshops, I found I was pushed to the limit of my own inhibitions. At times, I found it very uncomfortable and didn’t want to participate any longer. I found myself criticising the process and my own decision to attend.
From this, I learned that I’m not as open as I thought I was. I’m not as open-minded as I hope to be. I am more judgemental and I am less free than I thought. Especially working with Eugene Skeef, I experienced the power of opening up – to music and collaboration and trust. It’s not an easy process, but it’s an affecting one. As MwB states: “The power of art is recognised by the workshop leaders as a tool to inspire and empower people and to transform lives.”
I believe that this openness is one of the most positive attitudes we can practise as humans. If we can become more empathic citizens, we can create a community where the values of rights are respected and upheld. I’m fascinated by the importance of cultural symbols like songs and stories in our connection to place. For these are what bind us together – they give meaning to our relationships. They help us to remember the past and to envision the future. Most importantly, they help us to celebrate the present by cultivating the values we desire in our own communities. I want to contribute to this celebration through music and Music Bridge is arming me to do so.