The following article is a collaboration between Julian and Sarah Ackroyd. Sarah is a director of the Centre for Mentoring and Coaching, as well as being a talented musician.
Sarah and Julian are both passionate about music. It engages us in ways that are different from anything else: reaching inside and resonating. Whilst music is often viewed as something to be listened to at home or in the car, in this article, we explore how we can learn with music.
As well as being a director at the Centre for Mentoring and Coaching, Sarah is a harpist, I first met her when she was playing at a conference, providing a reflective environment between sessions. The venue was a beautiful country house, meaning that the sound and the environment were in harmony: it felt in place. The whole learning experience was only semi formal, meaning that, whilst noticeably different, it worked well.
Imagine the difference from that to the reality of playing in a police station. Some years ago, Sarah was working with female police officers to provide a leadership development programme. The aim was to take them outside their usual parameters, outside of their usual ways of viewing things, but there was a challenge: the session was being run in the police station. Aside from being a good way of keeping costs down, running the session in their normal workplace ran the risk of simply reinforcing existing cultural norms. It’s hard to step outside your head when everything in the environment is pulling you back.
Sarah’s strategy was to create an initial disturbance, to set a frame that this was not just another day in the office, another day on the beat. She took her celtic harp (the more train friendly portable version!) and, as the delegates arrived, they found her playing in the room. It was a deliberately incongruent event: “I wanted them to take a second look, a double take“. She wanted them to think ‘what on earth is going on, am i even on the right programme‘?
But of course, disturbance is no use unless we channel it, unless we do something with the ripples that we create, and this was achieved as Sarah moved into the session proper. “When i wanted them to do some visioning for their futures and the sort of leaders they wanted to be, i’d suggest some harp improvisation to enable them to open up their minds to new possibilities“.
It’s certainly a risky strategy: on the one hand, as a facilitator you need to be seen as confident, authoritative, experienced… or am i just falling into my own cultural norms? Surely, if we are asking people to broaden their perspectives, it’s appropriate to disclose how broad our own horizons are? Sarah’s passion and interest in music is not just a hobby: it’s part of her, it defines how she views the world. Her actions in exposing this very personal part of her life to her ‘professional‘ audience was both brave and effective.
“It was interesting to see their reactions, ranging from ‘this is wonderful’ to ‘it helped me relax’ through to anger and fury and ignoring it at the other“, says Sarah. In an environment, in a context where we are asking people to open up, to explore new dimensions of their own thinking and behaviour, it may well be appropriate that we open up ourselves, that we provide atypical frameworks and mindsets to that which sits within the cultural norm.
“I realise, looking back, that it took a lot of courage to work so culturally contrary to the police norms. It would have been the same if i’d been running the programme in any large institution. But i trusted my instinct. if playing the harp helped me arrive, be centred, and open to new possibilities, i needed to trust that that would impact on the feel of the room and the opportunities for learning within it.”
This article forms part of a larger piece of ongoing research into learning and music. Keep your eyes peeled for the follow up!