Learning Partnership: Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Plymouth Music Zone

Award amount: £5,635

Organisation: Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Plymouth Music Zone

Following our Annual Lecture in April 2018, two of our community organisations approached us with the idea of a ‘Learning Partnership’. Drawn together due to their similar work using music-making to support health and wellbeing in older adults, as well as similar challenges such as navigating research relationships with universities, this partnership would be a way for the two organisations to share tips and experiences across the sector, challenging and improving their own work. Over the last year, the partnership took the form of periodic ‘mentoring’ conversations (predominantly over Skype) as well as reciprocal visits to meet each other’s teams and observe project delivery.

Lisa Rodio (LR), Community & Education Project Manager for the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (RPO), and Anna Batson (AB), Creativity & Learning Director for Plymouth Music Zone (PMZ), reflect on their experiences and learning here.

Learning Theme 1: Reflecting on similarities and differences     

LR: We immediately discovered a range of similarities between the organisations, particularly with regard to our shared ethos of using music-making to bring together communities and support positive personal and social outcomes. We both work with talented musicians who fully embrace this concept, and I really enjoyed being able to meet so many of PMZ’s music leaders and hearing how much they value being part of a team of like-minded artists.

AB: Both of our organisations are trying to promote wellbeing through participatory music. I was really touched to find out the motivations of the RPO musicians to work with Resound to also fulfil their own human need to connect with people through what they do so brilliantly and beautifully. I was able to interview an RPO musician (Adam Wright, Trumpet), using questions from PMZ’s EngAGE older people’s forum and residents of Devonport Views in Plymouth. The residents were delighted to have such a personal response and this has created a much closer connection between them and the RPO, including their understanding of ‘orchestral’ music. They sent photographs back to Adam to express their thanks for his time.  In so many ways there were more similarities than differences in what we are trying to achieve in our work.

LR: I also found it useful to discuss the different approaches of our organisations. The RPO has seven principal residencies around England, which means we work predominantly through shorter, intensive projects occurring periodically throughout the year. PMZ is very much embedded in Plymouth (and have their own venue!), allowing them to run longer-term, ongoing projects that see their core participant groups through months, years and beyond. Both model has its merits, and discussing the pros and cons of each challenged me to consider how we can bring as many of the PMZ-model benefits as possible to our own ways of working, including teaming up with local facilitators to offer interim or longer-term activity.

AB: It was interesting to compare locally-based projects with roving projects. Thinking about short and longer-term engagements and their impacts was also interesting. Meeting leaders for STROKESTRA® being trained by the RPO to deliver sessions in between their delivery input was also an additionality I had not expected.

Learning Theme 2: Research partnerships

AB: Conversations about working on research at the same time as delivering complex projects have been extremely useful. We have validated one another’s challenges, had supportive conversations and Lisa was able to talk about organisational strategy more fully with Debbie Geraghty, PMZ CEO, which was useful both ways. I was also able to share PMZ research (Beyond Words) and a recent Arts & Health paper with researchers from Keele University during my visit to STROKESTRA®.

LR: One of my burning questions for PMZ was around their work with universities to carry out research, as I was just setting out on this path for the first time with our STROKESTRA® programme. Debbie and Anna highlighted potential pitfalls to avoid such as discussing authorship and reporting formats up front, as well as offered advice around ways to streamline work through agreeing fair arrangements for regular steering meetings and clearly laying out communication procedures. These tips have been incredibly useful as I’ve navigated new partnerships within a new sector, and undoubtedly saved time by anticipating potential challenges further down the line.

Learning Theme 3: Practical Tips

LR: I particularly enjoyed my visit to Plymouth and being able to see a range of projects run by PMZ. Though our projects use similar techniques and work with similar participant groups, it’s amazing what you can see when not encumbered by project management and delivery concerns. From seemingly simple but effective improvements such as buying floor mats to cover cables rather than using and removing gaffa tape every single session, to larger thoughts around methods for involving participants in project design while continuing to challenge them with new ideas, there was plenty of food for thought.

AB: I loved the opportunity to be immersed in the STROKESTRA® sessions alongside the RPO musicians, NHS staff and stroke survivors. I was able to reflect on session structure, content and planning. Being present for the debrief sessions was great – seeing behind the scenes how much detailed planning was going on. I enjoyed picking up practical tips and resource ideas as well.

Learning Theme 4: Personal reflections

AB: To be completely honest, I had initially felt intimidated about working alongside a world-class orchestra – coming up to the Big Smoke from little old Plymouth. Having met Lisa via Skype, numerous conversations and a visit to Plymouth in December 2018, enabled me to quickly recognise some familiar issues and begin to exchange frank and open dialogue about our different experiences.  This apprehensive feeling further dissipated once I was immersed in an inter-generational music workshop; I met the players (who were all lovely people!) and found myself making further unexpected connections throughout the learning visit, including working alongside RPO bassoonist Helen Storey who is from my hometown and studied with the same bassoon teacher!

I was fascinated to explore the human connections on so many different levels throughout the learning partnership. Lisa’s commitment to her work and passion and drive to make things work for Resound and the musicians and participants has been inspirational to witness. I was also able to connect with a number of local organisations during my visits to the RPO projects, including the Mayor of Westminster who is interested in our model of ‘rusty musician’ orchestras for adults 18-55+ and ETAT (Encouragement Through the Arts and Talking), Pimlico’s support organisation for socially isolated adults.

The opportunity to share experiences of both practical and strategic thinking has been invaluable. It’s helped me personally feel less isolated in my work, reassured and inspired as a community music practitioner, and motivated to continue to reach out, make connections and to continue some form of learning partnership with Resound and the RPO.

LR: For me, this partnership offered time and headspace to properly reflect on the work we do at the RPO – something we don’t always have time to do when busy delivering projects! Sharing experiences with PMZ enabled me to assess our own projects, ensuring they best fit our priorities and organisational structure as well as generating new ideas for trialling.

I found it really beneficial having Anna visit our projects, and appreciated receiving feedback and questions from an objective but supportive peer. It was particularly useful to hear her thoughts on a new inter-generational model we piloted during her visit, drawing on Anna’s own experiences of inter-generational work.

The partnership also allowed me to recharge by taking on the role of participant in some fantastic workshops, and feel inspired to continue dreaming up new projects with renewed purpose and creativity.