Resilience and connection through music – in person and online

'Our goal is to help people use music in their everyday lives.' Image: Brian DeSimone.
'Our goal is to help people use music in their everyday lives.' Image: Brian DeSimone.

COVID-19 and its attendant lockdown restrictions occurred while Professor Jane Davidson's team was already developing a range of face-to-face elements for its intercultural music research project – so what did the move online teach the team about building connections?

By Thuy On

“The activity of being together in music can offer profound experience,” says Professor Jane Davidson, Head of Performing Arts in the Faculty of Fine Arts and Music, University of Melbourne.

“In part, it has to do with synchronising as one, being in a shared emotional experience and being in close proximity with others," she says. "Being in a communal space provides opportunities to know one another better and to remove possible barriers. Looking at research I’ve done over the years, I note that people can make music together without having to talk, and at the end of it, they feel closer.”

Davidson is elaborating on a thesis that music can be a social equaliser and remover of obstacles, as explored in her project Social cohesion and resilience through intercultural music engagement, funded through the Australian Research Council’s Discovery Project scheme.

Professor Jane Davidson. By Giulia McGauran.

This intercultural music project was originally developed in collaboration with Davidson’s colleague Distinguished Professor Bill Thompson, Director of the Music, Sound and Performance Lab, Department of Psychology at Macquarie University. “When we worked on the grant application, there had been a spike in racist attacks," says Davidson.

"And recently, we’ve seen increased focus on racial disparity with a resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement. This project wasn’t targeting one specific group of people, but exploring the ways music can help people of similar cultural backgrounds bond and feel a sense of home as well as bridge to other social and cultural networks."

It’s a truism that food offers strong possibilities for cultural exchange and acknowledgement of diversity, but perhaps a lesser acknowledged fact is that musical participation can also facilitate the sharing of culture. Davidson and her colleagues, in particular UoM Postdoctoral fellow Dr Alex Crooke and PhD Candidate Trisna Fraser, are researching this topic, alongside others spanning different disciplines and countries.

Respectively Crooke and Fraser have backgrounds in musical cultures and critical race theory, psychology and community arts. The trio’s work, both collaboratively and through individual strands, is focused on social cohesion and resilience through intercultural music engagement.

As the team was developing a range of face-to-face projects with community members, lockdown restrictions imposed by COVID-19 came into operation. The researchers had to engage with different procedures to adapt to social distancing, and in doing so realised the significant impact that the pandemic had on the original research aim.

Dr Alexander Crooke. By Giulia McGauran.

As Crooke explains: “We were interested to find how music could be used in a community context to bridge connections between cultures and facilitate intercultural understanding. Pre-COVID, we thought we’d be investigating in-person music workshops but with COVID, like everyone else, we moved online. There was this massive global musical response to COVID and so we set up a website, Music Across the Balconies, and a Facebook page to document the historical events.”

The work, Crooke says, evolved into a repository of resources for both audience and practitioners. “Trisna started doing an analysis from YouTube comments, asking: how are people connecting socially through watching YouTube videos of musical performances? Is watching sufficient for bonding and bridging to occur?”

It’s not all rosy in the world of social media, of course, and Crooke cautions against over-optimism: “We thought musicians would say ‘it’s all wonderful, online activity is aiding us through these challenging times’ but it wasn’t quite like that. The musicians told us they were struggling as all the bonded networks they'd had pre-COVID had broken down, disappeared or were unable to be accessed.

"We started looking at this challenge through the lens of social capital – that is, bonding networks being your close social networks and bridging networks being those who aren’t close to you but could be a source of new information, contract or gig. So, though local bonded networks associated with live performance were broken down, there were more online connections, internationally, and with people they’ve never connected before in Australia.”

Crooke pauses, then adds: “It's unclear at this stage the extent and lasting benefits of social connections in the online space, but it has been important to capture this moment and trace its impact.”

Fraser adds: “We noticed there was a huge amount of music engagement online, including choirs and orchestras – people going off in their own time, contributing their bit in the orchestra and then everything being post-produced and made to look synchronous. My research this year has looked at the nature of that engagement, both from the perspective of audience and participant. How do we use online and offline approaches and interventions to share music interculturally?”

The three researchers’ individual music backgrounds offer complementary perspectives on the project. Davidson’s career has seen the academic in tandem with the practitioner; for years she’s balanced opera-singing and directing with research into the social psychology of music. “I’ve long been interested in a range of issues exploring what the performing arts can bring communities, from infants to older people, for those experiencing social disadvantage," she says.

"I’m intrigued by how the arts accompany us through life. This kind of cultural support and expression is everything. Indigenous arts are a fine example of that – peoples’ lived cultural practice offers regulation emotionally, mentally and physically for wellbeing.”

Crooke has played music since childhood, with incursions into guitar and jazz bass, and now creates and DJs Hip Hop and electronic music. After a working in the area of adolescent mental health, he did his PhD in Music Therapy.

Fraser, meanwhile, has a dance background. “The usual classical ballet and contemporary, but a lot of my adult life was spent running a studio with classes in Middle Eastern dancing and music, Bollywood and Flamenco," she explains. Fraser came into this project following her studies in community psychology. As an Indonesian Australian, she is keen to reflect on her own intercultural experience.

All three researchers stress the resilience of the arts community during COVID. Davidson says: “Some of the students on our Master of Music (Opera Performance) course mirrored the Italian situation of offering music across the balconies. They sang opera on their balconies once a week and it went viral. They were on TV, they live-streamed their performances, people took their daily exercise passing their balcony at the time of the performances.

“They discovered other musicians in their block of flats, who joined them. They got to know their neighbours. During lockdown, people were walking around their street seeking out this live experience. That was a very positive outcome.  A difficulty with the digital space is trying to achieve cohesion with people you have no real relationships with. It’s all mediated through a digital link”.

Trisna Fraser. By Caterina Fizzano

Fraser adds: “What interested me was that these opera students picked up on something that happened on the other side of the world. The international became localised and then was used to create community.”

Crooke says: “No matter what, artists are going to create art. Even if they are putting it on Facebook Live and playing to no-one. There was a real sense among the participants in our studies that they owed their community music, regardless of where that was conceptually located. Also, artists seemed to be more resourceful during COVID because they didn’t have gigs and projects demanding they write or play music for someone else, so they were free to experiment on their own work, maybe try different instruments or make new connections.

“A lot of people during COVID would have turned to music," he says. "Our goal is to help people use music in their everyday lives. People had to go online and so experimentation will bring an evolution: a hybrid of digital and in-person music delivery.”

A key outcome of this research project is to develop guidelines for practitioners to be able to create programs that address intercultural understanding and community cohesion.

“Practices in the COVID lockdown emerged through trial and error,” says Davidson. “And if we can tap into the mechanisms that aided positive outcomes, we can offer a blueprint of new practices in the digital space to assist in making them meaningful.”