Remembering the value of creativity

A piece I wrote for Saffron Hall’s weekly newsletter -17th April 2020

As Learning and Participation Director, I spend much of my time working to bring people together, either at Saffron Hall, or in schools and community venues across the region. To suddenly find we live in a world where this is not possible has come as a shock to everybody. As with our concert programme, we have had to, almost overnight, reschedule, postpone or rethink every aspect of our schools and community work. It has, of course, been upsetting to have to cancel long planned events – including our Sing BIG! which was due to be attended by over 500 primary school children, our weekly Together in Sound sessions, and schools performances from the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.

Despite these disappointments, it has been inspiring to see how the arts sector has responded optimistically to the challenges of this new situation. Technology of course has played a key role, and online performances, collaborations and resources are becoming commonplace. At Saffron Hall we have been able to continue our work in partnership with Anglia Ruskin University to deliver Together in Sound sessions online to people living with dementia and their companions, and we are exploring ways to continue to work with schools and communities as this lockdown enters its second month.

As we all spend more time in our homes, the intrinsic value of the arts, and its impact on our health and wellbeing has become more important than ever. The idea of coping with lockdown and isolation without music, film and TV or books is hard to contemplate. For me though, living through this experience reinforces my core belief in the importance and value of creativity in our all our lives more widely. There is no template or roadmap through this crisis, and we are learning more every day. The ultimate solutions to the challenge we are facing may not yet exist, but they will only come into existence through human creativity and ingenuity. And on a personal level we are all having to be creative to find our way through these times, whether we are dealing with the challenges of home schooling, new working practices, or empty supermarket shelves.

In the arts sector we have long argued that one of the benefits of arts participation is that it develops skills which benefit us in all areas of life – collaboration, team working, resilience, and above all, creativity. Business and employers reinforce this with data regularly showing that these are the very skills they seek in their employees. Against this background though arts participation in schools is declining, along with time for extra-curricular activity and creative practice. There is no doubt that, after this crisis has passed, we will all be living in a different world. One hope I have is that it will be a world in which the value and impact of creative practice is not forgotten, and that we take the opportunity to reimagine the role the arts, and creativity can play both in schools and in communities more widely.

Still on the edge

Like many of my musical instruments and piles of sheet music, From the Edge has sat in a dusty corner for some years. Throwing it away was never a consideration. I always knew there would be a time when I would want to return to it. I always knew there would be a time when I needed it.

I would never have anticipated the sequence of events which have finally led me to blow the dust off, pick it up and gently ease mind and fingers back into long neglected but never forgotten routines. I would never have anticipated that even an unemotive, impassionate description of the world today would, mere months ago have been more at home in a Hollywood film pitch or young adult novel.

Those circumstances are well documented and I won’t attempt to summarise the global or even national situation here. On a personal level, in the last year I started a new job leading the learning and participation programme at a concert hall based in a school and community in Essex. This work is all about bringing people together to create and collaborate, and about shared experiences, normally in the same space. None of that is currently possible in the way it has been envisaged. This work is also about realising the power of the arts to bridge the gaps between people, to enable people to give voice to and share their lived experience, to learn from each other and to support each other. All of that should still be possible, and is more important than ever.

Alongside that professional angle this blog originated as place to document thoughts about living on London’s outermost border, and the interesting things that happen where one of the world’s largest cities joins forest and marshland, and where communities exist separately from but never quite escape the gravitational pull of the capital. In my community, as in so many others, these times have triggered the growth of community networks, both formal and informal, organised and loose. But also here, as elsewhere, cracks in the system and disparity between individuals circumstances have been thrown into the spotlight by the recent events.

So, just as I have recently picked up some musical instruments and dived back into the world of early and baroque music, I now return to this space to process and organise some of my thoughts about all of these issues. I don’t know where it will lead, or what will emerge, but if nothing else hope it will serve as one record among many others of these interesting times.