Artists Interviews

January 2014: Thomas Johnston

Guest Editor Introduction - Thomas Johnston

Exploring themes of ‘participatory performance experience’ and ‘transformative potential’ for children and young people as they engage in music-making activities.

Thomas Johnston, children, music

"It is a privilege and a humbling opportunity to begin my editorship of for the months of January-February 2014. Over this time, I look forward to reflecting on various aspects of my own experience of working with children and young people as a music performer, workshop facilitator, and researcher. As a musician who has been lucky enough to gain experience in various areas and across several projects, as well as work with so many inspiring, creative, and innovative people who have informed and enriched my practice, very often the temptation is to ‘get on with things’, plan the next gig/performance/workshop, always look ahead, etc.. This editorship, I feel, is an opportunity to emerge from my research-space where I live for the most part nowadays, and revisit some of those projects and people - individuals with whom I have had the pleasure of working in various contexts and capacities over this past few years. In this way, I am hopeful that my thoughts and meanderings will be of relevance to the diverse activities of members.

Much of what I will explore and share with you stems from my experience of transitioning between the, at times disparate, yet inextricably linked roles of music performer-facilitator-researcher. As my professional experience broadens and deepens in the area of, what I will call for now, ‘music for children and young people’, so too do the many questions which accompany each music performance or workshop. These questions perhaps are of interest to others who work with children and young people, and I look forward to making connections between my experiences and yours, as well as sharing common experiences. Some of these questions concern my own identity in terms of who I am as a musician, what I do, how I go about doing it, and why I do what I do. As a researcher, I have found that one of the most productive, yet dare-I-say frustrating and tiring aspects of engaging in research, is the inclination to ofttimes question and rethink my professional identity and purpose of my work in this way. While this way of thinking can sometimes lead to a sense of being in constant flux, I feel that it also allows me to evolve to meet the diverse needs of those with whom I work, and avoids any such feeling of being ‘boxed in’ to being one thing or another. For me, this is important. It is a frame of mind or perspective which helps to disrupt any potentially unproductive routine or status quo from kicking-in, and it resists the lethargy which can sometimes beset a series of performances or workshops.

Thomas Johnston, children, music

It is through this sort of questioning that I have come to two themes which I wish to explore during this editorship. The first theme, I have tentatively called ‘participatory performance experience’ for children and young people. Participatory performance is by no means a new concept, but as a musician who works primarily with young children, I find the extended concept of ’participatory performance experience’ a useful one. In terms of my practice, it exists somewhere between a more traditional presentational performance (for example, where there are clear lines between Thomas-as-musician and the young audience) and participatory music experiences (where those lines are blurred and my intention is educational and towards a participatory musical experience for the children and young people). A participatory performance experience then creates the important and necessary space for both the musician-as-performer, and the young children-as-participants in the performance. The children and young people can then experience the meaning-making which is associated with participating as audience as well as the meaning-making which is associated with participating as performers.

The second theme which I will explore relates to what I have called the concept of ‘transformative potential’ and what this means for my own and other artists’ practice, and importantly, for children and young people as they engage in music-making activities. Very often as musicians (and presumably, as other artists and arts professionals), we have a certain intention and ambition for what we would like a child or young person to experience, either during or beyond a workshop/performance. Emerging from my current research with Music Generation, I have framed this idea within a concept of ‘transformative potential’, and will explore this idea further during this editorship. For example, some of the broad questions which will inform this conversation are: What is the potential of music, and other art forms, to have a transformative impact in the lives of children and young people? What does this ‘transformation’ actually look like? What is the artist’s role in building the potential for transformative experience? Are there similarities across art-forms of what we would like children and young people to experience?

I would love to hear from you over the course of this two-month editorship, so please get in touch and say hello! Finally, a Happy, Healthy, and Creative 2014 to all readers!

Recent Projects - Links:

Music Generation Research Fellowship:
Online Academy of Irish Music:
I See You, I Hear You:
Junior Music Hub:
Tiny Voices (Project):
Tiny Voices (Research):
Small Sounds:
Circus Sounds:
Tiny Traddies:
Sing Out With Strings:



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