Blog with Domhnall Lacey (Knowledge Exchange student, Plymouth University – placement with the Musical Misfits group @ PMZ) Spring/Summer 2022
Domhnall is from Ireland and has come to Plymouth to study. He previously took some time in between finishing school and university education to work, including as a musician, shop work (sales), broadband packages salesperson, a tech course and then more music education in between, before deciding to do a degree in music.
“I’ve always been quite a sociable person – very interested in meeting lots of different people.
During my sales work, I found myself not agreeing with what I was being asked to sell (broadband packages) but used the time to chat to people. I probably lost a lot of money as it was on commission. It taught me a lot – somewhere halfway between sales tactics and how to present yourself, get people’s attention – I used all those ‘tricks of evil’ for the greater good – that’s what I tell myself! There’s a before and after period of my social skills where an outside might not notice, but I could.
I was very good at up-selling because of the connections I built up. I got a lot of comments from customers saying it was nice to have a friendly face behind the counter. I also had quite a lot experience of helping people with learning or physical disabilities too – I was always patient with people.”
Background to getting involved with Knowledge Exchange / PMZ placement:
“I got in touch with PMZ through the university. Through doing my degree, my tutor brought it to me and I thought it would be a great way to get a placement and get some experience – and it is indeed a good experience!
Prior to the KE project I had some experience of accessible sport when at secondary school. During HND I did a module with older people with disabilities. It was a good experience and a lot more intensive in some ways because of things like choosing instruments and exercises for people with profound disabilities. I’ve done volunteering and working in a charity shop as well as looking after family members.
When I was told about PMZ I was interested. I ended up in Misfits instead of Baton Beats. Another student on KE asked if we could swap and I declined (!) – no offence Rob!”
Q: What observations have you made of how people are included and cared for in Musical Misfits sessions?
“In the Misfits sessions – even beyond Anna coordinating the sessions, everyone understands that everyone will get a chance to do something – everyone gives each other space to do what they need / talk and don’t talk over each other. Everyone is quite respecting of needs – for example I set the chairs up wrong, but ‘V’ and her mum were accommodated as ‘M’ had made sure that was sorted out. People are always looking after each other.
When I think of the music we play in Misfits, it’s more the glue that keeps the group together – so like this is a music group first and foremost, but it’s like the activity is surrounding it – like spending time with friends and the music is the stage for that.”
Q: What connections have you made within the group despite the different ages and backgrounds?
“I’ve been talking to ‘R’ about music recommendations – we have very different music tastes, but occasionally we find something that he’ll find may have something like Irish symphonic elements, and then I found a Muse cover that he liked!
It’s an emphasis on community – most of the people who go who are musicians already are more there for the community aspect. There are others who are there for both community and using music as an expressive tool and learning new skills.”
Q: What other social aspects have you observed within the group?
The only new person I’ve seen join the group was ‘Y’ – it’s always hard to join a new thing. He seems to be getting into it and is coming back. It’s pretty much always ‘yes’ from me as I’m always doing new things, but I can understand that for some people this can be hard to open up to people especially strangers. But the fact is that when you go to something like Misfits – there are people who are more sociable than others. There’s a bit of time needed, but if you stick at it then you’re very much going to be part of the group.
I’ve felt welcomed – M is always helping – everyone’s really welcoming. ‘Y’ has always been so talkative and thankful for me being helpful with the music stuff. I was worried I was overcomplicating things, but she seemed to really appreciate it. It just takes a little bit of poking and pestering.
There are some people who come along who just want to come along and play some new songs, but others who want to show off and learn new talents and prove themselves.
The non-musical and musical social aspects are more similar than you might think – like other side of the same coin really. I mean I’ve been doing music for so long – it’s like ‘we’re communicating using our instruments’ – you play off each other.
I suppose it’s strange hearing everybody play when they are on such different levels of proficiency, but they’re just all in it together. It works.
I’ve noticed that in tea breaks that people group up in usually 2’s or 3’s. It’s also usually different people each time – ‘Y’ will walk up to ‘J’ and people intermingle. It’s never like two people are friends and it’s just them who will go off in a corner and have tea together. It’s a lot more communal, which is always nice to see. You’d be a bit worried if two people weren’t talking to anybody else!”
Q: What have you observed about the use of humour in sessions?
“Obviously the benefit is that it makes everybody more comfortable. It’s light humour – not like the banter if you were on a night out with a bunch of students. There’s definitely a generational thing happening there. I had to re-tool the way I spoke a little bit, so I wasn’t talking all in like slang from Ireland, or the way that students talk to each other.
I suppose there aren’t really any cons, but if you had a performance coming up or something you might want to try and keep it restricted to the breaks or whatnot. But the atmosphere created for Misfits is just right.
I notice that everyone’s always waiting for ‘M’ to come up with one of his quick, funny responses!”
We talked about how much of ourselves and our own characters we bring to the group so that people feel there’s a balance – as well as offering musical progression and support.
Q: What other things have you observed?
“I can definitely see that when Anna is working with the group (and I’m sure Rob does this too), a lot of thinking has gone into planning the sessions, so that when you do the sessions it’s like effortless. Everybody knows the work is being put in so that people feel included and that does take effort, but it’s made to feel like we’ve all just got together in the spur of the moment to play some tunes, so it comes off as very natural. People want to feel included but not have things forced upon them, so making it feel natural is a really important part of that.”
Q: If you were ever setting up your own group, what are the key components you’d take forward?
“I’ve seen a good snapshot of sessions to see how it goes. It’s a weird time still – like maybe if the room would be set up differently because of the age group / pandemic.
I think the ring format emphasises the social aspect where everybody’s facing everybody. I’d keep that most likely, except for performing when you might do semi-circle or something.
One thing that I might struggle with – I’d probably have a hard time selecting pieces to start with. I know Anna is going out of her way to get people to be able to do the things they want to. I guess you have to be the musical curator for what is going to work for the group. I think I’d find that difficult in the first instance.”
Common themes across different experiences at PMZ – a conversation between Rob / Domhnall and Anna with regard to Knowledge Exchange students having different experiences with different groups of people…
Within the conversation Rob commented that it’s a real mixed group for Baton Beats and there are a lot of crossovers. Things like a participant creating a musical prompt that the group can ‘tune into’ and start to go along with. There’s a common thread that we are all learning musically and personally from one another.
Rob: “There are a lot of parallels with my drumming group – a huge range from young trained musicians to people with pretty much zero experience, yet we all seem to learn from one another. Domhnall and I were talking a while back. For example, there’s K who says a few words, but is pretty much post-verbal. He just came up with using something we were playing – he created something himself and we all reacted and joined in with it. He was providing this very musical ‘thing’ he’d improvised himself and I was learning from that (I see improvising as a bit of a weak spot in myself) so I was learning musically, and personally learning to listen in a variety of new ways.
It’s making me think about the mixing of people and how it just happens by default! There’s no inequality there – we’re definitely getting something right. Domhnall has made me think that this kind of mixing and socialising is something that happens across the groups – looking out for one another. It’s not something that’s stated, but it happens automatically. If you could bottle it and sell it – that would be a good thing!”
Q: Do you think you’d want to do this kind of work at some point?
“I like the work well enough, but I’ve seen how stressful and busy it can be and I’m not sure how entirely kitted out I am for that yet.
I can definitely see when Anna is working in the group that there’s a lot of planning put into sessions so it seems like its effortless when in the actual sessions. It is made to feel like it’s very natural even though there’s a lot of work put in. People want to feel included but not have it forced upon them.”
Q: Any other reflections as we’ve been having this conversation?
“It’s made me think about the way that I talk to people in almost any context in my life. It’s rare that I meet a group of people where I don’t have much in common with them at all – different generation – different music to me – I’ve talked about it a lot with Rob – It’s made me think about how I talk and relate to different people. Coming over to England – it’s very different type of humour here compared to back home. Then there’ the bigger picture of coming out of my comfort zone – literally moving countries and all part of that. I think it’s been very formative and it’s also been good to remind me of things like setting up a musical workspace.”
What has been refreshed for you?
“I also thought about the refreshment of practical things – even like wrapping up wires!
It’s also been important for me to see how community music works over the longer term. Not just one-off sessions.
It’s certainly got me thinking about whether or not this might be something I’d want to do. I’m still not sure where I’ll be heading career-wise, but it’s all been a good experience. It’s definitely given me that important insight at the very least.
I don’t mind the mix of one-offs and the longer-term things. I do a lot of meeting people – so perhaps this is something I’ll be doing in some way – spaces to meet people! Perhaps a longer-term thing would be good where people get to build friendships over the years.”
Do you feel changed in any way?
“More refreshed than changed. It’s good to be working with music again – obviously I didn’t get much actual work during the pandemic. For example, I used to be a lounge pianist in a cocktail bar, so that stopped. That was nice enough – I could play whatever I wanted – Covid came along and ruined that business for me. So being able to come along and be able to say that I’m doing work as a musician again is a very self-affirming thing to have I suppose. It’s only a few hours a week on a placement, but it’s something for sure alongside my studies that lets me affirm myself as a musician.
It’s been fun – great to talk to people, setting things up. It feels good to be able to see something happen across the room, notice a problem, then getting somebody the help they need, even if they haven’t mentioned it. For example, if the microphone droops or something simple like that! Or I’ll get everyone’s sheet music stands set up or something.
It’s full of small, satisfying things I suppose.”
Anna: “Perhaps I may draw a little parallel here? This group was originally set up for ‘returning’ musicians and you’ve just described some of the things that feel so very important in this way. I wonder if this has kind of worked in some little ways for you too?!”
Domhnall: “Hah! You’ve done it! I feel like it’s been a mix of participating as well as working in the group. You get self-affirmation by just having the job to do. Then beyond that all of the participants have been absolutely lovely to me. I didn’t get to know them really really well, but it’s still nice an hour or so a week making jokes, helping people out, teaching bits of music theory I have on hand.
I wish I had more constructive criticism, but it seems like a well-oiled machine to me, so there’s not really much for me to criticise!
It was wonderful – thanks for having me!”
PMZ, Anna, Rob and all of the Musical Misfits band wish Domhnall an amazing onward musical journey and we hope that you find many musical spaces in which to make more connections, friendships, laughter and wonderful sounds!