During PMZ’s ‘Extraordinary Times programme’, we’re setting out to listen and learn during this lockdown. As part of that we’ll be inviting a series of guest bloggers, people who who’ve experienced up close what we do. Here we hear from one of our ‘Knowledge Exchange’ students from the University of Plymouth – James Uzzell. James has provided support for PMZ’s weekly percussion session for adults. Here he describes how technology failure was negatively affecting his confidence, and how participation in Baton Beats helped him overcome insecurity. ‘Baton Beats’ is led by PMZ Intergenerational Coordinator and Music Leader, Rob Tilsley. Find out more about the session here.

Hi there, my name is James, I’m a third-year BA Music student at the University of Plymouth. I play Alto Saxophone, Guitar, Drums and Vocals. On a really good day when the stars are aligned you might even catch me on a piano…playing ‘Chopsticks’.

I’m somewhat of a technology nerd. As those closest around me know, if I’ve gone off the radar for a certain amount of time, you’ll probably find me lurking in a form of music studio frantically getting my musical ideas out of my head, onto a computer and safely onto a hard drive for my different music projects.

One of the most amazing and fulfilling activities I have done to date (away from music) has been to teach Tae Kwon-Do. I got to teach all ages, including children from the age of 4 and below, to people many years my senior. It took a lot of grit and effort to achieve my black belt. With Martial Arts, you control everything, in the moment, in person. No technology to depend on. The fulfilment I found when I was connecting with others through teaching was something I really wanted to do more of, so when I heard about a chance to starting working with a PMZ group, I leapt at the opportunity.

Young James pictured in Tae Kwon-Do uniform
A photo of myself after a rather intense sparring match at a southwest championship tournament.

I saw it as an amazing opportunity to expand my social and professional experience in a field that I love working in; music. I also saw it as an opportunity to gain skills that I could apply later in life, my future professional career. I was eager to learn about different aspects of workshops, including planning, and speaking in front of people who I had never met before, connecting with them, thinking of ideas, scenarios and strategies that are accessible and engaging for everyone.

At first, whilst working with the team at PMZ, I used Plymouth Music Zone as an escapism from the current affairs of the world, and saw the sessions as activities I could help run as a volunteer, but also have the benefit of being a participant. It was from seeing others who were in the same situation as myself and thought in the same way I did, that everything seemed to become more manageable, as a unit together. As time progressed I realised the value of sharing my experiences of the pandemic with the group. I also found that I could take people’s mind off everything, make people laugh and through doing so, allow them to switch off from the real world.

When I started taking part in Baton Beats (in October 2020), my first challenge was adapting from my expectation of in person music making to virtual interactivity. As a musician, I’m accustomed to being in front of an audience, speaking to my audience and engaging in audience participation. Back when I was teaching Tae Kwon-Do, you were just there, in the room, face to face with people. I have developed a stage persona, a character that gives me the confidence to speak in front of people. When it became necessary for all of our sessions to take place online…this was a whole other story!

On ‘Zoom’, I found myself out of my depth to a textbook degree. On my first introductory session to the team I was working with at the start of the year, which was held online, I was already feeling the odd butterfly in my stomach fluttering past, as I wanted to make a professional impression. The first thing that popped up was a message saying “Poor WIFI Connection”, and then my webcam decided that the start of the meeting was the appropriate moment to stop functioning. With only a few minutes remaining I frantically called to every single one of my house mates from every corner of our house, each call getting louder, longer and filled with more stress. Unfortunately, my housemates were in the middle of, or were about to start their own meetings, however this didn’t seem to stop me from shouting in their direction “It doesn’t work” or “somethings not right”.
I remember looking at my watch counting down the seconds until the meeting was due to start, with my housemate arched over my laptop trying to sort out my technical error.

20 seconds to go!

“Can you go any faster?”. This sentence was whizzing through my brain at light speed proportions.

10 seconds to go!

“Can you fix it?”

“I think I’m getting somewhere!”

“Oh really?”

“No, maybe not”

Unfortunately for me, my webcam had defeated me.
This meant that in the zoom meeting I was able to see the faces of all my new colleagues, along with a black box staring back at me where my face should’ve been.

This resulted in an excessive number of apologies on my part to try and glaze over the situation with the incorporation of humour. I’m still deciding if the latter part worked. It was from this moment on a painful struggle with ‘ZOOM’ commenced. The days of “Incorrect Password” and “This meeting ID does not exist” were upon me, leaving me for a considerable amount of time traumatised by whatever ‘ZOOM’ had in store for me next. This, for a period of time, put me off speaking to people virtually, as the social norm of speaking in person seemed to have dissolved completely. This was a whole different experience for me. It was after this moment I counted my blessings when technology worked in my favour and over a period of time, with an unusual amount of trial and error, I seemed to become accustomed to the new virtual norm.

This was put to the test towards the end of 2020 when I was invited to a high profile Zoom meeting with University department leaders, to speak about my opinions as a student ambassador and my time with PMZ. I watched as over 30 people joined the meeting and I felt a sense of growing anticipation.

At first I laid low in the meeting, trying to blend into the background,fearing that my previous Zoom issues would resurface. My laptop fan, which I have no control over, apparently sounds “like a helicopter about to take off” when it spins up, and I was dreading that it would spin up and drown me out as soon as I tried to say anything. Luckily for me, it didn’t, but even if it had, I felt a sense that I could have handled it just fine. The meeting went well and I was able to participate in a very productive, professional, humorous and insightful meeting

This was a huge victory for me. I felt able to approach a difficult situation with confidence, knowing that if (and when) things go wrong, I have the tools to resolve the situation. The things I learnt in my time working with PMZ will help me in the long term. The ability to remain calm and hold my nerve for whatever may be placed before me.