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VOLUNTEERING IN TRADITIONAL MUSIC: Do we need to work with our voices as well as our hands?

VOLUNTEERING IN TRADITIONAL MUSIC: Do we need to work with our voices as well as our hands?

Guest blog by Becky Leach
There are a lot of volunteers about in traditional music in Scotland. Though you’ll maybe not know it – apart, perhaps, from when they’re playing and singing and enjoying a good bit of banter, they tend to be a bit of a quiet bunch. Quiet, that is, about the work they do and the contributions they make when they volunteer.

Guest blog by Becky Leach

There are a lot of volunteers about in traditional music in Scotland.  Though you’ll maybe not know it –  apart, perhaps, from when they’re playing and singing and enjoying a good bit of banter, they tend to be a bit of a quiet bunch.  Quiet, that is, about the work they do and the contributions they make when they volunteer.

Without a doubt, the work of volunteers should be recognised.  However, I reckon that most aren’t in it for the fame or the glory.  They don’t want to kick up a fuss (shouting ‘look at me and all the worthy work I’m doing for free!’), but prefer instead to sit back and enjoy the nice, warm glow that comes from seeing the results of their contribution.

I can’t talk for others, but I know that for me, kicking up a fuss in this way wouldn’t sit right with my own reasons for volunteering – it would place value on personal recognition instead of seeing value in the work itself and the way it connects you to other people.

So being quiet is fine.  Or at least it was, at one time, before David Cameron started talking about the ‘Big Society’.

I had always seen my volunteering as a way of acting on my egalitarian principles of making a difference and contributing to the common good.  But suddenly, the Tories were encouraging the people of the land to join together in an ‘army of volunteers’.  They were talking about a common good, but it wasn’t a common good that I recognised.

My immediate response was to want to be even quieter about my voluntary work, to mark a contrast with Cameron’s in your face do-goodism.

But the problem with being quiet is that it doesn’t stop your work from being used in somebody else’s argument.

Cameron’s common good involves volunteers not adding to the work of paid workers, but taking the place of those paid workers so that the state can make cuts.  If a project or service, run entirely by volunteers, is successful, even if the volunteers aren’t themselves drawing attention to the success, this can still be taken as evidence that paid workers are not needed.

So what are the alternatives?

Maybe we need to talk a bit more about the work we’re engaged in, about the particular circumstances that have played a part in our successes and the ways in which paid workers have contributed to these.

Or maybe we need to be louder about the not so nice bits.  About the struggles and disappointments, about the sacrifices made and the times when you’ve given something all that you can but it still doesn’t quite work out.

Or maybe we need to be louder about why we volunteer and what we’re trying to achieve with our work.

The organisations I currently volunteer with aim to increase participation in the arts.  A refrain that you often hear when protesting against the cuts made to the arts is that arts spending bleeds money away from essential services like hospitals and schools.

On the one hand, pitting the arts against schools and hospitals takes the attention away from the causes of the recession and the excessive spending that still exists elsewhere (ahem, Trident) and ignores the economic benefits of arts investment.

But it also ignores the very real benefits that taking part in arts activities can have for participants’ health and wellbeing, the ways in which it can support both children and adults’ ability to learn other things and the way it can enable people to find a voice and speak up.

I’ve worked in the voluntary sector, in both paid and voluntary roles, for eleven years.  It’s become clear to me that when arts investment is taken away, it is often the poorest and most vulnerable who are worst affected as providing opportunities for those people is often much more time consuming and requires more in the way of financial investment than providing opportunities for those people who have a higher income and are in no way cut off from or alienated by society.

I don’t volunteer so that money can be taken away from the arts.  I volunteer to add to the valuable and important paid work that is already being done and to help it go further.

There are so many discussions that could be had about the role of volunteers in traditional music.  Questions could be asked, for instance, about how distinctions are made between voluntary and paid roles, or about the extent to which the value which is placed by a society on a certain kind of work is defined by the degree of financial public investment in that work.  .

There won’t be any easy answers to these questions.  But that’s okay.   Easy answers can shut down discussions, as well as often not showing the whole picture.  If there are no easy answers, then more voices are needed if we are to find our way.  And I would rather live in a society where more voices are heard.

It is important, as volunteers, that we use our voices as well as our hands.

And, by the way, I’m in nobody’s army.

Becky is a Youth worker/Youth and Children’s Development Officer at SCOREscotland and volunteers for Edinburgh Youth Gaitherin. The views here are her own.