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How English Touring Opera is using research to support young people

A group of young musicians record in the studio. Three musicians, including a keyboard player, singer, and guitarist, are performing.

We explore how a new songwriting programme was underpinned by our research review

“We’ll walk in there and be completely different kids,” Bobby, 16, says “We’ll just feel more like ourselves.”

Bobby is one of the young people involved in a new project in Tower Hamlets, London, run by English Touring Opera (ETO). Jamming on the guitar with participants at London East Alternative Provision, he’s encouraged not to worry about playing the right notes or finding the right words. The emphasis is on finding your voice and exploring music together.

Entitled ETO Lyrics, the programme seeks to use the power of songwriting to build the confidence of young people in Alternative Provision settings. In these sessions, teachers encourage participants to create their own original songs and work on them together as a band. “There’s no such thing as a bad idea,” says one practitioner, “If they see me muck up on the piano, it gives them more permission to make the same mistakes as me.”

Bradley Travis, head of learning and participation at ETO, started developing the programme during the Covid–19 pandemic when he recognised the need to support young people’s mental health. While looking at how music provision could best play a part in addressing this need, he came across a research digest by the Centre for Cultural Value.

Bringing research to the real world

In 2021, the Centre published Young People’s Mental Health, which explored the academic evidence about the role that arts and culture can play in the mental health and wellbeing of young people.

Written by Dr Robyn Dowlen, the digest outlines that music composition, and lyric writing in particular, offer young people a creative outlet. It also highlights how songwriting could be used as a method to cope with challenging circumstances and reflect on trauma, with three studies reporting a reduction in self-harming behaviour. This was particularly linked to hip hop and rap.

For Travis, reading the Centre’s research was validating. “The specificity of the research was really helpful. It was exciting to find it,” he says.

The research also offered the ETO guidance on how to develop their programme. Travis was interested in how studies emphasised the value of lyric writing as a means of “indirect expression”.

English Touring Opera perform as part of a stage production with four actors dancing as a cellist performs on the left of the stage.English Touring Opera tours live productions across the UK, as well as carrying out outreach work. Photo by Julian Guidera

Practitioners leading ETO Lyrics projects use methods that help young people consider these different approaches to expression. At the Tower Hamlets project, a practitioner shows his students how to get creative with their feelings, taking a simple word like “calm” and turning it into a vibrant piano chord.

Robyn’s research review also provided helpful evidence for creating an inclusive environment. Robyn says music can provide security when sharing feelings, “a safe haven for emotions and experiences to come to the forefront”. The ETO Lyrics workshops provide laid-back, relaxed spaces for self-discovery, accounting for vulnerable children’s challenges. “You can chill here,” says one participant. “It feels like a second musical home.”

Developing a new approach

Travis says using research in this way was unusual: “It’s not typical for us to use academic research as a formative part of the project.” This was a new way of working for the ETO, who spent a day consulting with Robyn and subsequently partnered with the charity The Difference to make decisions about the programme development.

In addition to the research supporting decision-making around content, training needs and timetabling, ETO has been able to highlight how its methodology is based on robust evidence when approaching funders. They are also drawing on the Centre’s evaluation resources as they look to learn from the pilot project.

Having recognised the value of culture in helping tackle urgent social challenges, ETO Lyrics is now providing a new space for young people to share their experiences. At these workshops, improvisation and lyrics-writing come together to give participants a space to experiment with expression and take ownership of how they’re feeling through song.

Watch a short documentary about ETO Lyrics at the Tower Hamlets project:

Lead photo credit: musicians recording at Cottonbro Studio (© Cottonbro Studio).

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