This guest article is from Shelly Coyne who is based in the IMHSD in the Reid School of Music at Edinburgh University. She is exploring choirs and community singing groups set up for singers who have experienced homelessness. Shelly has worked as a choir leader for over 19 years predominantly in areas of poverty and multiple deprivation and set up a choir at the Lodging House Mission which inspired and motivated her decision to pursue doctoral research. Shelly is currently on placement with With One Voice conducting a national review of arts and homelessness across Scotland.
As the data collection phase of my PhD comes to an end – I can well and truly say that my geography of the UK has certainly improved! I began the research with a plan to conduct all my interviews in Glasgow but as that door shut and lots of new ones opened, I found myself travelling to 7 UK cities to gather my data and even managed a sneaky unexpected trip to Rio in 2016, for a pilot study.
My research is exploring the world of choirs and community singing groups for people who have experienced homelessness and through the generous support of the SGSAH Student Development Fund and further financial assistance from Edinburgh University I begin Year 3 with 26 interviews with singers, singing leaders and support staff and also field notes from visits to 14 groups in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Manchester, Middlesbrough, Newcastle, Birmingham and London.
The opportunities have been wonderful and I am constantly overwhelmed by people’s generosity of spirit and willingness to be involved in the research with huge thanks to Streetwise Opera, Choir With No Name and the other independent organisations delivering this work and allowing me to visit. As a Choir Leader working in the field I could never have imagined this freedom to go and visit others groups, to ask questions, observe and learn and be involved in some wonderful events, like the Manchester Homeless Charter Gathering, where previously I would have struggled to justify the relevance.
As all PhD students will testify, there have been many challenges along the way – it’s easy to lose sight of the achievements and just focus on what you haven’t yet done. I have taught myself to try and keep my ‘research blinkers’ on when hearing how much my colleagues have written or transcribed in the last 12 months and remind myself that I have to sail my own ship and that if my supervisors are not in a panic then presumably I don’t need to be (yet) – but that’s easier said than done.
I have found these trips quite tiring and time consuming – the preparation time feels enormous and I made each visit without being certain any singers would want to be interviewed or involved. I’ve over planned and over filled each and every trip – except the last, so maybe I’m learning – but if I had my time again I would allow more opportunities to be alone, sit and drink tea, take time over writing notes, enjoy more long bus trips across each city and finally take more time off when I got home.
One of my most sobering experiences was at the Streetwise Opera Explore Group in Bishopgate in London, when I told the choir about my research and one singer abruptly said ‘well, what’s the point?’ indeed, she certainly gave me food for thought!
I have learnt through these trips to be ruthlessly organised, prepare as much as I can in advance and be very familiar with my material – but also be hugely flexible and accommodating and grab every opportunity (I got the chance to meet Jonathon Welch, Australia’s answer to Gareth Malone which involved 2 costly taxi rides and the risk of being late for a choir visit – but no regrets). The books say you shouldn’t do 2 interviews in one day – well I say you sometimes take what you’re given and you grab it.
My other bit of advice is when it gets tough and you feel low about any part of the trip, your research or yourself, then share – just tell someone and get the PhD once again into a bit of perspective. One difficult interview, awkward conversation, video camera breaking during a performance will not impact on the overall success of your PhD and you will learn something that’s for sure!
These opportunities to go and watch rehearsals and performances, to interview singers and staff and to spend time in homeless day centres and hostels have all felt like a huge privilege especially sharing time with the singers, many of whom have shared deep and rich unique insights into this world of singing and been so honest about their lives and experiences.
These trip have been recharging in many ways too; a pause button on real life, chance to explore these UK cities through different eyes, a break from the PhD to-do-list and a chance look at the research in a new light.
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