Book Review – Bartleet, B.-L., & Higgins, L. (Eds.). (2018).

Bartleet, B.-L., & Higgins, L. (Eds.). (2018). The Oxford Handbook of Community Music. New York, NY: OUP.

Reviewer: Alison Talmage

MMusTher (Hons), MEd, PG Cert Hlth Sc (Clinical Supervision), PG Cert Hlth Sc (Adv Psychotherapy Practice), BA (Hons), NZ RMTh. The University of Auckland, Kahikatea Music Therapy and Community Arts Trust, and private practice


The Oxford Handbook of Community Music (1) provides an extensive account of the development and diversity of community music over the last 50 years. The editors are internationally recognised in the field of community music and community engagement (2). Readers of this journal will recall a review of another co-edited book by Higgins, recommended for music therapists working in community contexts (Bartleet & Higgins, 2017; Hearn, 2018). Contributing authors of this Handbook come predominantly from the UK, Australia, USA and Canada, but also include practitioners from Brazil, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and Malaysia.

I read this book with questions in mind about my own practice, and with an awareness of other New Zealand music therapy explorations of the relationship between community music and community music therapy (Barrett, 2019; Berentson-Glass, 2017; Pagad, 2014; Rickson & McFerran, 2014). This review provides an overview of the Handbook and highlights several chapters that particularly spoke to me.

The Handbook is well structured, with an introduction followed by five sections offering different perspectives on community music practice:
1. “Contexts” – an overview of the scope and philosophy of contemporary community music;
2. “Transformations” – the implementation and evaluation of approaches that nurture individual and sociocultural change;
3. “Politics” – issues related to arts policies, ethics and cultural diversity;
4. “Intersections” – community music’s relationships with the fields of music therapy, ethnomusicology, disability studies, and arts-based
research; and
5. “Education” – community, school and tertiary contexts.

The introduction opens with a glimpse of some of the range of activities encompassed by the term community music and defines the field as interventions that aim to (re)introduce traditional musicking and/or use music as a form of activism to revitalise communities affected by sociocultural and political issues, war or natural disasters. The Handbook’s overview of trends, from the 1960s to the present, highlights developments in the UK, USA and subsequently other parts of the world, with an emphasis on the right to life-long, inclusive music participation and music education.

Links between community music and community music therapy are acknowledged in the introduction, and discussed in depth by Stuart Wood and Gary Ansdell in “Community Music and Music Therapy: Jointly and Severally”. Their helpful historical perspective on the origins, values and convergence of these two fields, highlights the shared emphasis on an ecological approach and a view music and health as “performative” (not fixed) states.

Bartleet and Higgins acknowledge that community music’s use of the term intervention is controversial in some contexts, because it may conflict with issues of community self-determination, cultural relevance, and decolonisation. This perspective is developed by several authors. For example, Huib Schippers’ chapter, “Community Music Contexts, Dynamics, and Sustainability”, highlights tension between “organic (traditional, cultural), “interventionist (contemporary community music), and “institutionalized” (e.g. potentially outdated school and university curricula) approaches – or a possible continuum of frameworks. Although widely used within music therapy too, this term has also been challenged by those with a philosophy of strengths-based empowerment (Rolvsjord, 2004; Shaw, 2019).

For New Zealand readers, I recommend Te Oti Rakena’s chapter, “Community Music in the South Pacific”. One outcome of his talanoa (3) research approach was the awareness of differences in Māori, Pasifika and western concepts of “community” and “community music”.
By making assumptions of universal values, western practitioners miss layers of meaning and intertwined family, cultural and community values and practices inherent in indigenous music-making. This chapter reminds us of the importance of genuine cultural consultation, to ensure participants’ safety and accurate telling of their stories.

Pete Moser’s chapter, “Growing Community Music through a Sense of Place”, also resonated with me. Moser’s approach incorporates six themes: (1) Personal engagement and progression; (2) Community cohesion/development; (3) Tradition: Finding our own, discovering others’, respecting and reinventing; (4) Vernacular culture; (5) Creativity, imagination and connection; and (6) Celebration (the final presentation or outcome of a specific project). I reflected on the different and still evolving culture of community music therapy groups that I lead in three places, the influence of geographical location, and (as a New Zealand immigrant) different experiences of identity and belonging.

In “The Ethics of Community Music” another New Zealander, David Lines, helpfully introduces a “critical questioning approach” that challenges practitioners to consider the what, when, why, how, who and where questions about community music projects. Lines highlights the “right to participate”, the humanistic principles of acceptance and willingness to help, and a postcolonial philosophy. As a music therapist, I was left wondering how we should negotiate and language issues of safeguarding when working with any potential vulnerable participants as boundaries and scopes of practice shift. I also wondered whether other practitioners’ concepts of collaborative practice encompass opportunities for formal mentoring and professional supervision beyond the training placements mentioned in Camlin and Zesersen’s chapter, “Becoming a community musician: A situated approach to curriculum, content, and assessment”.

Two other chapters particularly interested me. A chapter about group singing (Lee, Stewart, & Clift) collates previous research about choral singing and wellbeing, and reports positive results using a version of the WHOQOL-BREF4, an accessible standardised measure used in New Zealand research too (Jenkins, Storie, & Purdy, 2017). Here I would have liked to see some analysis of the qualities and skills required by a successful choir leader. Andrea Creech’s chapter, “Community-Supported Music-Making as a Context for Positive and Creative Ageing”, highlights the growing number of very elderly people, a “fourth age”. With reference to Stige (2004) and Ansdell (2014), Creech suggests “congruence” between community music and community music therapy practices, theory and research with this population. She poses important questions that music therapists also need to consider about music-making opportunities, facilitator skills, and “myths” that might impede practice. Both chapters led me back to Ansdell and Wood’s comments about music therapists’ specific skills and potential contribution to collaborative practice:

Therapists have their unique knowledge, experience, and sensitivity that matches other needs of these [clients/participants (5)], focusing as much on musical process as product, alert to the relationships that musicking forges. The therapists are skilled in picking up the discomforts and anxieties, as well as the latent potentials of the children, mentoring the community musicians on how to include children with particular challenges, and cope with more difficult group situations. Together the music therapists and community musicians can attend to individual therapeutic processes where necessary, but also bring [clients/participants] out into performances in the local community, and reciprocally to bring the community into the organization.

Throughout this book, readers and practitioners are encouraged to engage in reflexive practice, critical research and evaluation, and attention to their values and assumptions in the light of international and intercultural standpoints. The Handbook is a valuable resource for community music therapists, music therapists with dual qualifications and fields of practice, those collaborating with other community practitioners, and anyone interested in community musicking to enhance our individual and collective wellbeing.

(References are provided in the full pdf edition of this review.)

1. This Handbook is available in both print and electronic format. As I have accessed the electronic format, I am unable to provide page numbers for the direct quotes included in this review, but have included chapter titles.
2. Brydie-Leigh Bartleet is Director of the Queensland Conservatorium Research Centre and Deputy Director (Research) at the Queensland Conservatorium, Griffith University, Australia. Lee Higgins, is director of the International Centre of Community Music at York St John University, UK, and current president of the International Society for Music Education (ISME).

3. Talanoa: an indigenous approach to community conversations, with similarities to focus groups, from which research questions and stories emerge.
4. WHOQOL-BREF: a standardised questionnaire, the World Health Organisation Quality of Life – abbreviated version.

5. The original text refers to children, but this seems more broadly applicable to other populations.

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