All work and no play makes Dil a tired girl…

As I near the end of my first year of PhDing, I’ve realised (and been told) that I haven’t really taken proper time off.  I’ve never been good at planning breaks – with all of the hats on overlapping schedules, it doesn’t ever feel like a sensible/practical time to take a break.  I get stressed out just thinking about taking time off, because of the thought of having the catch up when the holiday is over.  At the moment I’m tired a lot – the Glasgow-Edinburgh commute doesn’t really help, and August in Edinburgh has been a test of patience that I pretty much failed.

My “holidays” so far include a week in bed between Christmas and New Year (caught a cold, ended up reading academic books in between Disney movies), a freelance work trip to India for 2 weeks, and a couple of days added onto conference trips in Portugal and London.  Then there are the days where no work has happened – that’s a day off in hindsight, right?  A lot of my days off have also happened when there wasn’t really anything to do than catch up on housework or laze about at home.

I’ve been pretty good about taking weekends off during summer, but during school term-time I usually have freelance work and rehearsals at the weekend.  With the next few months already planned out for fieldwork and conferences, it’ll be Christmas before I take a scheduled break – I’ve already decided I’m taking TWO WHOLE WEEKS OFF.

I know I need to get better at taking time off, so here’s the part where I ask for advice:

How do/did you plan time off?  Is there ever a “good time” to take a holiday?  What do you do during time off?  How strict are you about emailing and “light” work?  What are your tips for this apparent workaholic? 


Coconut realisations…

This week I’ve been following Sunny Singh curating @WeTheHumanities on Twitter – and she hasn’t wasted time in bringing up the issue of diversity in Higher Education.  I’ve been interacting with @WeTheHumanities for a while now, and I was really excited that an Indian woman would be curating, especially to talk about issues of diversity in life, in academia, in HEIs.  One of the first articles I saw on my Twitter feed on Monday morning was about a young South African woman’s experience as a “coconut”.  For those unfamiliar with the term, it describes adoption of Western behaviours by PoC, explained well here by Media Diversified.  Sometimes it is used to cause offence – an accusation of leaving your roots behind – but for me it represents the inevitable reality I faced as a 2nd generation immigrant growing up in an area that was not (at least on the surface) ethnically diverse.

Being the only brown kid in my primary school class was quite a roller-coaster.  I experienced racism at age 6, but insisted on wearing Indian clothes to a school party aged 8 and always called my big sister “penji” in the playground (meaning “sister” in Punjabi, she told me off for that…).  I was aware that as an Indian I was very different from my peers, and I did get frustrated at the implicit, and I’m sure unintended, exclusion from things, but it hadn’t occurred to me that being an anomaly in a relatively homogenous group might change me.

I remember, quite early in high school, being called a coconut by a fellow Asian (there were more of us by now), and asking what it meant, as I’d never heard it before.  I don’t remember having an issue with it at the time, and I certainly didn’t try to prove myself as an Indian.  I do remember, as a teen, becoming quite embarrassed about being Indian, as a second generation kid who had more visible facial hair than the boys in my class (this was pointed out to me, such kind classmates).  At that point, I was happy to be dissociated from my Indian roots, and I worked hard at “fitting in” with everyone else.

I’m not sure how much has changed – I’m not embarrassed anymore, but in recent years I know I’ve referred to myself as a “not-very-Indian Indian”.  Maybe it’s more a reflection of how much of my Indian-ness I’ve carried into adulthood.  Maybe this is just what happens when you integrate into Western society – I prefer mac cheese to roti, I don’t watch Bollywood movies, I did better in French exams than Punjabi.  I am Indian in many ways, but I don’t necessarily engage with a lot of Indian culture.

Back to @WeTheHumanities, Sunny asked: What are your lived experiences of #diversity in your institution?

My answer to this was something of a realisation.  I realised that being Indian was less of an issue in university, because being Indian had become less a part of my identity.  I may have been Indian and a musician, but I was not an Indian musician.  I hadn’t entirely lost my roots, but what I did see was that my musical identity was very much detached from my Indian identity.  Until I was in my twenties, I’d never tried to merge the two.  While the undergraduate programme I did would have welcomed my musical diversity, I never thought of this as a possibility.  In my mind, I had to adopt the Western tradition, because that’s what my impression of studying music was.

When we look at what seems to be a good example of diversity, is it embracing that diversity? Or are people conforming to dominant cultural norms in order to get “in”?

Outside of the music department, fitting in as a ‘typical’ student would have involved a lot of Westernising.  As an Indian girl, there’s a cultural barrier to moving away to study, expectations to be at home in the evenings to help with dinner, issues with so many social norms of university life.  I still live at home, but with rehearsals, gigs etc I’m not home very much, especially now that I commute from Glasgow to Edinburgh for my PhD.  This doesn’t go down so well with Indian-ness.

Another well-timed piece I read at the beginning of the week was this article, on the white-ness of the classical music industry – originally posted a couple of years ago, but conveniently on reposted by Media Diversified.  As an Indian woman, pursuing work in this industry means breaking Indian norms – in British-Asian society, it is still often expected for women to cook for the family, be at home in the evenings, prioritise domesticity.  Rehearsals, concerts and touring don’t really fit.  From an education and opportunity point of view, there are lots of barriers to classical music – I’ll try and share my thoughts on this in another post.

Before I rush off to watch Goodness Gracious Me, let’s take a quick look at how my choices have been received within the local Indian community. As a profession, music isn’t valued.  “What are you going to do with that?” “Oh, I guess a degree is a degree these days…” “I suppose you can go into teaching after that…”

Academic pursuits have incurred a similarly tangential reaction: “So, how old will you be when you’re finished studying? When are you going to get married?” “Why do you want to study so much?” and the cherry on top, “You don’t want to be over-educated do you? How will you find a husband?”

There are some things about being Indian that I love, but a lot that I am more than happy to leave behind.  If pursuing music and academia doesn’t fit the British-Indian mould then so be it.  I might be a bit of a coconut, but I’m ok with that.

What can I blog about as a fledgling PhD researcher?

As previously mentioned (and apparent if you saw any of my tweets this week) I took part in a two-day Research Blogging in the Arts and Humanities training event.  You can check out the resulting group blog here.  I’ve also reblogged a collaborative post that I co-authored as part of the training – see my last post for that.  Before training, I said I wasn’t sure what I would be posting on this blog.  Good news: I have a pretty clear idea now.

One of the bigger questions I was asking going into this training was, what can/should I be blogging about from an academic point of view?  My research will involve living people, so I would have to be careful about anonymising any posts about the project itself.  Then there’s the question of publications – how much can I blog about while still keeping enough aside for publications?  How do I negotiate this while the research is “in progress”?

For the moment, I’ve decided (with advice from panelists at the training event) to focus on the processes of doing my research – the more general issues, positioning myself as a researcher-activist, how I juggle my different hats with the PhD one (there’s actually a lot of hat overlap at the moment).

So, if you were hoping for juicy insights into my research project, unfortunately you won’t be getting any.  Instead, I might ask questions, practical and theoretical, in the hope that some of you can offer me advice and help me negotiate the research process.  Prepare for posts about topical issues in music education, reflections on reading, and methodological matters.

Research Blogging: the First Hurdle

A collaborative blog post I co-authored as part of the research blogging training I mentioned last week!

Research Blogging in the Arts & Humanities


Writing a blog allows budding researchers to develop a network of peers and engage with the public, beyond the confines of academia. It offers a platform to hone writing skills and explore new ideas. However, for researchers at the outset of their career, there are a number of issues to consider before setting off. After attending a two-day workshop on Research Blogging in the Arts and Humanities, four PhD researchers voice their anxieties around blogging, and some advice on moving forward.

Starting a post! 

Whilst we have material and ideas that we want to write about, it’s often difficult to establish where to begin and develop material into something coherent. We’ve found that we automatically revert to the process of academic writing and structures. David McGuinness’ advice was to think of blog posts as ‘recapitulation’, as a way of focussing thoughts and ideas, but we’ve found we first need a…

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How did I get here? My musical history.

I’ve found myself telling stories of my own musical history lately, in response to people asking about my research interests.  In many ways, my musical experiences – or at least the ones I validated without a second thought – shouldn’t have added allowed me to get this far on their own.  I’ve come to realise that I had lots of musical experiences that until now I haven’t acknowledged enough.  Of these, I think those linked to my cultural and religious upbringing are most significant, as until recently I haven’t ever mentioned them in my musical history.  I’m on a mission to find some old photos of these experiences, but it might take a while so I’m posting without for now.

Part 1 – listening, singing along, dancing.  As a very young child – I must have been 3 or 4 – I pestered my dad to put on old records and tapes on his big sound system, and I’d run around in circles on this big patterned rug we had, until I was exhausted.  It wasn’t difficult to track down information on this album by British-Punjabi singer Sangeeta, as I’ve never forgotten what the cover looked like.

Cassette cover of what I can only describe as my first favourite album, Sangeeta – A breath of fresh Bhangra air. (Image source: )

One thing I didn’t realise at that age, was that the album was made by Kuljit Bhamra, a pivotal figure in British Asian music, who I had the privilege of working with a few years ago.  I think this positive engagement as a child reinforced my love of music.  Listening, singing and dancing to music remain some of my favourite things to do.

Part 2 – Learning how to play an instrument.  Around the age of 6, I had my first taste of music education – learning music within a religious context.  This wasn’t the first time I had an instrument to play, but it’s the first formal learning experience I can identify.  Music is an integral part of the Sikh faith – hymns are sung, accompanied by instruments, prayers are read melodically, and the whole congregation participates in this.  Here’s a link to SikhiWiki where you can find out more.  I’ve been exposed to music in this way since I was born.

It was a given, really, that when I was old enough I would join a class learning hymns, and how to accompany myself on the harmonium.  My older sister and cousins also went to these classes with me, there was no sense of musical hierarchy among learners – the purpose of this musical learning went beyond these conceptions. 

This was an ordinary part of my upbringing, alongside language classes to learn Punjabi.  Even though I spent years learning music in this way, with little written guidance – so effectively learning by watching, listening and memorising – I wasn’t able to define these skills and relate them to these experiences until recently.  This learning overlapped with the first years of learning the flute, in my teens, but I always kept the two mutually exclusive of one another – I wonder if I didn’t see room for overlap because the nature of learning and the skills I was using were completely different.

So, I’ve so far figured out that I was an avid listener, loved to sing and dance to music, had fairly formal instrumental learning experiences, which involved learning by ear, watching the teacher, and then memorising the instrumental parts to practice during the week – and that was all from the cultural and religious part of my life.  I’ll continue soon with more general musical experiences, and some pretty important things I did at home…

I’d love to know what your own musical stories are, so please comment and share them!

NEWSFLASH: Periods don’t run like clockwork.

I wasn’t sure whether I should put this post “out there”, frankly because I’ve always been told to hide the fact that I, like most women my age, menstruate.  Then tonight I saw a load of horrible, period-shaming comments on a social media post about Kiran Gandhi, the musician and Harvard Business grad, who ran the London marathon recently while on her period, and felt that I had to.

To summarise the comments I saw, most people were disgusted at her choice to not hide that she was on her period, that it was unsanitary and unnecessary to bleed freely.  The underlying reason in these responses being that she knew she was on her period before she started running that day.  But, what about those who get caught off-guard?  What would the reaction have been, for example, if she started the marathon, and got caught out by her period starting a week early?  According to these commenters, should she have stopped running?  After all of the training and preparation?  Just because of her period?

Kiran’s not saying let’s all run around bleeding freely, she made a decision for herself so that she could give the marathon her best shot.

Kiran knew she was on her period, but her bold decision also speaks out for those times when your cycle goes haywire and there’s not much you can do about it.   Guess what, periods happen, not always when we expect them, and it’s about time we stopped having to hide it or change our plans because of it.

To those who say her actions were futile, you are wrong.

Playing On with Paragon

As I plan on sharing some more specific stories, insights and reflections with you later on, I thought I’d better give an overview of one of the more significant things I do outwith PhD hours.  I can’t say it’s outside the PhD bubble, as this part of my life is how I ended up doing the research I’m doing, so it’s more of a PhD tangent, something I do that’s technically not my PhD, but not really separate from it either.

For the last couple of years I have been running the admin side of Paragon’s Play On programme.  The experiences I’ve had in this and other Paragon programmes have really influenced the direction my research is going in, and have made me embrace creativity in a new way.

I first started working with Paragon in 2012 through a research incubator event at Strathclyde University, while I was doing my MSc there.  I then worked as a musician on Make Music Move (M3), an inclusive music and dance programme, bringing my flute and voice along to create new work with musicians and dancers.  While all of this was happening, Lio Moscardini, a researcher and lecturer at Strathclyde, and Alastair Wilson, my MSc course tutor, were doing research on instrumental instruction provision in Scottish schools, that highlighted a discrepancy in representation of pupils with additional support needs receiving instrumental tuition.  You can read their research paper here.  Play On came about in response to the findings of this research, and tied in to the ideas for music education projects that arose during the incubator event.  I’ve written a bit more about my Paragon journey in a guest blog for Paragon.

Paragon used to be a chamber music ensemble – commissioning new, avant-garde musical works. Paragon today are a very different company in many ways, but the idea of the “new” and pushing creative boundaries has remained central in their vision towards inclusion.  Play On provides a fun musical learning opportunity to young people with additional support needs, through instrumental one-to-one and group music sessions facilitated by experienced musicians.  Young musicians who come along learn primarily through creating their own music, which is what makes this learning opportunity quite different from in-school music, which more often focusses on learning other people’s music than creating music.

The programme has grown a lot from our first week with a handful of participants, to a current register of 25 including the Juniors branch of Play On.  Over the last couple of years we’ve had our young musicians perform at the CCA as part of Paragon’s showcase See Hear You events, as well as an exciting trip to Holyrood to perform at Scottish Parliament.  As the programme has grown, so has the administrative workload – we’ve gone through various phases of timetabling, and are frequently trying new things to get more efficient.  Joining me in the admin team is Chris Fox, a PhD researcher at Strathclyde, who also takes all of the photos at Play On (except for a single photo I managed to get of him while looking after the camera for a minute).

We also have some really wonderful volunteers to help keep things running smoothly, and, of course, there are the tutors – experienced professional musicians, educators and practitioners.  Our tutors bring various instrument and genre specialisms, offering a vast collective knowledge of musics, but at the heart of everything, the young musicians are the decision-makers, and the shapers of their own learning.

I’m excited to see where this programme goes, as some of our musicians who’ve been with us since our first session in 2013, are now growing up and finding their way onto new musical programmes and pursuing other musical opportunities.

More about Play On another time, time to get back to the PhD – first year review is just around the corner…