Why I am an activist.

People often ask me why, when I’ve got so much already on my plate, I continue to take on new things, especially those that might seem unimportant, like being on a trade union committee or contributing to work that challenges inequality at my university.

Having recently written a post for Young Workers’ Month for the Musicians’ Union, I’ve been reflecting further on why activism is important to me, and why it still gets prioritised in my increasingly busy life.

If not me, then who?

If I don’t stand up to represent young women of colour, in education, academia or music, then who will?  If I’m not speaking up in committees, is there a voice there to represent who I am and the issues I face?

Of course there are women on committees with me, but so often I’m one of the youngest voices in the room, and almost always the only person of colour, especially within music. Yes, we are all nuanced individuals and no-one can truly be represented by another, but there is a degree to which certain groups and identities can be represented, and particularly where committees are not diverse, there is a need for broader identities and experiences to be represented. I can’t represent every person who experiences inequality, because the issues we face and how we experience them will be different, but because I have a better understanding of how privilege operates, there’s a good chance that I can relate to them enough to use my voice to help. Maybe there will be a day when I can hand the reigns over to someone else to sit on these committees, but for now I feel responsible to make sure I have a seat at the table, and a voice in the conversation, because if I don’t, no-one else is going to speak for me.

Growing my voice

As I said in my piece for the Musicians’ Union, I didn’t think I was ready for being on a trade union committee — what did I know about trade unions?  What could I possibly have to offer?  But that’s not what it’s about.  I might still be finding my feet, and growing my voice, but I have every right to have that seat on committee.  For a start, if I hadn’t joined the committee, I wouldn’t know much more about trade unions today, and I doubt there would be people on these committees who could understand the issues I face as a young, BAME woman.

Last week I stuck my nose into a Facebook debate on diversity in the classical music industry, and found myself arguing with white men about whether race was an still issue in the industry… realising that there is still an attitudinal issue needing addressed around lack of awareness of privilege and barriers, it’s things like this that remind me that if I don’t speak up, I’m complicit in allowing discrimination and ignorance to barriers to continue.

Getting active

As I continue to find my feet, I’ve realised that most people my age aren’t really involved in trade union activism, and a lot of people around me aren’t members of a union, so I’ve decided something I can do is encourage people to explore what a trade union could do for them.  From what I’ve experienced so far in the trade union movement, particularly in the creative industries, there’s a need for new, young activists to step up and represent the next generation of workers, and there’s a real need for this new generation of activists to be more reflective of society so that we can continue to break down barriers.

So, expect more from me along this theme…



NEWSFLASH: I’m taking over WtH!

On Monday 7th November I’ll be abandoning my personal Twitter account for a week to take over @WeTheHumanities!

An introductory blog post will appear shortly over on their website but for now here’s a little bit of what to expect…

  • Chat about hats
  • How to survive life without a time-turner
  • Glam Academia
  • Saying ‘no’ – or trying to
  • #AcademicKindness – my highlight from this week’s curator

I have been following WtH pretty much since the start of my PhD, and it’s helped me through some of the tough times, so I can’t wait to have a go at curating.  I can already tell it’s going to be a PhD highlight!

See you on Twitter next week, pals!

Molar, unerupted.

So there’s good news and bad news.

Good news

No more tiny elastics!  

Bad news

1. The naughty tooth is being stubborn and has decided it’s not going to break the gum on its own… so I’ve been referred for surgery.  The rough plan is: cut gum open, attach chain to tooth, orthodontist uses chain to pull tooth up. FUN.  Silver lining – I’m so busy right now that I don’t have time to have the surgery, so maybe the tooth with take the hint and make it on its own… Seriously, if anyone knows how to speed this up PLEASE TELL ME. 

This feels like an accurate description of my relationship with the naughty tooth right now.

2. Teething seems to be the only logical explanation for my current eczema flare up. Apparently other eczema triggers are stress (HA!) and general anxiety (SERIOUSLY?!).  Silver lining – I’ve discovered soap nuts (THANKS JOY!). 

So, it looks like my orthodontic journey isn’t going to be over in 2016.

43 weeks of #braceface, still craving apples…

A summary of the 27th year of my life.


Teething problems…

Remember the naughty tooth?  The one that made me need braces?  The one that signalled its arrival into my life about 15 years late?

It’s nearly here.


6 months in to my orthodontic treatment, and I’ve spent the past fortnight behaving like a toddler, chewing carrot and apple sticks (yes, I’ve been reading parenting websites), dribbling a bit (a lot) and generally making funny faces as I fidget with my irritated gums in public.

The good news is that I think I might just see this tooth before my next appointment.  The bad news is that I currently have the grumpiness levels of a teething baby.

giphy (1).gif

I also accidentally ate a large quantity of pineapple last week.  Accidentally?  Ok, I just really wanted to eat some pineapple.  I knew there was a risk it would end in pain.  It took three days. THREE DAYS.  But my gums are back to normal and my tongue has forgiven me.  Note to self: do not test pineapple limit again until after the braces come off.

Anyway, the point of this post was to let you know about the teething (and grumpiness), and to ask you lovely people if you have tips on speeding up the process?


On wearing many hats at once…

This is a game I’ve been playing for a while – seeing how many proverbial hats I can wear simultaneously.  Maybe I shouldn’t do it on purpose, but it’s hard to avoid when I’m at conferences with lots of sessions relating to different things I do, or find myself changing hats mid-conversation because I’ve unexpectedly found an overlap.

I know lots of other people who wear many hats, especially amongst my PhD friends, so I wanted to ask how other people negotiate their hat-wearing.  There is no research without the researcher, so how much of myself should I bring into my work?

Are there rules?

Have you set yourself rules on when to keep your hats separated?  I’ve tried to take of the activist hat when I’m researching, or the research hat off when I’m doing anything other than research, but more often than not  I find the lines blurred and it raises questions of my motivations.

Making things more complicated are the conflicting voices around me – some telling me to leave advocacy at the door, but then being surrounded by activist-researchers.

Being an activist-researcher

My research is influenced by my activism.  My activism is helped by my research.  My activism therefore influences my research, but if I try to completely remove it, I begin to ask myself “why am I doing this?” – I need activism to remind me and keep me motivated.

Is it possible to wear both hats?  Can I completely take away the activist hat when it comes to my research?  To be an advocate does raise issues of bias in research, but I’m not sure that trying to avoid activism while doing research is possible, or if it would even make a difference to this bias.  By being open about my activism, I can at least keep myself in check, and be reflexive and transparent in my academic work.

When should I not be an activist?

I’m going to leave this one here as a question – do you think there are situations where I should take off my activist hat?  If so, please share your thoughts below…

*yawn* *ping* “ow!”

Today I entered a new phase in my orthodontic treatment – rubber bands. For the uninitiated, that’s tiny wee rubber bands that hook around the bottom and top teeth, connecting the upper and lower jaw. It looks and feels as bad as it sounds.

It’s possibly worse that I went through this the first time I had braces, because I already know that any of the following will result in *ping* and “ow!”:

  • yawning (which happens a lot when you commute 4+ hours a day)
  • eating (unless I can find a teeny tiny cutlery set & eat everything in teeny tiny pieces)
  • sneezing (unpredictable + unstoppable = the worst, not to mention hayfever…)
  • singing (no more car-aoke, nearly snapped an elastic on my drive home tonight)
  • laughing (problem – I do this a LOT. Dear friends, you may have to stop being so funny for a while…)

Should any of this happen in public, please don’t be alarmed if a rubber band flies out of my mouth and lands near you – I apologise in advance. Also excuse my reaction to the pain of it snapping against my gum.

I guess I’ll find out tonight if I yawn/sneeze in my sleep, because if I do, chances are there won’t be any rubber bands in my mouth when I wake up…

Good news is I can feel the naughty tooth (the entire reason I have braces) pushing its way in, so hopefully things will move quickly… My lovely friend and PhD pal Joy shared this wee comic from The Awkward Yeti with me a while back – it sums up my “why I have braces” story well:

Derpy Tooth breaks some important rules of the jaw

Source: Braces

My musical history – Part 3: Formal Music Education

Having already explored my musical history at home, and the things I less often remember when talking about my music education, I thought it was about time I looked at the more formal learning experiences and opportunities I’ve had – these are the initial reference points I go to (or previously did at least) when asked about my musical background.

Here is a run-down of my Western ‘formal’ instrumental music education:

The recorder.

Most of us have this t-shirt.  I think I could put this as the first really conscious enthusiasm I had for learning music – beyond playing with music.  In my primary school, there was a recorder club one lunchtime a week, and you had to be in Primary 4-7 to join.  I was sneaky – my sister is 3 years older, and when she decided to give recorder club a try, I insisted that she teach me everything she was learning.  I invested in a recorder from Woolworths, that I’m pretty sure cost 10p with a sound as rich, and that was that.  6 years later, I was one of 4 people in my class still in the recorder club, and took it upon myself to arrange ABBA’s Super Trouper for the school’s annual concert.  2-part transcription and arrangement for a recorder quartet, fully notated.  It took me 10 years to realise my achievement, and it was only when I started arranging pop songs for flute ensembles that I remembered I’d done this before.

The trombone.

Bet you didn’t see that one coming!  Yes, for 6 months when I was 10, I played the trombone.  I’ll never forget the day we had trials for this – the visiting brass teacher brought some mouthpieces for everyone to try.  I can’t quite remember if I tried the trumpet mouthpiece, but I distinctly remember being told that I might find trombone easier, an assessment based on looking at my face/lips.  Unfortunately, he didn’t think to measure my arms.  A week later, I had a shiny trombone to try, that very quickly accumulated bumps and scratches from my lack of ability to stop the slide from falling off… safe to say I gave up when the teacher retired after 6 months, and it’s no surprise I opted for something more compact after that.

My only regret is that I wasn’t allowed to join the school choir at all that year (exclusively for Primary 7s) because I was already missing half an hour of class each week for my trombone lessons, not that I was falling behind.  Me? Holding grudges? Nah…

The flute years.

During my first week at Secondary school, I remember going along to the music department one lunchtime (I must have paid attention to the morning announcements once upon a time).  Having already done some time as a brass player – and with the perception that I would only be able to play instruments with a similar mouthpiece to trombone – I decided woodwind was where it was at, and flute was an instant choice.

In numbers:

  • 13 hours/year of flute lessons for 6 years at school – free of cost, apart from instrument purchase etc.
  • 6 years of weekly school concert band rehearsals.
  • 9 months of playing in a flute orchestra around age 15.
  • 14 hours/year of flute lessons for 4 years at university – thanks for paying my tuition fees, ScotGov: train tickets, textbooks and sheet music are all expensive enough.

The classroom stuff.

My general music education  was quite broad, including classroom music for 5 out of 6 years at secondary school (SQA changes meant I skipped Higher Music in 5th year as it clashed with Higher French and it was easier to “crash” Advanced Higher Music in 6th year than try to keep my French up without classes).  Again at uni, I covered the basics in theory, technology, business, history, and of course the practice-based side of things.

I did a quantifiable amount of playing during these years, but in hindsight I’ve noticed a few patterns and gaps in my learning.

Recreative music making

To date, most of my flute playing has involved playing other peoples’ music.  Any creative musical output of my own has largely been away from the flute, and in school, most of it happened using software on the computer.  I’m still not convinced I’ve found my creative voice, but I’ve gotten past the stage where I cried over improvisation – onwards and upwards!  My instrumental learning in school pretty much consisted of playing by reading – I used to learn things by ear in my own time if I couldn’t get sheet music – but there was no room for learning by ear or improvising, or making my own music on my instrument.

Just doing things

When I was nearing the end of my undergraduate studies, I started looking into flute playing traditions as the basis of my dissertation research.  In particular I was interested in looking at how musical skills were taught and learned in less explicit ways.  The focus became memorisation – something that is mistakenly perceived as ‘just happening’ over time or by repetition, a ‘natural ability’ that some people have and others don’t, yet it is something that can make or break a persons musical confidence, and is never explicitly taught.

Getting it right

If there’s one consistency in my formal music education experiences, it’s the notion that everything has to be “right” – the right notes, the right sound, the right speed, the right dynamic, the right performance etiquette.  While I understand and acknowledge that all of these “rights” involve traditions and long-established practices, I’ve come away from these experiences wondering why my own interpretation wasn’t considered “right” unless it fitted into narrow parameters that only strayed so far from the absolutely “right”.

I was so concerned with being “right” that it took me years to get comfortable with improvisation, and I was in my 20s before I found myself in a truly safe space to be creative without the fear of being judged as “wrong”.

My Musical Future

So what’s next?  The one thing I wish I’d had access to at school was string instruments – in another version of my life I’d have played the violin, or the viola, or the cello.  Maybe not the double bass – I like being able to carry my instrument around – but any of the others.  They say it’s never too late, so I hope that in the next few years I find some time and finally live that dream…