Close encounters of the musical kind

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Using inclusive music-making to engage children with SEN and enrich the curriculum

Over the past year, I have been working on a project to explore, extend and disseminate good practice around the creative use of technology in music making with pupils in special school settings.

Committed to engaging with seven settings across Yorkshire, the project began back in November 2012 at our pilot school, The Dales School, North Yorkshire. We’ve been joined by Riverside School in Goole and we look forward to welcoming on board schools in Wakefield and Doncaster this year. The project has been developed in conjunction with Yorkshire Youth and Music, with funding from Youth Music.

At the outset, we knew that such a far-reaching piece of work would require a systematic and rigorous framework for evaluation if we were to fulfil our aims of documenting pupils’ experience across the duration of the project. Fortunately, before we had gone too far down the route of re-inventing the wheel by devising our own system, a colleague pointed me in the direction of Sounds of Intent. This was an excellent project developed jointly by the Institute of Education, Roehampton University, and the Royal National Institute of the Blind. We used its online tools to enable music practitioners, teachers, therapists, assistants and parents to think about, plan for and document children’s experience of sound and music.

Fine tuning

Although our primary focus has been upon technology, we’ve been careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater and simple, good old-fashioned acoustic instruments have been a regular component of all our music making. I’m a great believer in viewing the technological options not as replacements but as additions to the toolkit. In fact, it has been fascinating to observe how modern tools can augment traditional resources.

Another hallmark of the work, particularly with PMLD groups, has been the emphasis on improvised, creative music making – as opposed to a repertoire based, “let’s learn a song” approach. In this respect, I am indebted to colleagues working in the world of music therapy from whom I have learnt so much about the importance of listening to, valuing and using the contributions of the young people themselves.

A further corollary to the importance placed on listening is the intention to focus on non-verbal communication. I think, as teachers, we’re all guilty of talking a bit too much and classrooms can become very noisy and confusing environments. It’s been great to be given the space to pause, enjoy the silences and wait for valued musical input.

Technology

We are employing everything from the ubiquitous tablet computers, through commercial music technology devices such as microphones and effects units, to more specialist systems.

Tablet computers are undoubtedly making a huge impact on education. The beauty of such devices is that, as mass consumer products, they represent an unprecedented power to price ratio and are supremely versatile. Our project has seen teachers and assistants use them as record keeping notebooks, video cameras and guitar tuners. They can also be great used as music creation environments, for creating simple cyclical sound patterns, for developing relaxing soundscapes, and as sources of high-quality instrument sounds that are very responsive to play. Indeed, a wide range of excellent apps is available to turn tablets into highly accessible and engaging touchscreen instruments. The great thing about these is that they can be rewarding for the musician and the non-specialist alike.

Tablets

For anyone using tablets in the classroom, I would offer two pieces of advice: invest in decent protection for your expensive piece of kit, and make use of guided access (the facility to lock the screen to a particular app and disable parts of the screen), where available. This often hidden feature can remove frustration and temptation from straying fingers.

Using something as simple as a wireless microphone in conjunction with an inexpensive effects unit to create vast reverberant sounds or artificial echoes has proved extremely effective in encouraging even the most reticent pupils to vocalise. Such a set-up is a valuable addition to any classroom.

More specialist musical systems can also be very useful. A range of technologically advanced options is now available to allow users who have very limited movement to create and interact with music. These can be particularly useful in PMLD settings, where conventional instruments may be less successful. Systems can also allow almost any kind of physical input to be mapped to different media outputs, using simple interfaces running on standard computers. Switches can be made to step through a series of sounds or pressure sensitive controllers can be employed to improvise on the notes of a musical scale.

Looking ahead

This project is far from over but, although there is still much to explore, I feel we have already learnt a great deal. We have uncovered all sorts of practical issues and ironed out a good number of those niggles which, although minor, make the difference between “good” and “outstanding” lessons.

As a big fan of technology, I need to remind myself that it’s important to start with musical and educational objectives in mind – then match the appropriate tool to the job. It’s all too easy to be wowed by the potential of the gear to such an extent that we lose track of the actual learning that needs to take place. I also believe in the importance of keeping things simple. Just because a piece of equipment has thousands of settings doesn’t mean we need to use them all in a single lesson.

Committing to the creative use of music technology need not require great investment. In several of the settings I’ve visited over the years, fantastic resources have been found – unused and gathering dust – at the back of cupboards. It’s easy to understand how this happens. Some of these systems can appear overly complicated or daunting to the unfamiliar user, and their benefit in an educational context unclear. It only takes a lost manual, a failed lead or a staff champion to move on for once valuable pieces of equipment to fall into disuse. So, increasingly, when asked for purchasing advice, my response is, “Let’s take a look at what’s already in the music room or the classroom cupboard and see how we can get the most out of it”.

As a visiting specialist, I am convinced, more than ever, that the key to a successful project lies in close liaison with the school, joint planning and shared evaluation. I’ve also discovered anew that, given appropriate tools and instruments, when allowed the luxury of patience and gentle repetition, and when engaged as co-learners, the young people with whom we work are able to enter into profoundly meaningful musical encounters.

Further information

Andrew Cleaton is a musician and workshop facilitator with 25 years’ experience working in SEN and disability settings. Andrew runs Epiphany Music:
www.epiphanymusic.co.uk

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