Art angels of the North


Sophy Sylvester and Dyzelle Sutherland on the darts project, bringing music to young people with SEND in Doncaster.

“They’re getting the hang of dynamics and adapting to gentleness and softness in rhythm. They’re now thinking like musicians.”

Our musicians developed their skills in using Makaton so that children were able to express their feelings and choices through the use of signs or symbols, to extend their vocabulary by learning new signs linked to the songs created and to help them to improve communication between the music leaders and the other children. We found that using Makaton reduced children’s frustration and helped to increase their confidence in taking part.

From starting points where some children wouldn’t make eye contact or speak, to DJing to a packed audience or belting out a song up on stage, we’ve seen phenomenal journeys that have surpassed our expectations. Our creative approach enables disabled young people to learn by doing; to explore their behaviours, language and responses in a safe and supported space. 

“Shelly has been amazing. I didn’t know she could speak at all when I first met her but her rhythm was fantastic. Then she learned all the signs and today she actually sang. That’s been an amazing journey with quite big changes.”

To drive forward this inclusive way of working, we are sharing our experience and learning more widely to create more opportunities for others to develop their skills and practice—whether as teachers, support staff or artists. Our All Aboard Network is a regular online opportunity for musicians and educators to come together and share ideas, challenges and learning in a safe and supported environment. Each session has a particular focus and includes invited speakers to give practical solutions for people to take away. We are focusing on the North, but people are welcome to join from wherever they are. 

Creating art with SEND children and young people is one of the most joyful experiences, and we look to our participants to inspire and teach us. Over the years, we have developed some ‘key ingredients’ that we know make our sessions successful. Our musician Dyzelle Sutherland shares some of them here:

Breaking Down Barriers 
Our society is set up for able bodied, neurotypical people experiencing good mental health. For young people who don’t fit that description, there may be lots of barriers to access that we need to think about. Think about all aspects of your session and the things that might prevent young people from accessing the activities—is the room too noisy? Does the music need to be printed bigger or printed on coloured paper? Would a visual timetable of the activities you have planned help? 
Just ask
If you aren’t sure about the best way to adapt activities, support a student or to make lessons more accessible, just ask. Open up the dialogue about the barriers that are in their way and find ways together to remove them. Family members, teachers and support staff are also great people to talk to—the pupil may already have systems or strategies in place that would work in your session. 
Music has lots of rules about how instruments should be played, and these can be a barrier for SEND children. It’s important that the young person gets to make music and that might mean they need to adapt how to hold or manipulate an instrument. There are many simple ways to adapt instruments and musical equipment—it could be as simple as re-tuning a guitar or ukulele so that the pupil only has to worry about strumming the strings, or placing an instrument on a chair or table, so it is at the right height or on the side of the body that the pupil finds easiest to play it on. Don’t forget to ask the pupil how THEY can play the instrument. 
Make content relevant
Try to find out about the types of music or activity your participants like and find a way to include those—even if only in small ways. Including songs or music from other countries is also a great way to include and involve children (just do your research to make sure you are approaching this sensitively). 
Check in regularly
Personal circumstances, conditions and illness may change over time and solutions that worked in the past may need rethinking. Encourage children to let you know if and when you need to make changes or review the support that is needed. 
Don’t take it personally
There are also lots of reasons why a child may not engage with your creative session. They may be feeling poorly, their medication is making them sleepy, they are too hungry to concentrate, or something has happened outside of the session that is affecting their mood. 
Change can be tiny and slow
Engagement levels change all the time and the best impacts are those that are incremental—a child who starts with no eye contact and who refuses to join in might slowly edge toward the group each week—picking up an instrument and making a sound feels groundbreaking. 
Environment is key
Welcome children to your space and make it a friendly, welcoming place, where they feel seen and valued. Celebrate the wins and point out progress to school staff, parents or carers—you will spot musical or creative milestones that non-musicians won’t notice! 
Keep an open mind
Things may not go to plan and situations can change very quickly. Keep an open mind and try to remove barriers to access where you can—this could be as simple as planning the pace of sessions to include several shorter activities that require different energy levels, or if a whole session is too much for a child, agree with the school staff or family members that the child can leave when they need to. 
Have back-up plans
Sometimes, an activity just isn’t right for the group (or the dynamic on that particular day) and it is essential to have an activity or two at the ready, so you can adapt as needed. We also find that groups can whizz through an activity that we thought would take much longer, or spend ages engaging with a tiny part of what we had planned—having back up plans means that you can cover all bases. Ensure there is always space in the session to build in and respond to children’s ideas. 
Model emotional literacy 
Be open with the children about the fact that you have tough days too, that you don’t always feel happy and that sometimes you feel sad. Normalise these feelings and emotions and help young people to acknowledge and accept them. Make sure they know that it is ok to have ‘big feelings’.
Don’t give up
Even if a lesson doesn’t go to plan and emotions flare up, always try to end on a positive note—’we will try again next week’. If a child needs to leave a lesson completely, make sure they know that they are always welcome back when they are ready. 
Sophy Sylvester
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Sophy Sylvester is Director (Fundraising & Development) at darts. She has over twenty-five years' experience in fundraising, project management, marketing and communications.

Instagram: @wearedarts  

Facebook: @wearedarts
Twitter: @we_aredarts


Dyzelle Sutherland
+ posts

Dyzelle Sutherland is a core artist and project manager at darts. She is a skilled musician, violinist and music technology expert. Dyzelle is a classically trained violin player and qualified in the Kodaly and Colourstrings Method of music education.

Instagram: @wearedarts  

Facebook: @wearedarts
Twitter: @we_aredarts



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