Simon Procter on music for troubled pupils.
It’s 9.30am and most classrooms are settling down to quiet work. Out of one room though, a steady stream of sound can be heard: determined drumming matched by intense piano playing and the exchange of vocal sounds that wouldn’t generally be called singing. There is a sense of concentration, interaction and expression all happening at once. Later in the day, this room will witness some very different sounds. At one stage, very quiet, intimate singing will be heard, while at the end of the day, a boisterous group will summon all of their social skills to play together, listen to each other and support one another. What’s remarkable about all of this though, is not so much the sounds themselves as the fact that the students producing them are those who might ordinarily be considered the least able to do so. This is music therapy and the school’s music therapist is not just jamming with the students, even though it may sound like that sometimes; she is very deliberately using music as a means of offering students experiences they might otherwise find hard to access—experiences which will ultimately help them to benefit more from the school’s educational offering.
The determined drumming comes from Lauren, a young girl with elective mutism. Socially isolated, in music therapy she can experiment with being loud and expressing herself. The therapist joins in, supporting Lauren’s loudness, encouraging her to keep going and helping her to experience this not just as making noise but as meaningful communication with a sense of purpose, shape and direction. Lauren may not realise it but the therapist is accompanying her with harmonic structure, which lends a clear sense of direction to the activity. When she returns to her classroom, the teacher notices Lauren being more alert and more involved. Sometimes, after music therapy she will even risk saying something—a big deal to everyone who knows her.
The quiet intimate singing comes from Peter. Often labelled “disruptive”, he’s known for shouting and swearing and generally causing mayhem. He has a diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), as well as learning difficulties, and his behaviour is challenging. In music therapy, though, he has found someone who really listens to him and responds not so much to his words as to his way of being. This has enabled him to be much more vulnerable. Sometimes he seems to regress to a much earlier developmental stage, wanting to sing nursery rhymes and improvising made-up songs with the therapist who joins him encouragingly, much as a parent might do with a toddler. The sessions seem to strengthen his sense of self and teachers note that he is often calmer after sessions, with a steady improvement also noticeable over the time he has been attending music therapy.
The group at the end of the day brings together children from various year groups. They all have difficulty with waiting their turn or listening to others. Many have a diagnosis of autism and they find it hard to do things on others’ terms. This time the music therapist is using structured songs and specially arranged musical activities to help the students to maintain their focus and wait their turns. Watching the students, a teaching assistant comments on how attentive they are: “You’d never believe it if you didn’t see it for yourself”.