Percussion Play at the Children’s Trust School

Sarah Stuart and Margaret Archibald were at the Children’s Trust on Monday 23 February before the canteen opened for breakfast, so the bacon sandwiches had to wait! Both were keen to get the large percussion instruments in place for two full days of workshops enabling children and young people with profound and multiple learning difficulties to explore large orchestral percussion instruments. These workshops form part of a series supported by the Lucille Graham Trust and the Red Socks Charitable Trust, their generosity enabling us to visit four schools for children and young people with special needs.

Margaret Archibald writes:

Our hello song had a Latin-American flavour, and Sarah kept the momentum going with a large guiro while I played a short riff on the clarinet as we skipped from one learner to the next, and then sang in harmony with Sarah as we greeted each learner in turn.

Sarah began her demonstration of percussion with the side drum, and we were able to involve learners and staff in joining our marching band with small percussion, and also with two suspended cymbals that hung comfortably just above the level of the tray on each learner’s wheelchair.

Claire and Tim, the resident Music Therapists, both commented that  moving  wheelchairs across the room in order to get really close to the tam-tam and the bass drum gave learners the cue that something new was about to happen. The muffled thunder resonances of these very large instruments created a palpable change to a darker mood, and when our next item came it was a relief to imagine ourselves jumping on a sleigh with everyone playing bells to accompany the clarinet and xylophone in a musical ride across the Siberian snow.

Having encountered the xylophone the learners were invited to relax and simply listen to a piece featuring the xylophone and clarinet, and then it was time to take part again in “team timps”, with groups of learners in their chairs clustering round each kettle drum  to share in creating an exciting and festive noise.

We rounded the session off with a return to our Latin-American song, this time to say goodbye, with everyone playing a favourite percussion instrument.

One of our aims was to create a sense of rehearsal leading to performance.We wanted to establish this pattern early in each session and develop it with each successive repertoire item.

There was a trade-off between allocating time to allow individuals to explore instruments, and covering the full range of musical items to give variety. At our first Monday session, perhaps because everyone was fresh, and with a smaller group of just four learners present, we covered all the items. Later in the day, especially with slightly larger groups, we found we were making choices between items, lingering more on items where learners were taking turns to play large instruments such as the tam-tam and the bass drum. By the Tuesday we found that a pattern had begun to establish itself whereby we spent a lot of time early in the session exploring sounds, and then gathered momentum towards a climax with everyone playing the timpani together.

The hypnotic effect of soft sounds on the tam-tam and bass drum, separately and together, seemed to capture many of the learners, and several showed especial pleasure on hearing the clarinet tones set against the deeper rumble of these very large instruments. Nearly everyone experienced the physical sensation of the tam-tam or bass drum vibrations, either by touching with hands, or through beaters, or from close proximity to the source of the sound through careful positioning of wheelchairs. We were told that this experiencing of vibration tied in with other resonance work that the learners undertake in school.

Wherever possible we created ensemble effects, and at the last session on Monday we discovered that we could effectively cluster groups of learners around each kettle drum, creating a very effective Indian War Dance with everyone drumming together. This was such an exciting sound that we developed this at almost every session on the Tuesday, and one of our morning sessions on Tuesday finished with especially rousing versions of La Réjouissance and the Indian War Dance, the kettle drums giving so much pleasure to staff and learners alike that we continued to use them for the ensuing Goodbye Song.

The Music Therapists told us that the learners are not used to music sessions that last as long as a full hour, but that on this occasion it was good for them to have time for a wide range of activities.

The lunch-time session on the Monday was spent playing folk fiddle music to a large group in the hall, with maximum participation from hand percussion led by the two Music Therapists Claire and Tim who were both able to give their lunch-hour to share this time with everyone. The lunch-time therapy session on the Tuesday was also devoted to folk fiddle and clarinet; we worked in a therapy room with a smaller group of learners who were mostly lying down, some on resonance boards, and for these learners staff were energetic in drumming rhythms on the boards to match the tempo of each new jig or reel.

The school has an open door policy for parents to share time with the children, and it was delightful that one of the younger boys was able to share his session on the Tuesday afternoon with both his parents who took great delight in the chance to play the wide range of instruments. It was lovely to see how much their mood was lifted by sharing in the fun.

Sarah and I were impressed throughout by the willingness of all the staff to engage with each activity;  staff help was invaluable in enabling each individual learner to access the different instruments and the different playing techniques to best advantage. We realised that it was important for us as the visiting musicians to make it clear to staff that we really did want them to take part in the music-making in their own right, and not just as support for the learners, as we wanted them to enjoy themselves too. In this way everyone in the room was contributing to the music, lifting the mood and giving greater energy to the results.

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