Category Archives: Profound and Multiple Learning Difficulties

Rutherford Summer Club 2016

Margaret Archibald recalls some highlights of her day at Rutherford School where she and harpist Alexander Thomas were contributing music workshops designed to explore this year’s summer club theme of “Water”. 

It really is astonishing how much stuff I manage to take for one day of workshops!

Setting up the gear 20160801_125738.jpg

It was 1st August, there was no school-run traffic, and I arrived at Rutherford School with more than an hour and a half to spare to set up for a full day of workshops with harpist Alexander Thomas. This was already the second week of the school’s Summer Club, and we would spend the day working with five different groups of children all with profound and multiple learning difficulties. Somehow the time flew by as I unpacked lots of small percussion suitable for the school’s holiday project “water”, raided the music therapy percussion trolley, created a watery décor with water-blue silks and colourful umbrellas, and laid out the props and percussion ready in appropriate batches to be used for successive music items.

Alex and Winnie the Pooh 20160801_125624

Alexander Thomas arrived early too, having allowed plenty of time to drive from Dalston with his harp, the very special instrument chosen to be a new experience for the children. We were conscious that summer club should be fun and engaging, and we hoped that the chance to hear a harp and to feel its vibrations would be a thrilling experience for these wheelchair-bound children. We also wanted the support staff to have fun too, and the ratio of staff to children was mostly 1:1 so it was important that everyone was having a good time. Manoeuvring the wheelchairs really close to the harp was rather tricky, and we needed to be very careful not to damage the harp’s pedal box, but nearly every child was able to get close enough to be able to reach out with staff help and touch the pillar of the harp, feeling the strong vibrations flowing through as Alex played. One little girl, whose head we were told is nearly always down on her chest, lifted her head to gaze at Alex and his harp, and at the end of the workshop during our goodbye song she waved us her farewell.

Alex seen through the strings 20160801_130922

A favourite piece at each session was “Mists”, a dreamy and evocative piece for harp and clarinet that we elaborated with the sound of rainsticks, wind chimes and a thunder drum. First we explored the sounds that could be made with the percussion instruments, and then staff helped the children orchestrate the piece with imaginative, atmospheric sound effects. The opportunity to take part by adding additional percussion sounds and visual props to the music was noted by several members of staff as especially enjoyable for everyone, and by the end of each session we had added ‘seaweed’ (green plastic bag strips tied to coat hangers!), a plastic diver, ocean drums, pebble bag scrunchers, sea shells in a bucket, frog guiros, seed pod rattles and castanets to the list of atmospheric additions to enhance a deep ocean-scape, a pirates’ hornpipe, and the song of boatmen heaving on their oars as they pulled a heavy cargo up the river. Finally we invited a free choice of percussion so that everyone could join in our final goodbye song playing their favourite instrument.

As Alex and I were packing up our gear and gradually returning the school room to its former state, we reflected on how lucky we were to be able to play such lovely music, and to share it with these very special children who cannot share their thoughts in words but whose responses mean so much.

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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.