Aug 062016
 

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.

Feb 152015
 

Percussion Play at Rutherford School

Margaret Archibald writes:

Rutherford School, under the umbrella of the Garwood Foundation, caters for children with profound and multiple learning difficulties. Sarah Stuart and I visited on three separate occasions in late January and in early February. At our preliminary visit we spent a morning popping into the children’s classrooms; we were able to hop around the building easily with Sarah on folk fiddle and me on my little C clarinet, and we were helped by Music Therapist Sarah Kong to carry several bagfuls of small handheld percussion for the children to play. We performed a varied selection of folk tunes from England, Ireland and the USA, and staff and children together joined with each on different styles of percussion to suit the mood and tempo. It was lovely for me to meet the children again, many of whom were familiar from previous workshops at the school including most recently in 2013 with percussionist Scott Bywater working alongside Music Therapist Stephen Haylett who spends every Friday at the school and who has become our own Everyone Matters Music Therapy Advisor. For Sarah Stuart this was her first encounter with the children and she showed herself both sensitive to their needs and very encouraging in enabling their participation.

Sarah’s ability to come alongside the children was increasingly in evidence as we progressed through our two full days of percussion workshops during the first two Wednesdays in February. Sarah arrived early for these in order to have time to unload her van that was stuffed with large and exciting orchestral percussion instruments. She brought a full-size chromatic xylophone, two kettle drums, a bass drum, a tam-tam, a side drum, suspended cymbals and, perhaps smallest but by no means least effective, a set of sleigh bells. Our programme was devised to give each group of children an experience of a wide range of tones and timbres of percussion, with maximum opportunity for participation, and wherever possible giving children experience of playing the large orchestral instruments themselves. The smaller instruments could be placed on a lap or a wheelchair tray, held by a teacher, or strapped to a wrist or an ankle to make each new type of percussion as accessible as possible; with the big instruments we found ways to turn the wheelchairs, change the angle of stands, or hold sounding surfaces close to feet or hands. For many of these children access is a constant issue requiring creative solutions to enable them to enjoy experimenting with the sounds on offer; they may find gripping a beater impossible, or they may suffer a degree of visual impairment. Our aim with each new piece of music was to lead the children through changes of mood, pace and style, encouraging different responses and eliciting varying degrees of motor control in order to produce appropriate sounds to match the music’s dynamics, tempo and character.

One real highlight came on our last day when one teenage boy took full advantage of a short extra lunchtime session that Sarah offered for him alone. We were able to manoeuvre his wheelchair so that his knees fitted neatly under the xylophone and for the next ten minutes he experimented with striking at the wooden bars, stroking a glissando with the soft end of the beater, then switching to a glissando with the hard end of the beater, adding strokes on a suspended cymbal, returning to the xylophone, realising that it was not so effective played with feet, and then finally adding side drum that he played alternately with a beater and with his hand. It was thrilling for us musicians, and for the school staff who knew him well, to see how much he was able to choose to experiment with different types of stroke to access different types of sound, truly a revelation for us and clearly a source of enormous delight to him.
These sessions were made possible by generous financial support from the Lucille Graham and Red Socks Charitable Trusts and with a slab of funding from the school. We were happy that the headteacher was able to join our sleighbell group for a rendition of Troika, played on clarinet and xylophone with a posse of bells jingling away from everyone else in the room, children and staff alike.