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Mar 262013

Texture, touch, tone and timbre

Supported by the Lucille Graham Trust, the Red Socks Charitable Trust and the schools

Since Christmas Scott Bywater and I have had the privilege of delivering workshops at three schools for children with profound and multiple learning difficulties. In January and February we visited Rutherford School in South Croydon and the Surrey Teaching Centre at the Children’s Trust in Tadworth. Then, in March, we returned to Tadworth for a further two days at the School for Profound Education.

Staff, pupils and parents were moved and uplifted by your sessions and we had so many positive comments. We were so touched at the effort you put in bringing so many instruments and building in responses from one week to the next, not to mention your totally thorough planning and evaluations.

Jackie Winter, Deputy Headteacher, Surrey Teaching Centre

Scott and I had first devised our percussion project at the behest of Stephen Haylett, Music Therapist at Rutherford School. Most of the children at Rutherford have no access to spoken language, suffer some degree of visual impairment and are nearly all wheelchair users, and Stephen had suggested that we could engage them initially by appealing to their sense of touch.

Our starting point in devising the project was that we would explore different textures for their sound-making potential, show ways that staff and children together could create simple percussion instruments in class, and then use the children’s own shakers and drums in our hands-on music-making sessions. It was delightful to see the range of instruments, mostly shakers, that resulted from this, including some that were beautifully decorated with beads or paper butterflies, and even two water bottles that had become a tiger and a leopard, complete with eyes and a tail! However, it has to be said that in the end it was the quality of Scott’s many large and exciting orchestral percussion instruments that carried the sessions, and the compelling power of  some great music, chosen from classical and modern repertoire, including such percussion-rich warhorses as Ravel’s Bolero and Bizet’s March of the Toreadors.

Throughout our days at all three schools the greatest thrills were from experiencing the wonderful range of percussion instruments that Scott piled into his van for each visit. We had always planned to make a big feature of the vibraphone, and the tremulous magic of its unique sound did indeed fascinate many of the children. Some were able to see the vibraphone’s fluttering mechanism and one young lady accepted her own pair of beaters and joined Scott to play Twinkle, twinkle; others were able to join in by playing gentle chimes or bells that matched the mood of gentle pieces, including Chick Corea’s “Crystal Silence” that allowed each session a moment of repose. Progression from one visit to the next was difficult to guage at Rutherford School, but Stephen Haylett commented on the greater confidence that grew as children became familiar with us and the sounds we were making. It was especially exciting to see one pupil’s response to Scott’s bass drum; this is a boy who usually enjoys his music sessions, and on both our visits Scott was able to take direction from his increasingly excited gestures, mostly indicating “faster” or “louder” – the school staff said they had not seen him so animated for a long while!

I felt that the activities in which the responses of the children dictated the style, pace and direction of the music were most effective.  For instance, some of the groups seem to prefer a softer, more reflective style of music-making, using bells and chimes as the predominant musical texture.  Other groups revelled in boisterous and extrovert playing, especially when featuring cymbals, bass drums and timpani.  There were some wonderful examples of musical interaction between Scott and the children, enabling some of them to experience at close hand the vibrational and distinctive sounds of the larger percussion instruments.

Stephen Haylett, Music Therapist

Sharing activities together was also especially important to the children at the Surrey Teaching Centre, and we were able to develop ensemble work with several groups. We had been asked to support some curriculum work with a group of young people working at Key Stages 3 and 4 who were studying music from around the world, which we felt gave us a cue to hand out maracas, guiros, cabasas, a cowbell and an agogo and to layer rhythms in a Latin-American song, something we developed on our second visit into quite a sophisticated samba. Their teacher Cath wrote:

These sessions worked especially well for a student with severe memory difficulties and it was evident from her high level of independence and her animation in the sessions. CB

I was glad to be able to play melodies on my clarinet to suit the wide range of percussion sounds that Scott made available, but perhaps the most moving moment for me was to watch Scott working with the two boys at the Surrey Teaching Centre who had suffered tragic brain injury in accidents, helping each in turn to hold a stick and strike the kettle drum, and then wait for each one to initiate the next stroke with the tiniest flicker of a sign that this was what they each wanted to do.

We can’t thank you enough… come back again.

All our good wishes,I hope you continue to have fun with many more pupils, children, students, parents and staff for many years to come.

Jackie Winter, Surrey Teaching Centre