by Author GailBrindley

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Music and Songwriting in Special Educational Needs Settings

Two Rivers High School have been hosting a Music Project run by Staffordshire based Charity Make Some Noise, here, one of the Music Leaders, Helena Raby provides her reflections on working within the school and our students:


Music and Songwriting in Special Educational Needs Settings

Throughout my experiences facilitating music and songwriting in SEN settings across Staffordshire and Stoke on Trent, I have been able to witness the incredible effects that music has on individuals with Special Educational Needs. Through providing a multi-sensory experience for children and adults (auditory, visual and tactile), a range of skills can be developed such as expression and exploration of emotions, listening, verbal and non-verbal communication, gross and fine motor movements, memory, management of behaviour and improvised music making (both through instruments and voice). Music becomes a form of language which can support individuals on a physical, psychological and emotional level; through a combination of improvisation, performance, dance and singing, language learning can be enhanced, and every individual has an opportunity to express themselves in an accessible and inclusive way.

The participants are always welcomed, accepted and valued for who they are, and are supported wholeheartedly in their contributions to music-making, in whatever capacity that may be. Every individual is encouraged to communicate their own ideas, in their own way, and make their own choices, which in turn helps participants to feel listened to, understood and appreciated. As an example, each session will adapt to every individual, and offer a wide range of instruments which provide a range of opportunities for creating sounds and developing methods of playing and communication. Consequently, this can really support an individual, not only in their development as a musician, but also with their sense of self-esteem and confidence. Music can therefore have a profound effect on the way that an individual can feel and can really help to reduce social anxiety and isolation. Additionally, it can help to improve social interactions and relationships with others such as through group collaborations and being able to develop mutual enjoyment from a genre of music, artist or instrument.

I have personally been able to observe this through my songwriting workshops which I have delivered this year in a local school. Through firstly creating an environment which welcomed inclusive discussion (both verbal and non-verbal) as well as writing and drawing in response to our chosen topic of the pandemic, we began by creating visual boards to highlight our ideas. Circling ‘Lockdown’ in the center of the page, we identified aspects of lockdown during the pandemic which were significant to the participants, such as the wearing of masks and not being able to see friends, go on holiday or have a birthday party. We were then able to discuss what we were able to do throughout the pandemic, such as having more time to show acts of kindness towards our loved ones, teachers, fellow students and the community. The latter was inspired by a participant’s pledge to show a random act of kindness every day to members of the public, to raise money for charities who combat isolation in disabled or disadvantaged individuals. This welcomed the theme of ‘Acts of kindness’ for our song, which grew into a number of ideas expressed by the group about what these acts of kindness could be and how we could show them.

Individuals spoke out loud, drew, wrote or used forms of sign language such as Makaton to express how they could be kind to others. Some of these acts of kindness were, for example, showing appreciation to the NHS and carers by clapping outdoors, helping their family or offering support to their teachers. We were then able to start developing a story together through expanding their ideas into sentences and exploring rhyming couplets. I would invite every individual to select or point towards a word on the visual board, and we would then create a list of rhyming words together. For example, if one participant pointed at ‘Rainbow,' we would collectively discuss what rhymes with this word until we had as many rhyming couplets as possible. When developing sentences, we would select a favourite or most theme-relevant word from the list and write them down. Using words such as ‘Rainbow’ and ‘Window,’ for example, we would then extend these into a short sentence such as ‘We will all make rainbows, to place in our windows’.

Once the lyrical ideas were developed, the participants were encouraged to choose their own chords which would be used for the song. Boom Whackers were then used to provide an inclusive opportunity for the participants to find notes which they enjoyed; for example, they were asked to select different colours of the Boom Whackers and play their chosen notes by tapping them on the ground. This enabled the participants to decide which notes they liked the sound of the most, and if the combination of those notes worked well together. The activity really encouraged the independence of the participants and allowed them to really have their expression in the development of the song. Once the chords were chosen, a guitar was used to play along to the Boom Whackers, to a tempo also agreed upon by the participants.

Whilst playing the appropriate chords on the guitar, I invited the participants to observe what was being played, and to perhaps hum or sing along to see if a melody came to mind. I heard a very faint melody coming from a participant sitting within the group, and I listened in closely to her humming and expressed how wonderful it sounded. Her melody soon became the melody of the song, and as we sung through the lyrics together as a group, it was such a delight to observe the confidence of this participant grow. Although described by her teachers as “very quiet,” and as someone who would rarely participate in a group activity, this individual simply bloomed in her musical environment. Each time that we sang the song, her face beamed with happiness, and she would smile and dance along. She expressed regularly how much she was enjoying it and she appeared so proud and excited to be the ‘lead singer’ of the band. This songwriting opportunity helped to develop the self-esteem and confidence of not only this young participant, but so many of the participants within the group who became immersed in their musical practice. Music offered an opportunity for individuals to express themselves in a really creative and positive way, and we have observed, just through a small number of sessions, how truly inspiring and empowering music and songwriting can be for young people.