How can we connect activities in a music session to people's daily lives? How can we support families to embed creative music-making into their lives, their thoughts and their time? Jenni Parkinson shares findings and ideas from a project exploring this with families with children with autism in South East London.
. . music can drive in many different directions. It is fundamental to our communicating, to forming relationships, with others. It can help to regulate emotions. Music organises and energises our bodily movements. It intertwines with language, with pattern, with number, and with visual imagery. 
Soundcastle believes in the many different roles that music plays in our lives, and further, in the importance of having ownership and autonomy over this. We are constantly seeking new ways to work with families to embed creative music-making into their daily lives, to promote the lifelong benefits that music can bring.
Through our recent pilot project Creative Families, we explored the idea of providing tailor-made resources to support families with children with autism to build musical activities into their week. The focus was on communication and interaction, and families learning and discovering together.
Creative Families was a pilot project at Brent Knoll in South East London, a special school for children with complex social, communication and interaction difficulties including autism. Eight families attended a ten-week after-school music session. Nine children from the school (including two siblings) between the ages of 5 and 8 came to sessions with one or both parents or guardians, with one very small baby and the occasional grandparent getting involved as well. Three of the children were pre or non-verbal.
We wanted to discover how strong we could make the connection between a music session that people attend, and the activities they take into their homes. What could be the factors that link these two contexts and empower people to really embed music into their thinking and their time.
We kept three primary principles in mind:
i) To provide music sessions with activities that were accessible, clear and replicable ii) To build people’s musical confidence iii) To motivate, inspire and support families to continue the activities at home
Here are some of our key findings, and ideas for how to make this happen!
Recordings can be a powerful way to instil pride and excitement in people’s own music. Every session we audio record the music that is made, which is then placed online, on Soundcloud, so that families can listen together during the week. We also play the recordings to the group in the following session. Often the children show immense joy when listening back to their own work, and identifying their own sounds and ideas. Most people can access Soundcloud on a phone, computer or iPad, and so can show other friends and family members. We also provide a CD of all the music created at the end of the project to all families. Parents told us that they were listening to the recordings each week between the sessions and singing along to the songs together. This can provide a simple yet motivating starting point to music-making at home.
The Hello Song
Most practitioners will be familiar with the idea of a ‘hello’ or ‘greeting’ song to mark the beginning of a session. With autistic children this is particularly relevant to mark their transition into a new space and activity, and to set-up a structure and routine that they become familiar with. Our hello song began with a very simple call and response dialogue, and a chance to sing everyone’s name and welcome them into the room. We also used Makaton signs to ensure that this was an inclusive activity, regardless of verbal ability. Each week the group added their ideas into the ‘conversation’, and so the song gradually grew and became theirs. This meant that from the first session, families had a song that was familiar, and unique to our group, that they could listen to and sing together at home. It also modelled a simple way to build music, allowing them to take ideas and try their own versions.
Try this at home!
The key challenge within the sessions is to find the balance between providing an inspiring and engaging musical experience, and keeping activities simple enough for families to repeat in their own way at home. Of course the session context will have significant difference to a home situation; access to a range of exciting musical instruments, a large group of people to share ideas with, and the support of facilitators who may also play instruments. However, the most important consideration is that the actual creative process is simple, transparent and presented in a step by step way. The process should be modelled and supported fully in the session. This can then be reinforced with a resource sheet to take away, detailing each step. Additional resources sheets can also help families to negotiate the differences between contexts. What can they use as instruments in their home? How could they adapt and change things or make their own musical games? We used activities that explored musical roles and communication, such as simple dialogue and turn-taking, or asking the child to be the ‘sound leader’ for parents to copy and join in with, as well as using simple themes such as animals or weather to stimulate sound-making. It is important during the sessions to model the fact that we are working with sound, and in an exploratory way. It may mean that some adults need to shift their perceptions of what it means to make music, and focus on the aspects of creative play and dialogue, rather than expecting to go home and practice a tune or rhythm. This is essential in promoting the communicative, expressive and relational aspects of music-making.
To initiate and keep a connection between the music session and home lives, it is important to have a way of documenting and celebrating families’ music-making. We gave each family a diary, with an attendance chart so that they could add a sticker at each session. Every week we asked them to write or draw their favourite part of the session, and what they had done at home. Children were immensely proud to show off their diaries and tell us about what they had been doing, and parents began to weave the specific musical activities into their home routines.
We believe that music is crucial for our lives, our identities and our wellbeing, and that everyone has the power to create their own music. By supporting whole families to take ownership and autonomy over their music-making and to enjoy, experience and create music as a part of their everyday lives we hope to keep music a living part of our grassroots culture, promoting wellbeing and connectedness in our communities.
For some examples of resources for families, download our free DIY music-making resource sheet here! http://soundcastle.co.uk/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/Creative-Families-Music-making-Handbook.pdf
 Susan Young, Music with the Under Fours (2003)