by Author Eleanor Ward

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Music leading with challenging circumstances

The term "challenging circumstances” confuses many people. What does it mean? Who does it include? How do you begin working with children and young people in challenging circumstances? Aren’t all young people challenged, in one way or another?

At Sound Connections we have created a Challenging Circumstances (CCC) Network, which meets quarterly to identify, tackle and advocate the role that music education has for children and young people in challenging circumstances. The CCC Network draws together experts from across London working with children and young people in challenging circumstances, including music leaders and organisations working with visually impaired children, refugees, young offenders, young people with mental health problems, those with disabilities, young people living in social deprivation – the list is (almost) endless.

The CCC Network decided that it was important to challenge the definition of challenging circumstances, and found it more useful to look at characteristics rather than distinct groups. They came up with the following definition: challenging circumstances = any barrier to accessing music.

One of our Network members - Gawain Hewitt - has provided an insight into working with children and young people with challenging circumstances…

“The first thing that comes to mind when discussing working with music in challenging circumstances is that it is only the circumstances that are challenging. We are still making music, still working with musicians and composers, and still seeking to create an experience with a meaningful educational and artistic outcome. As to what this looks like, my work brings me into contact with many different people and circumstances.

In my work with Drake Music, I may work with someone with a physical need; perhaps limiting or creating difficulty in controlling their movement. My role is to utilise music technology to remove this barrier. I can use a Soundbeam or iPad to build a custom instrument that allows the user to create rhythm, melody or harmony using their eyelid, at one extreme, or turn the movement of a wheelchair into a delicate musical expression at the other. I have to allow the musician time to explore this new instrument, which is no different from any other musician.

I also run music classes in Pupil Referral Units (PRUs), working with children and young people who have been expelled from school. My aim is to set up musical experiences that help them to navigate complicated social and psychological issues that may prevent them from accessing music. Again, the key is to tailor the musical experience to the young person. I may provide very specific instructions for playing the piano, with colour coding on the keys, allowing them to explore this on headphones, or encourage them to write a rap to a beat.

The real challenge is that the children’s backgrounds and day-to-day experiences are so unique, and will manifest in very different ways. Behaviour can flair up, but it is important to maintain the bigger picture and continually bring it back to music-making, performance, composition and attainment. Affirmation is also very important, and I find it important to provide regular praise and performance opportunities, alongside recordings of work to take away.”

Sound Connections is currently undertaking research into working with challenging circumstances, looking at the skills and qualities needed, different pathways music leaders can follow and ways of sharing best practice. This will be published in October and uploaded onto the Youth Music Network, so keep your eyes peeled.

To find out more about our work with children and young people in challenging circumstances, please email us. You can also join Sound Connections for free to keep up-to-date with the latest music education news across London.