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Welsh National Opera - Early Years Music Making with Refugee Families in Birmingham


Birmingham has a significant and growing asylum seeking and refugee population – it is the most ethnically diverse regional city in the UK with a population made up of 187 different nationalities (Birmingham City Council It has been proved that refugee children are under-represented in most forms of early years provision, despite the fact that refugee movements can disrupt nearly every aspect of a culture, and that refugees face daily challenges such as loss of family and community support networks, financial hardship and a decreased sense of wellbeing, as well as communication issues with English as an additional language.

With that in mind, and driven by the knowledge of the positive impact that music can have both on wellbeing and, in particular, children’s early development, Welsh National Opera (WNO) decided to develop a project aimed at refugees with young children. The project is part of WNO’s newly established West Midland’s engagement programme.

Our aims

The learning from a recent project in 2018, involving refugee women helped to shape the format and key aims.

To develop children’s:

  • Musicality: by taking part in musical games, listening to high quality music.
  • Social skills: by taking turns, playing and listening together, and interacting with others through music.  
  • Motor skills: by playing/handling instruments and props, moving to music.

This project also aims to provide an opportunity for the parents to:

  • Have positive interactions with their children
  • Socialise and share experiences with other parents, which in turns creates a sense of belonging

Our overall aim is to encourage and promote habitual music making amongst parents with their young children.

The Creative Team

The project is delivered by a highly skilled team including: Opera singer, Zoe Challenor, also the co-director of B’Opera, a company that creates interactive musical performances for families with young children. Zoe regularly sings operatic repertoire to the group and shares an array of popular songs that everyone can join in with, brought to life by props, storybooks and games.  Melissa Morris is a pianist, composer and music leader who brings virtuoso music accompaniment to the session. Her skill for improvisation enables her to respond in the moment, creating a rich musical space.

Two emerging opera singers and a viola player, who is also a refugee, are assisting on the project as part of their professional development.

The Sessions

Each Thursday morning, the participants gather at St Chad’s Sanctuary, part of St Chad’s Cathedral in Birmingham. There are 4 families that attend regularly, but the group can comprise of up to 12 adults with their children. The creative music activities focus on singing, through the use of fun-sound-making and musical games, percussive instruments, movement, and the use of soft play props and toys. These activities allow the group to explore a range of musical worlds, stories and themes. 

As we commence the second term of the project, the families are becoming familiar with some of the musical games. A big favourite is seeing how many teddies can dance and then hop off the bouncing parachute; another is musical statues.  The group enjoy songs that introduce the English language and we encourage the sharing of songs from other cultures and languages. Some of the children are starting to say new words that they have learned from the songs. Another feature of the sessions is to hear a song presented by an opera singer. The sessions finish with free flow play in order for children to have the opportunity to follow their own musical ideas with the instruments and the soft play props. Refreshments are also available afterwards, to create a sense of occasion that strengthens the social aspect of the activity.

Case studies

Case study 1: Following the transition to working with a new partner organisation and some initial recruitment challenges, the first session of the project was only attended by one parent and their child. During the session, the creative team, volunteer and parent played a game of musical statues. At the beginning the child simply laughed at the adults, delighted and surprised as they each stopped in funny positions, frozen with their mouths open. Little by little the child began to pick up cues and started to ‘lead’ the group by moving around the space and opening her mouth as a sign that the adults should freeze. Over the weeks, the child has become more adept in recognising and joining in with the concept of stopping and starting the music. She is also developing her skills in initiating activity. Each week she both shares out and then collects all the instruments. Most recently, in response to some jazz style music that has become popular within the group, she excitedly went over to the drum, beckoning others to gather round.

Case study 2: In the initial sessions, one child became upset almost as soon as they left their mother’s arms. He repeatedly tried to escape from the room, cried out loud and was seemingly unengaged with the activities. His mother explained that he didn’t like being in a large group of people. He also seemed unsettled by some aspects of the music. Following some confusion amongst the group regarding the date of the first session after the half term break, this child and mother were the only ones to attend the session. The creative team led some musical activities with them and the child responded well to this focussed attention. He responded positively to the music and interacted with the group of adults. In the following weeks, he then became much more settled and engaged with the activities. He now interacts fully with the other children, independently from his mother. Most recently he engaged in a musical conversation with Zoe through a drum. This was quite a step, given his reaction at his very first session.


This project has shown us how integral the strength of partnerships are to work with refugee participants, given the precarious circumstances in which refugee find themselves coupled with the volatility of funding for organisations supporting them.

Setting up the project came with many challenges, not least as our first partner experienced flood damage to their building, which led to the eventual folding of the organisation.  Eventually we secured a new partnership with St Chad’s Sanctuary, a charitable arm within St Chad’s Cathedral that provides a range of support for refugees, which also happens to have experience of hosting music projects with Birmingham Opera Company.  St Chad’s Sanctuary helped us with the recruitment of participants and volunteers to support the delivery of the sessions as well as provides space and refreshments.

This programme taught us how important it is to be flexible, not only in the approach of the activity but in the delivery itself. The changing number of participants has led to an ever more creative approach and an ability to adapt.


Whilst there are some challenges, there are also good surprises. The irregularity of attendance has inadvertently led to some positive outcomes for those children who have, as a consequence, had a session all to themselves, enabling them to develop confidence and giving them focussed musical play time.

The group have also responded positively to hearing the operatic voice. Without any signals or instruction the group tend to sit down and listen intently when Zoe sings an aria.

The core group of mothers who participate in these sessions are very much involved in the activities. They clearly enjoy being there, as they get up on their feet and dance and sing along during the sessions, which in turn encourages the children to do the same. This has surprised the creative team. Often the experience of similar family sessions is that parents are reluctant to join in and feel quite self-conscious. The sessions at St Chad’s are relaxed, joyful and have a sense of community.