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Tap into musical basics

Carolyn O'Grady observes an inventive sound session

At St Ann's special school in Ealing for children with severe and profound and multiple learning difficulties the students and staff are making music. Seven young people and the same number of teachers and support assistants are ranged round a wooden board, called a resonance board, on the floor in the middle of the room. Individual students respond very differently to this situation. A girl bangs exuberantly with her palms on the board while making a loud, rhythmic whooping noise. A very shy boy taps it quietly with one finger. Some lie on the board to feel the vibrations.

The purpose of the music course, held one day a week for five weeks and attended by different sets of students, is to train the teachers in Soundabout techniques and the use of low-tech equipment such as the resonance board and drums. Some of the later sessions will be devoted to using Soundbeam, an ultrasonic beam that enables very disabled children to control music from a synthesiser or other piece of electronic equipment with, say, the nod of a head or movement of a finger.

Based at Ormerod school in Oxford, Soundabout is an independent charity working throughout the UK. It employs teachers to visit special schools and other special needs settings to give staff ideas for music-making.

"We take music back to its basics; any sound can be used and a sort of order is created," says Soundabout director, Ann Brown. "The point is to give access to music to people who can't access it in the usual way. Staff as well as children can be quite intimidated by music. We make it easy."

St Ann's pupils are aged 12 to 19. The school has put as many teachers and support assistants through the course as possible, says headteacher Marnie Hughes. "We hope it will have a major input into a lot of areas, including literacy, numeracy, communication, motor skills and PSHE as well as music. Staff will use the session to reach targets they have on their pupils' individual education plans."

The school's staff are expected to do more than just observe, says Soundabout teacher Sue Simmonds. They begin by trying out various sounds and rhythms, for example beating out their names softly or loudly with their fingers or with their whole hand, and then tapping out sentences such as "Lee is lying on the board"; "Rashda is kneeling". St Ann's staff contribute their own ideas for music-making and suggest how individual children can participate.

Props include scarves that are placed over students' faces while Sue and other staff make noises, for example squeezing a wire sponge or banging on radiators; and drums with which the pupils beat out simple beats, sometimes clapping and drumming alternatively.

Sue Simmonds is careful to include everyone, encouraging one child to bang he drum with his feet as he cannot manage it with his arms. When the noise builds up, she introduces a quieter exercise: each child in turn is asked to create a sound that is copied by the rest: whether a small, timid tap on the board, or a banging accompanied by a full-throated whoop. She often uses the students' own sounds as a starting point.

"A most important aspect of Soundabout is the silences," she says, "which give you time to observe even the smallest input. During silences children often make a contribution like a squeak or a whoop. This can be picked up: it can stand alone, be repeated like dialogue, repeated as a group or put into a rhythm."

One session during the day is for children with profound and multiple learning difficulties. Four students all in wheelchairs are lowered on to the board or near it in hoists. Sue Simmonds starts drumming and calling out names in time to the rhythm. She then calls out names in turn, purposely missing out one pupil's name. They notice and wait expectantly to be included, which they are. Throughout the session students show enjoyment and more alertness than before; they are engaged.

The charity is expanding. "We aim to raise the profile of musical education, particularly in special needs," says Ann Brown. "Eventually we hope to set up regional offices, for example, in Wales and Devon, and to get into teacher training. The idea is that teachers will be trained in colleges and will know the techniques when they start teaching. We want to do ourselves out of a job."

* Soundabout will be holding a conference, "Once Upon a Sound" on May 3 at the Cricket Road Centre in Oxford, focusing on Soundabout techniques. Telfax: 01865 744175.E-Mail:


Name pattern: tapclap to the rhythm of a child's name

Whose name is this?: repeat rhythm of names without voice

Tambourine wriggle: all hold hands; staff member shakes tambourine; says start, stop, wait, start, etc, until children get the idea. Everyone wriggles when he or she plays. Long silent pauses between each wriggle heighten listening powers and anticipation

Hide and find: tap and hum a tune such as "Drunken Sailor"; cover all the children on the board with fabric; raise and lower the fabric on "up she rises"

Getting faster: everyone drums on the resonance board and chants "getting faster". Drum faster and faster and stop suddenly

Quietly: tap and chant quietly in three-time very softly. Similar exercises can be done with "loudly"; "quickly" and "slowly"

Swing updown: hold child's hands or legs and swing updown. The aim is to enable the child to experience physically "up-ness" and "down-ness". You can also go round and round, and introduce different pitches - high sound for up and low for down.

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