I've got rhythm

19th September 2003 at 01:00

Barefoot on the resonance boards, pupils and adults relax. Diana Hinds visits a school where they let the beat take over

Watching children having fun in their music lesson with resonance boards is nothing compared with joining in yourself. You take off your shoes and socks and stretch your feet out onto the board (a 6ft by 4ft piece of plywood on a low frame ). Then, as the group tap the board in time with their hands, the rhythmic vibrations seep into you.

"Can you feel the tickles?" Hilary Wainer, the teacher, asks the children.

"I can feel it in my legs," says one girl. "It's likeI rhythm."

Sharing and feeling rhythm is the key to Beat That, a musical programme devised by Hilary Wainer and Bobbie Stormont for use in special schools.

This morning, the children enjoying Beat That are five- to eleven-year-olds with severe learning difficulties, at Mabel Prichard school, Littlemore, Oxford. But the programme is also well suited to the needs of children with profound and multiple learning difficulties, from nursery age to 16-plus.

All the music-making begins with a moment of silence. Staff and children, sitting around or sometimes on the board, raise their arms in the air, and bring them slowly down, fingers waggling in readiness. A deep breath, and they are off, fingers rumbling on the board, then palms beating on the board in a magnificent crescendo. The children are open-mouthed with delight, eyes gleaming.

"Stop!" cries Hilary Wainer. In a trice the arms are in the air again, the silence is back.

The children take it in turns to be the one to cry "Stop" - a basic form of conducting. They play a call-and-response game, where Hilary Wainer sings out a child's name and the child calls or sometimes even sings back, playing with the rhythm of their name, while the group keeps the beat going on the resonance board and African drums.

Then one of the children lies down on the board, and the group taps a slow beat, subdivides it (so that it is twice the speed), and subdivides again, gently tapping up and down the length of the child's body as well as on the board, so that the rhythm is literally all around them. The rhythm gradually works its way right inside the child, often inducing a state of deep relaxation, which teachers who have lain on the boards at Hilary Wainer's training sessions say is rather like massage.

For the adults involved in a Beat That session - teachers, learning support assistants, volunteers - this kind of musical work does not look difficult, and nor is it intended to be. All they need to do is feel the beat and enjoy passing it around the group, in a kind of community of rhythm, observing the moments of silence, trying out some call and response.

The chief aim of Beat That is exactly this: to give all special school staff - no matter what their musical background - a means of making music with children.

Hilary Wainer began her career as a music therapist, coming over from South Africa to train at the Nordoff Robbins centre in London, in the days when barely anybody had heard of music therapy. For 14 years, she worked as a teacher and music therapist at special schools in London but, on moving to Oxford seven years ago, she began to evolve a rather different approach.

"There is a kind of mystique around music therapy in special needs schools - and it can be lonely to be in the position of the therapist," she says.

"The rest of the staff may feel excluded and don't really know what's going on. They want to be able to do more music, but don't feel able to - and I am passionate about the need to bridge that gap."

She is now devoting herself full-time to training special school staff in Beat That techniques. Often she encounters initial reluctance. Staff will say to her that they can't do it. "But I believe everyone has music in them. As long as your heart is beating, you have got rhythm in you.

Sometimes people have lost it - but it is recoverable, and there is always something I can give people to take away with them.

"When we were three, we were all singing and dancing people, but by the time we get to 33, many of us have forgotten all about it. It is a case of going back to the memory, learning to pick it up again. The principle of Beat That is that if the adults are having a good time, then the children will join in and start to create sounds."

Anna Panter, nursery teacher at Mabel Prichard school, is already feeling the benefits of the training sessions: "I don't have a musical background, and although I can do ordinary nursery rhymes, I didn't feel very confident about music. Now it all seems much more possible. Beat That has given me the sense that I don't have to feel I'm a musician to do it, and we can let ourselves go. The more we let go, the more the children enjoy it."

Nasen show links

Hilary Wainer workshop: Music for all - supporting children with profound and moderate learning difficulties through music. November 1 at 10.30 am More information about Beat That inservice training from 01865 772213, or www.drum-talk.co.uk

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