The Pied Piper comes to town

18th January 2008 at 00:00
Music therapist Nigel Osborne transforms the lives of children around the world. Elizabeth Buie watched him in action.

Gareth has been diagnosed as deaf as well as profoundly autistic. But he can hear perfectly well when he wants to, as his teachers at Redburn School in Cumbernauld can attest. He has simply been enclosed in his own world - until, that is, he was given the chance to work with a team under the direction of Nigel Osborne, Reid Professor of Music at Edinburgh University. The team is investigating the role of music and dance therapy for children with special needs.

There was a time when Gareth would not engage with anyone bar his family; there would be no eye contact or communication. But today, he is happy to demonstrate to an audience his dance improvised with Charan Pradhan, a professional dancer from Nepal who specialises in working with children and adults with additional support needs.

On the day of the performance, Sue Dodds, a consultant in music for special education with North Lanarkshire Council, is at the keyboards and Professor Osborne is playing the violin. The music starts slowly, evoking eastern European folk music - not surprisingly, since Professor Osborne has worked for many years with the child victims of the Bosnian conflict.

Gareth sits at the side of the hall while Charan makes a game of taking off his socks in time to the music - this, to a boy who not so long ago could not bear to be touched. The music begins to swirl and the two dancers embark on their ballet. The boy that doctors said could not hear follows the twists and turns of the melody, pausing as the tune shifts, changing direction in parallel with the pattern of notes. Gareth has eyes only for Charan as he follows him across the room; the music slows and Charan carries out a lift, balancing the boy on his back, then his shoulders. The trust between them is infinite.

Charan has been working intensively with two small groups of pupils at Redburn and Mavisbank special schools for more than a year. The other children do not have Gareth's physical mobility and are dependent on a special mobile hoist attached to steel bars across the ceiling. It gives them access to a world of independent movement that most able-bodied children take for granted, but to them is nothing short of a physical release.

Former actress Dee Hepburn, famous for her appearance in the Bill Forsyth film Gregory's Girl, has played a large part in giving the children access to the hoist equipment. She works for Swedish company Liko, usually supplying its equipment to schools and hospitals. But when she saw the standalone static hoists used in Redburn and Mavisbank for dance therapy, she realised the difference access to the larger, moveable equipment could make.

A phone call from Dee to Liko's managing director persuaded her to fly over to Scotland. After watching Charan working with the children for an afternoon, she was moved to tears and decided on the spot to subsidise the installation. It cost pound;7,000 to put the supporting beam into the sports hall of Redburn and pound;5,000 to buy the hoist. The school paid for the first month's costs, Liko the subsequent 14 months.

Dee likens the reaction of a disabled child, when first placed in the harness and given the freedom to move, to a baby's first experience of a baby-bouncer - when realisation dawns that by touching its foot on the ground it can spin itself round.

She would like to see children with mobility problems given greater access to such equipment - in classrooms and in their homes. "I have a daughter who dances around her room to pop music. There's no reason why that should not happen to another wee girl," she says.

Mobility is, to an extent, a side issue in this action research. Its main focus is to investigate the impact of various aspects of experimental music therapy and how it can help Professor Osborne and his team develop a new musical instrument for people with special needs or, indeed, anyone else.

Four local authorities are taking part in the programme supported by the Tapestry Learning partnership and the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (to the tune of pound;195,000). In North Lanarkshire, the focus is on dance and musical expression. North and East Ayrshire and Fife focus on different aspects of music therapy research, including movement and music underwater. The work of all four will feed into the development of the instrument, which will use a combination of sensors linked to hand or eye movement and computer technology.

For the children who attend Redburn and Mavisbank in Airdrie, the initiative means entry to a new world. It has also given them a chance to share music and movement with pupils from the mainstream schools of Kirkshaws and Kilburn primaries.

At Redburn, wheelchair-bound Ross has had the chance to marry his love of kung-fu with music; Chelsea and Megan wear their pink net ballet overskirts and swirl and tap to the rhythms.

At Mavisbank, Douglas has a chance to be a leader when otherwise he would not. He is "tactile-defensive", which means he is generally unwilling to have anyone touch him. But through his relationship with Charan, he now allows the dancer and the Kirkshaws children to touch him.

He begins his dance in his wheelchair, being spun round by Charan; he whoops with delight and squeals with laughter at the sheer joy of movement. Then he is lifted onto the floor where he sits, surrounded by the Kirkshaws children. The music starts, and he's off again, like a greyhound out of a trap. All the children are on the floor; Douglas is leading the dance. The others shuffle after him in pursuit, unobtrusively sliding between him and the walls to protect him. The music fades and Douglas is wheeled out of the room; he cries.

Teenager Siobhan arrives. Professor Osborne, violin to chin, serenades her: "How are you, Siobhan, on this beautiful morning?" She responds with a smile. As he plays, she starts to clap her hands in time, her eyes shining. With her Kirkshaws Primary partners, she dances; Charan lowers the hoist and guides her feet to the ground, allowing her to step in time to the music.

Each week the music changes, Ms Dodds explains. This week she may be playing something that would grace a Balkan family party; the previous week she played the blues for the girls. It's improvised according to people's moods, but over time the dance has become a little bit choreographed. The key element is that it is improvised; it is live, spontaneous and intuitive. Taped music or recordings would not have the same effect on the children. It's about relationships and music, she stresses.

The experience has also made the mainstream pupils rounder human beings. "They will be an asset to the human race when they grow up - they have a deeper understanding now," says Ms Dodds. "It's a leveller. They find that the children with support needs can do things that they can't and they also realise that to achieve a small movement, the other children have to work much harder."

Rona Logan, the headteacher of Redburn, has seen an increase in the pupils' ability to communicate and in their confidence and independence since they began the programme nearly two years ago. At that time, 20-plus children were involved, but Professor Osborne reduced the cohort to six so he could plot the level of interaction and the children's willingness to interact.

From the researchers' perspective, Professor Osborne says they have learnt new things and confirmed others.

"We have learnt that we really do have to look, as we suspected, at a wide range of interactions for the instrument," he says. "And we have confirmed the power of music to inspire and produce movement, and also to relax and help interaction. It is nice to see that confirmed and developed - and to see new ways of doing it through people like Charan."



Hillside School: live and recorded music is diffused through a quadraphonic speaker system, linked to light displays for sensory stimulation, to pupils in the swimming pool. The aim is to investigate how music helps relaxation and expressive movement.

The research is also focusing on the links between music and tactile stimulation - including massage, bamboo chimes, air streams from wind instruments, vibration from drums and electronically-induced surface vibration.

Witchhill School: the research focuses on children with profound physical and learning difficulties. It includes the development of an electronic djembe for a child with multiple difficulties, including cerebral palsy, but some vertical movement in the left hand and a love of drumming. Another instrument has been built from a mirror for a child with limited awareness who enjoys seeing her reflection. A camera in front of the mirror tracks her movements and triggers music according to how she moves her face and eyes. These instruments could help with the development of control interfaces for the musical instrument which Professor Osborne and his team are developing.


Stonecastle School's work is directed towards the needs of a small class of P5s, using a number of instruments and activities designed to develop fine and gross motor skills, communication and sensory stimulation. One instrument uses a type of dough as a control mechanism - the plan is to construct an instrument with sensors embedded in a safe material with high plasticity and manipulability, which trigger different sounds in response to different expressive movements.


Robert Henryson School has three action research strands.

Work is being done with a small number of nursery and P1 pupils who have profound difficulties, to develop musical "toys" that are attractive, so children will reach out to them and be rewarded with a range of sounds. These may become adjuncts to the main instrument the team is designing.

Underwater speakers are being installed in the swimming pool to allow children to relax and be stimulated by hearing the music and feeling the sound vibrations. Music therapy for a profoundly autistic child is being investigated in and out of the water.

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