Sounds that are sure to resonate

5th April 2013 at 01:00
Children with special needs played Skoogs and Soundbeams at a concert in the Queen's Hall, Edinburgh. Jackie Cosh tuned in

The stage is set in the Queen's Hall in Edinburgh, and the musical instruments are ready to be played. In among the guitar, xylophone and drum lie Skoogs and Soundbeams - music technology that is transforming music teaching in special needs schools.

Today, as part of Resonate, a series of concerts showcasing the talent of young musicians from Edinburgh, children from eight special schools are performing at the Queen's Hall. Working with the city council and Creative Scotland, Drake Music Scotland has been liaising with schools since November. A Drake Music associate has been visiting the schools every week, working with the children and their teachers to prepare for this performance.

All the youngsters have additional support needs, cognitive and physical, and a variety of techniques and technologies are used to accommodate their requirements and give them every opportunity to play.

The Skoog is a colourful squashy cube that can be manipulated to produce five sounds, and allows the children to experience the fun without producing the wrong note. The Soundbeam is an ultrasonic sensor that turns physical movements into musical notes. And Figurenotes offers a way of accessing written notation, using colours and shapes.

These three main approaches have allowed the needs of special schools to be met, says Peter Sparkes, artistic director with Drake Music Scotland. "The children may have different needs, so there is not one approach that works best. They may not be able to hold a guitar or be nimble enough to play the piano, but they can still join in," he says.

Each school has a five- to 10-minute slot in which the children play their piece against a backdrop of their chosen image. They have all chosen an image that has inspired them from the National Gallery of Scotland's online collection. For Woodlands School, this was Samuel John Peploe's The Waves, and a floor tom drum, electrical guitar, tambourine and keyboard are played using Figurenotes, which creates a harmonious euphony.

"We chose the picture together," says Kasia Nieszporek, the Woodlands music teacher. "Today has been fantastic. We have never done this before. It is a great experience (playing here) and a great social experience, meeting the other schools. It is not often special schools get together. The concert has brought a purpose to music, and has been motivating for the children."

Prospect Bank School chose two pictures - Wandering Shadows by Peter Graham, and one they made, called Sheep in a Boat.

"The children knew they wanted to play something Scottish," explains music teacher Wendy Whyte. "For the sheep noises we used the Soundbeams technology. It was wonderful.

"This is the second year we have participated in this initiative. It is great to be in a space like this. Curriculum for Excellence talks about confident individuals. Music can contribute to that. At the moment I am trying to embed music in the rest of the curriculum, to help with sequencing and maths."

The project is funded via the Youth Music Initiative, administered by Creative Scotland, and is in its fourth year of bringing music to special schools in Edinburgh. Each year it has developed and this is the first time they have performed in a public place other than a school.

The organisational challenges are not to be underestimated. Two schools were unable to attend last year's event because of the practical difficulties of getting the children to the venue.

Stevi Mannings, principal officer of arts and learning in Edinburgh's children and families department, says: "This year we introduced Skoogs. We are extremely lucky to have such talented musical instrument creatives in Edinburgh - between Drake and Skoogs, the growth has been fantastic."

The council wants to develop the work with colleagues in special schools and is working on a formula for next year, she says: "Although we are not entirely sure of the shape yet, we plan to push the boundaries and evolve more."

Drake Music would love to get the children playing their pieces at the gallery, in front of the pictures they have chosen. "That would be great," Mr Sparkes says. "We would also love this to be an annual event, celebrating what is going on in special schools. We believe it is important to perform and show what work has been going on in special schools, rather than being hidden away. It shows what they are capable of."

How the skoog works

The Skoog was developed by researchers in the University of Edinburgh's schools of music, physics and psychology as part of a joint project to make music more accessible. The colourful, squeezy cube is sensitive to the slightest touch, yet robust enough to resist strong handling. Technology within its surface is linked to a computer which converts the way the Skoog is touched into the sound of different instruments, such as a flute or trumpet.

Soundbeam is an interactive hardware and software system in which movement within a series of ultrasonic beams is used to control multimedia hardware and software. A very adaptable piece of technology, it can be set up for 10 to 12 notes and has a similar effect to running up and down a piano.

Figurenotes is a way of accessing written notation, using colours and shapes. It was discovered by Brian Cope, previous artistic director of Drake Music, on a trip to Finland. Developed for children with special needs, it also addresses the problem of music literacy in schools and enables children to move on to conventional notation.

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