Thank you for the music

A music-making initiative using African instruments has brought confidence and joy to the pupils of a school for the severely disabled

Haider normally sits slumped in his wheelchair, looking down on his knees.

The seven-year-old is severely disabled and it takes him a huge amount of effort just to hold his head up. Today, however, he has lifted his face to the world and is even jigging along to the music as he takes part in a school performance.

Haider's enthusiasm is all down to a project his school has been working on through the Youth Music Initiative, a Scottish Executive-funded scheme intended to increase music-making opportunities for youngsters.

Instrumentalists from the authority visited Hyndhead school in Buckhaven, Fife, once a week from October, culminating in a concert that involved every child in December.

In the final performance for parents and families, the pupils went on a musical journey through the jungle, "On Safari", against a backdrop of trees, vines and animal artwork created in class.

In school, each class was introduced to a variety of African instruments, such as carved wooden frogs which make a croaking noise when a stick is rubbed over their serrated backs, and rain-makers - circular drums filled with ball-bearings which sound like falling rain when tipped from side to side.

Pupils at the school, which caters for some of the most disabled children in the area, have blossomed through the project.

Headteacher Agnes Lindsay says: "Haider sat through the concert with his head up and moving to the performance. I was watching his mum and I'm sure she was totally delighted."

Discovering a latent talent can imbue these youngsters with new confidence.

Once shy, 16-year-old Craig used to hide in a corner of the classroom, but through the project he has discovered a natural ability for rhythm. Now he happily plays the bongos in front of friends and family in the local community centre.

But it is not just the pupils who have benefited from the project; it has also provided a valuable opportunity for continuing professional development for the staff.

Hyndhead has six qualified special needs teachers and 17 education assistants, who work with the school's 23 pupils of primary and secondary age. All the pupils have serious disabilities, from cerebral palsy to Angelman syndrome (a chromosome disorder which causes learning disabilities, jerky movements and a tendency to seizures). Others, like Haider, who is confined to a wheelchair and partially sighted, have no offical diagnosis.

Some could only play an instrument hand-over-hand - that is when an education assistant moved their hand for them - but Margot Furness, who is Haider's teacher, is confident that each child took something from the experience. "YMI had instruments completely different from the stuff we have in school and all the kids were absolutely mesmerised," she says.

It is crucial for anyone working with these children to understand each child's needs and capabilities, so YMI came into the school to ensure that everything the teachers were learning was relevant to their particular situation.

"You have to get to know our kids to do anything with them," says Mrs Furness. "Some of them just freak out if a stranger approaches them, so it was great YMI could spend some time here.

"They brought ideas into the classroom. Sometimes you just need someone to say, 'Try this type of music'. We might have used Scottish or pop music before, but it might never have occurred to us to use African or South American music which is particularly good for percussion."

Colleague Morag McGlashan, who teaches the oldest children in the school, says: "There is not an awful lot of CPD that is appropriate to our children, or you have to travel quite far to get it, and getting cover for special needs teachers is almost impossible."

The school is now hoping to build on the success of the project by obtaining some of the African instruments and some CDs to play through the Youth Music Initiative.

Ms McGlashan adds: "So much of these chilren's lives is 'cannot' - not necessarily said by us but by other people - so we always look for what they can do, and through music they can express themselves."


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