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HMDT – Music Treehouse – broadening inclusion and providing a community

This piece has been shared with us and written by Senior Music Manager at HMDT, Rebecca Redfern

Music Treehouse is Hackney Music Development Trust’s (HMDT) project for SEN/D young people with a wide spectrum of needs, which takes place as part of its Saturday programme in Hackney. Launched in 2016 and free to participants, Music Treehouse enables students to to participate in creative music-making enabling us to broaden our inclusion to students who are often isolated and overlooked outside the school environment. Now in its second year, Music Treehouse (MT) has 40 students, many of whom are isolated and struggle with issues around communication and interaction, have profound autism, difficulties with mental and emotional health and sensory and physical disabilities, for whom it provides a fun, secure, environment. The project helps them learn and practice vital life skills, develop their musical skills, confidence and well-being: a rare opportunity and lifeline for many parents.

HMDT Music’s Saturday Programme which has been running since 1995, has a thriving and supportive community spirit with parents and students from across all programmes forming new friendship groups. The Programme is a place for families to meet other families in similar situations over coffee and cakes in our tuckshop. Similarly, MT students can both socialise with their group, and with the other students at the Programme. This social aspect is hugely beneficial to Music Treehouse families’ wellbeing, with HMDT Music staff always finding time for those who need a helping hand.

“Music Treehouse provides a fun, secure, environment where children can learn and practice vital life skills, and a safe environment in which to develop their confidence and wellbeing”. (MT staff.)

Music Treehouse has two strands:

Branch 1 is for students who are still in mainstream education but who need 1:1 or 1:3 support, and who would normally therefore struggle with the group atmosphere of our Saturday Programme. Being a small charity, we have previously been unable to integrate students who need 1:1 support. Ongoing CPD sessions for the tutors at the mainstream SP programme, have meant that with the support of specialist TAs, students can now be integrated and included in the programme, in a way that is beneficial to them. We have students with high functioning ASD, aspergers, hearing and sight loss as well as other specific learning disabilities. Liaising with the teachers, the TAs tailor each class to the specific needs of the child, and ensure that all activities are accessible, meaning that students can remain in the class, and when needed, they have the support with them to find their own path.

Branch 2 is for students with severe, profound and multiple learning difficulties, including those with ASD and physical disabilities who are unable to access the mainstream programmes. MT Branch 2 is about interaction, and basing the learning around the students, rather than the students learning a set curriculum as they do in Branch 1. Assisted by a specialist team, headed by Jason Rowland with musicians from leading orchestras, they learn to play and interact through creative music composition creating personal, and intricate pieces of music. For those students for whom joining a group is difficult, we have a Music Therapist on hand for 1:1 sessions, with the aspiration of helping them in time, gain the skills and confidence to join the main groups.

At the end of each afternoon, the team meeting is used to assess the day and create action points for individuals and groups through their Individual Learning Plans. Having this time for communication means that our team is able to cater for and respond to our students more effectively, and can share ideas leading to us seeing huge improvements in our students’ concentration, confidence and ability to engage.

“Staff are helpful and polite to all involved in the group (parents and students). A happy environment for children to learn and have fun. Children look forward to attending class.” (Parents of MT participant.)

What have we learnt?

Experience has always taught us that the key to a successful project is flexibility and the ability to react to students’ needs in any particular situation, and this has proven to be the case. Due to the nature of the programme, attendance can be inconsistent, and so as a result there have been occasions when we have had to redesign the programme slightly for one day, and work more intensively with a group of children.

The unusual methodology of including Music Therapy sessions in a ‘project’ set up, can be really beneficial. This way of utilising Music Therapy is very different to the ‘normal’ practice where therapists work with the same pupil for a significant and extended period of time, but is showing fantastic results, most likely because for most students, the Music Therapy sessions are coupled with the group compositional sessions.

Where next?

Currently MT Branch 2, has 33 secondary school aged students in 3 different ability groups. Since starting the project, and seeing its huge popularity, we have become very aware of the need for additional classes that take students right up from the Early Years through Primary School. We are hopeful that in the future we will be able to meet that demand.

In Spring 2018, with support from Snape Maltings through the Friday Afternoons project fund, we are piloting a joint MT / CYMH creative ensemble to enable the two instrumental streams of the Saturday Programme to work together. If this is successful, we will look to develop this ensemble in Autumn 2018.

Programmes such as Music Treehouse are extremely expensive to run – the resources, both in terms of expertise and equipment, and the logistics of physically getting students to the programme, are very demanding. However, in equal measure, the rewards are just as great. Seeing a student’s face and the pride that they feel when they have the ability to make music is simply exhilarating and the health benefits of the sensory and kinesthetic nature of music cannot be underestimated. For the team also, when you see a student making a major communication breakthrough, such as a period of sustained eye contact, the feeling is indescribable.

We are immensely grateful to our funders Youth Music, Children in Need, and private donors for making Music Treehouse possible. We are however always searching for additional sources of funding to help sustain and develop this programme. If you think you, or your company could help, please do get in touch – either by phone: 020 8882 8825 or by email For more information, please see Hackney Music’s Development Trust’s website:

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