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Sound Connections Challenging Circumstances 2013 Seminar

The Sound Connections Challenging Circumstances 2013 seminar brought together practitioners and innovators from across the UK at Amnesty International in October to explore the empowerment of children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities through music.

Produced with the support of our Challenging Circumstances Network of expert musicians, the sold out event saw contributions from leading voices in the field. Network member Roshi Nasehi explains why the conversations started here are so crucial:

I arrived at the Amnesty International Building to a pretty packed and queued up Challenging Circumstances Seminar. Indeed the event was sold out and attended by many different representatives of the field. After a brief introduction in the morning by CC network member and technology expert Gawain Hewitt, Nigel Osborne gave the keynote speech based on his prolific career. Nigel is a larger than life, charismatic figure and a pioneer of therapeutic music methods to support children who are victims of conflict. His huge body of work includes extensive projects in former Yugoslavia in association with the charity War Child and it was interesting to hear about his career trajectory. He asserted very strongly that placement and practice based research and development opportunities were integral to his evolution as a music leader and that these opportunities arose because he was “coming into his own” in the 70s, where flexible work arrangements were possible. Within the many film clip examples of his work, there was wonderful footage of a collaboration with a movement therapist which saw young wheel chair users out of their chairs, whizzing around joyfully on a sling, interacting with the musics taking place through their voices, breath and bodies. He is such a charismatic figure that I had a few moments of wondering if the projects might have relied on the force of his personality (rather than through systems being put in place) and he was honest about the dichotomy of being a West European outsider in post-conflict and post-colonial parts of the world. However, despite these (perhaps inevitable) issues, there is no doubt about his deep commitment and importance in the field and the benefit his work has brought to many vulnerable children.

Nigel has also embraced the use of technology and helped create Skoog: an attractive though high end piece of kit that facilitates playing along and improvising to music using a very tactile colourful box. The whole event was sponsored by Skoog and Ben Schogler, Skoog’s co-inventor, gave more detailed presentations of the apparatus, which can be pre-programmed to play a wide range of sounds in pentatonic patterns. The record function is also nicely laid out with the different tracks matching the different colours on the box (effectively turning the device into a sampler). Gawain, whose many appointments include Drake Music, also explored working with music technology in his sessions, which were so booked up in advance that I couldn’t attend. This is a good sign as for people with restricted mobility, sensory impairment and other difficulties, a variety of technological approaches including iPads, pedals and Skoog undoubtedly enable a level of creative engagement and expression that is otherwise inaccessible. Through these mediums, small physical or vocal gestures and gentle touch allow for exciting sonic interactions and it’s exciting to see a rising interest from practitioners and organisations alike.

One of the highlights for me was Adam Ockelford’s Sounds Of Intent session: a frankly beautifully put together framework for evaluating musical work for children with a variety of SEN, which lends itself to reflective and reflexive practice. The framework is the result of thorough groundbreaking research into how children with SEN experience and engage with music and the analysis has been informed by data ascribed to early musical development. The resource, which is particularly excellent for those working long term with the same group, can be used alongside government SEN assessment requirements (P levels) as a correlation has been made between the two, by the Sounds Of Intent team via comparative studies. It has to be said that set against Sounds Of Intent, P levels were found to have “omissions, errors and material that does not relate directly to musical skills” which further illustrates the benefit of this specifically designed framework entirely informed by children’s musical engagement and development.

The presentations and discussions in the morning were really brought to life after lunch with a performance from H.BAM!, a group of young musicians with learning and social disabilities led by Tina Pinder. H-Bam was created by Tina’s organisation KimNara Music with support from the Sound Connections Innovate Programme. The group attends the sessions each week without family members or carers and the emphasis is on their own project steering. Not only did they sing, MC (and in one case play drums) in their own original songs with passion and confidence, they also completely held their own in the spontaneous Q&A afterwards. When being asked by an audience member “where did the songs come from?” One member of the group said, “we wrote them, they came from our brains”.

This and other comments, not to mention their buzzing, energetic performance, really reinforced that this group are first and foremost bright, sparky, young people who have the same passions, interests and concerns as many other young people. I don’t want to come across as glib about the very real difficulties they may experience and no doubt a project like Tina’s supports them a lot, but they are in essence young people full of promise, ideas and ambitions and this needs to be recognised.

It is fitting that renowned community musician and trainer Phil Mullen followed the performance with a very pertinent question to the panel at the start of the afternoon discussion: “why aren’t musical performances like this, led by young people with learning disabilities, happening more regularly?” Both Ben Schogler and specialist teacher Carrie Lenard offered encouraging tips for individual practitioners to put their own events on, but it was musician/facilitator and occasional Blockheads member John Kelly’s passionate response to this (and indeed many other questions) that had the most resonance for me… “The first step is admitting there is a problem” … “ We need to expect and demand more” … “ We need to have a vision”. John doesn’t like the term role model but undeniably he is one and I’ve already admitted to him that often when he speaks I kind of want to punch the air (stadium rock style).

The discussion went on. I added that people with disabilities are so under-represented in government, the education sector and in the music industry and we need to promote a disability-led voice. Another renowned musician and trainer Graham Dowdall agreed but added that we need to avoid “ghetto-ising” Disability Arts. Both John and Carrie reinforced this, expressing that there are times when cultural self-assertion is needed (as has been demonstrated by the women’s movement and gay pride) but it’s also important to have moments where we are all just people making music together and relishing the sheer joy of that. The discussion continued. The difficulty of government cuts and the need for schools, hubs and practitioners to form an alliance came up over several questions from people representing different parts of the field. There was a real feeling of consensus on this, which was summed up by Matt Griffiths Youth Music CEO expressing his support for “more alliance and more advocacy”.

The discussion went on and indeed still needs to go on but as John Kelly said “we are all catalysts for change” so perhaps our response to the seminar should be to collaborate even further. To journalise our work, blog and tweet about it, where appropriate invite people (including community leaders, local government and MPs) to come and watch our performances, unionise via SoundSense and contribute to their magazine. If you’re reading this, you are probably part of sound connections’ amazing community already and excited by the possibility of “more alliance and more advocacy”. There is much progress to be made but I came away from the seminar wanting to build on the things that had come out of the day and with a renewed and enhanced sense of purpose about working in this incredible field.

We’re pleased to announce that following the success of the seminar, Youth Music have set up a new group on the Youth Music Network. Continue the conversation here:



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