The Secret To A Great Music Making Session

Dave Darch is an associate musician for Drake Music. He also works as a freelance educator teaching computer programming and music technology from ages 5 upwards. He is Creative Director of A Little Learning and MD of Transformance Music. Here he is writing about his experience working at Eastway Care. |

I’ve been facilitating group music making sessions with disabled and SEN adults at Eastway Care for over 6 months now. We use iPads, guitars, drums and plenty of hand percussion along with singing and actions to break down disabling barriers to music.

In sharing my journey I hope to inspire and give you confidence to start making music with technology in a group setting or perhaps re-evaluate your current sessions and refresh them with some exciting new ideas.


Time flies! It’s hard to believe that it’s been 6 months already since I began working with young people and adults at Eastway Care. After a short summer break it seemed like a good point to reflect on how far we’ve progressed as a group and how I’ve adapted the way I work to meet the needs of the participants.

Where to begin?
In this post I wanted to focus on the Issues and challenges.
This boiled down to two questions:
* What are the existing barriers to music making?
* What needs to be put in place to allow great music making to happen?

During my planning I highlighted the following six areas to focus on:
* Access to suitable/appropriate equipment. Do we have enough to go around?
* Working with every participant as an individual.
* Working with very mixed abilities, both cognitively, physically and musically.
* Pacing the session well and including a wide variety of activities.
* Keeping both staff and participants engaged.
* Keeping it fresh and interesting. As much for me as those taking part!

Picking the Gear

To start with, at least, it’s important to stick with equipment that:
a) is easily accessible
b) is reliable
c) you feel confident using!

My weekly set up comprises of an old Samsung laptop running Windows Xp and Cubase 5, a Sansom USB mic, an M-Audio Trigger Finger midi pad controller, a mono Fostex powered speaker, a couple of X-mini speakers, various cables and adaptors and some lever arch files. (More on these in a later post!) as well as my sac magique of various percussion instruments collected over the years.


Ipad Essentials

Thankfully Eastway Care had already cased their iPads in the superbly rugged Griffin Survivor cases so the next job was to get a good selection of apps on them. I recommended Garageband, Thumbjam, Bloom, Loopseque and Madpad to start with.

These 5 apps are my essential set and I recommend them to all schools and teachers that I work with. Between them they cover a lot of bases from solo playing, to music composition, to abstract soundscape creation and video soundbite remixing – incredibly useful in any group music making session.

Working with Individuals
It takes time to get to know individuals and how they respond to music. Trial and error will reveal their best playing positions. Experimentation and having fun helped me to discover the sounds and instruments that most inspire them to make music.

It’s important to challenge preconceptions held by staff members about what a participant can and can’t do. “Let’s see” is a phrase I find myself using a lot when being told what someone can and can’t do.

I’m pleased to say at Eastway this was never questioned. ‘Positions and patience’ are the key tools in facilitating music making for disabled people. Experimentation with playing positions can yield incredible results, what seemed like a ‘not interested’, after a subtle position change, can result in a very meaningful music making experience.

The Secret To A Great Music Making Session
The support staff!
I work with the same participants each week with support staff rotating. I often repeat the basic session throughout the day and it very quickly becomes clear that, particularly with PMLD and more severe disabilities, support staff really can make or break a session.

When you have energetic, positive enthusiastic support staff their energy and enthusiasm are contagious and the increased enjoyment is clear to see in the participants faces.

It’s important that the staff are confident with how to support the participants to get the best out of them, but also not be afraid to make a fool of themselves…in cases like these I always lead by example! Building up slowly is very important if you want to take staff with you and not leave them behind.

Going Deep
Reflecting on the last six months I found myself re-evaluating my role. I aim to provide access to music making opportunities for the participants and to support them to achieve their personal best through a wide variety of structured musical activities.

However, the support staff are as much a part of the group as the participants. I often make sure that everyone in the room has had their turn playing and being listened to for two reasons:
1. It’s impossible to support someone with a task if you’ve never had a go yourself.
2. It’s fun! A fun, relaxed atmosphere will always bring out the best in anyone.

Keeping it Fresh
Lastly, but given that I’d worked in similar settings before, perhaps the biggest challenge of all; how do I keep it fresh and engaging – not just for those taking part but for myself?

How am I going to inspire and motivate the participants to give everything they’ve got if I’m bored and have run out of ideas?

In the next post I’ll take you through what we’ve achieved together as a group and how we did it. What worked and what clearly didn’t! I’ll share my basic structure for each session and how I swap content in and out to make my life easier but, more importantly, keep things fresh and exciting for those taking part.

Dave Darch


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