Inclusive Music Making – 2 approaches

“I am preparing a music project for young people with additional needs. I am not sure what to expect, what success looks like, or how to plan sessions. I have heard that music technology works well in these settings, but what kind, and how?  Guidance required.”

Piloting Drake Music’s new ‘Inclusion & Music Tech in Practice’ training, it seems that many attendees are in the above situation.

I look around the room, see a wealth of talented practitioners, and know that after half a dozen or so sessions the vast majority will have dropped into the flow of this work, adapted some of their existing approaches and processes, adopted some new ones, and generally be having a wonderful time.

This is because the fundamental skills required to facilitate in ‘inclusive’ settings are the same as those in both the mainstream classroom and the rehearsal room – passion, strong musicianship, open and honest communication, a sense of humour and an appetite for constant improvement.

However, there are also approaches and techniques that work particularly well in inclusive settings. Below are two fundamental approaches that most of us do anyway/become obvious pretty quickly, but are nevertheless worth stating, followed by some more specific tips.

Please do add your own in the comments.

Approaches to being inclusive

1 – Fit the instrument to the musician, not the musician to the instrument

Inclusion is about engagement. So the first thing to do is find the thing that grabs the pupil, brings energy into their eyes.  The next step is to offer whatever scaffolding is needed for them to succeed  – to compose, improvise, perform, dance to and publish music that they are proud of.

This can begin with instrument choice.

We can evaluate potential instruments against three criteria:

  • Physical – What movement is needed to play and perceive it
  • Cognitive – How quickly can a pleasing sound be achieved? How much scope is there for development?
  • Emotional – Is the process and result enjoyable? Can it play the genre/style of music desired by the participants? Is it the right volume? Does it relax or energise?

Some instruments can be adapted – a guitar can be open-tuned, notes can be taken off a marimba, quiet voices can be amplified with microphones.

The instrument that perhaps stands up the best to these tests is the human voice – most people can (with a little encouragement) sing a tune, and much of the music that we love features the voice.

However, in inclusive settings I have found the iPad to be the instrument that unlocks participants’ creativity most readily.

It requires minimal physical movement and doesn’t require the player to be able to play in time, understand music theory, or have speech. It allows the user to compose and perform music in just about any genre. Importantly, many of the apps are available on the participants’ own phones, offering a strong legacy.

Apps I often use in sessions include Thumbjam, Garageband, Loopseque and Blocs Wave. Additional suggestions most welcome!

A man plays iPad using his breath

2 – Be open to new ways of communicating

Spoken language can often be an exclusive form of communication.

It requires a certain level of hearing, vocabulary, cognition, patience. We are so used to communicating using words, it can sometimes take a moment to remember alternatives. Fortunately, as musicians, we are all experts in communicating through music.

By playing my clarinet or moving my body, I can say such things as ‘I give permission to be silly’ and ‘time to calm down’ and ‘I like your melody so much that I am going to play it too!’.

Likewise, our participants may communicate in unconventional ways.

Some need close physical proximity and eye contact to know that you are speaking to them; for others this would be too much. Some pupils find it easier to answer closed questions, others use makaton or a communication device. Some will seem to be completely ignoring everything that is going on, then produce something incredible at the end of the session.

Physical restlessness is often communicating: ‘I need to move my body!’. My colleague Peter worked with a pupil who was much more ready to learn once he had discovered what Peter’s bald head tasted like.

The trick is to not make assumptions, be present and relaxed enough to observe and tune in to each participant, to give plenty of time and, if in doubt, ask someone who knows the participant well.

How do you communicate? How do you recognise the communication styles of others?

Up next

The next post offers 22 practical tips towards top notch inclusive sessions.


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