I recently finished delivering a series of Ramp It Up! Sessions at Pictor School in Timperley, alongside fellow Associate Musician Mike Heath.
The school itself was very welcoming, and the staff unanimously positive and enthusiastic; a factor which always helps massively in the delivery of our sessions, to the benefit of the children.
One element of our sessions at the school stuck out to me, and got me thinking about our work both at Pictor and in other settings – namely, the choice of room for session delivery.
Firstly, it is worth pointing out that saying ‘the choice of room’ isn’t necessarily accurate. Due to various factors: size of school; timetabling; size of groups; available equipment and facilities; and health and safety considerations, there is sometimes no choice in which space will be used for music sessions. Often a space will be allocated, and you have to make the best of it, adapting to the pros and cons as you go.
The room we were allocated at Pictor School was the Sensory Room; a fairly small room with small, blacked-out windows, padded seating along the sides, mirrors on some of the walls, various items of equipment for sensory exploration (bubble tube, multi-textured wall-mounted unit, bean bags, coloured rubber cables), as well as a recently installed ceiling-mounted interactive projector system, that projected games and some instruments onto the white floor, which would then respond to the participants’ movements. The lighting in the room was a combination of a fairly dim main light, and a set of lights that could cycle through a number of different colours, but which could be held on a particular colour.
My initial concern was that the room would be too small. Knowing that one of our groups would consist of 8 children (alongside up to 4 staff members and the two of us), it was clear that it would be quite a squeeze. Based on previous experience of working in classrooms, in which we could adopt a more ‘free-form’ session featuring the children splitting into sub-groups (see http://www.drakemusic.org/blog/jon/reflections-on-4-aspects-of-music-session-delivery/), it was also apparent that this model of session would not be possible in this space. However, necessity is the mother of invention, and by having certain decisions made for us by the setting, this immediately helped to inform the plans for the sessions, and prompt us to come up with methods to fit the room.
Within the first couple of sessions, certain challenges became apparent. Many of the children were used to coming to the Sensory Room for specific activities, and so for this routine to suddenly change was unsettling for some. This would have been the case in any room, and settled down over the first few weeks, as they got used to the new routine, and we aided this transition by making our sessions follow a set, familiar pattern (Hello Song, certain activities in a set order, Goodbye Song).
Some of the children were also distracted by some of the features of the room (which are designed to be stimulating to the senses), and the mirrors on the walls were particularly mesmerising for certain children. We overcame this by covering up the room’s features as much as possible, to provide more of a blank space, and using the most natural light setting. Certain features, such as the mirrors, couldn’t be covered, and so we had to endeavour to keep the children as focused on our activities as we could.
Certain aspects of the room also ended up working in our favour. The floor projector system gave the option of a large-scale interactive glockenspiel, which the children really enjoyed, and which we used on a number of occasions – linking it with the other activities in the session.
In certain instances, the otherwise distracting sensory items also proved helpful. For example, one child was much more able to focus when he was holding one of the coloured rubber cables attached to the wall. This is something we wouldn’t have discovered if we had been in an empty room.
The size of the room also ending up working well for the groups. Due to the size and space, we had chosen to deliver the sessions sat in a circle, singing songs with actions, and with instrumental activities introduced one by one and passed around the circle, with each child having their turn while others watched and listened.
The smaller room size necessitated quite a tight circle, which in this instance really helped the children to focus on the activities and to listen to each other. It also helped with order and turn-taking, which was particularly important to some of the children. School staff were able to sit behind certain children to help keep them focused and settled.
In an ideal world you would be able to choose a room that was the perfect size, shape and location, and with the most suitable décor and lighting for the chosen activities and for the needs of the participants with which you work. However in reality, this is not possible, and this limitation actually has the benefit of making you think more deeply about the physical context of the sessions and activities; how this will impact upon the participants; and how you can tailor sessions to provide the maximum focus and benefit in the circumstances. Also, sometimes aspects of a setting that you would otherwise not have chosen can turn out to be unexpectedly useful.
This, of course, is all made easier by close, and enthusiastic, input from the school staff, who are the best placed to understand the individual participants’ specific needs, and how this can be best achieved within their building. A situation which we were happy to find at Pictor School.