Having just completed my first RAMP It Up! course as an Associate Musician, here are some thoughts and reflections on the experience from a first-timer. The RAMP took place at Springwood Heath School, Liverpool, and Fil Hill was the Lead Musician.
Springwood Heath is a fully inclusive school, catering for children between the ages of three and eleven, with facilities and resources to cater for children with a variety of needs, particularly those with mobility issues.
For this course we were working with a group of 4, a group of 3, and 1 child on her own. All were aged between 6 and 10.
My first impressions were how amazing the school is. Not only is it very well equipped and designed, but, even more importantly, the staff are very enthusiastic and supportive, and were entering into the course without cynicism or suspicion, which I believe is absolutely vital to creating a positive and successful experience. The school had also agreed to small groups which also helped massively in being able to give lots of time and attention to each participant. All of the staff who assisted at sessions seemed to really understand the approach – allowing the children to explore the equipment and sounds for themselves without unnecessary intervention – and in particular the school’s IT Technician, Alan Holland, was fantastic. Present at every session, preparing equipment and rooms ahead of time, exploring the possibilities of the equipment, coming up with ideas, constant encouragement and praise for the children, delivering one-to-one sessions with the children between our visits, documenting the process and producing leaflets and displays for parents and other children, his input was invaluable. While this was my first RAMP, I can still appreciate how much easier Alan made the delivery of this course, and I believe that he will be instrumental in Springwood Heath continuing to provide access to music using AMT.
Likewise, I found working alongside Fil Hill equally positive. Fil’s technical know-how made the sessions flow smoothly, allowing us to concentrate fully on letting the children explore the sounds at their disposal.
Ellie records a drum part
I began the sessions with certain assumptions about what we would be hoping to achieve, and what outcomes we should be expecting for a ‘successful’ course. I assumed that we would be aiming for the children to understand certain concepts of music theory; to begin to play melodies, or specific rhythms; to understand something of musical styles or genres; at the least to take turns in their playing and to play to a discernible pulse. While most of the participants did show development in at least some of these areas, I quickly began to understand that these were not the (only) signifiers that would indicate successful engagement and development that would lead to an increased feeling of creativity and accomplishment.
As the sessions progressed it began to become apparent for each child what they were capable of, what areas would be best to challenge and stretch them, and what instruments or equipment would best suit them. In all cases the children themselves chose these instruments, intuitively, through being allowed to explore and play. It then became apparent in what ways these instruments were helping each child to develop certain aspects of their ability, whether through a physical challenge which they were overcoming, or through an increase in confidence or communication. Having members of school staff present in the sessions was particularly useful in this regard, as they were able to recognise developments in individual children that we would easily have missed, but which were significant when compared to the child’s normal behaviour outside of these music sessions.
There were numerous examples over the 10 week course, but here are some key examples to illustrate the point:
Ellie: Ellie was the oldest of the participants, and the most obviously musically capable. Incredibly bright, she took on suggestions immediately and would try to incorporate them into her playing. Ellie was able to multi-task, playing the iPad as well as triggering multiple switches, but had certain physical challenges that made accuracy tricky for her at times.
During one of the sessions, Fil explained the concept of intervals to Ellie – 3rds and 5ths. Ellie immediately worked out a way to use her hand to play these intervals on the iPad, and in that moment progressed from playing melodically to playing harmonically. This was a skill she then carried into other aspects of the piece (such as the backing music she recorded onto one of her switches), and I’m confident that the use of intervals is now part of her musical language.
Ellie playing intervals on the iPad
One of our groups comprised Baber, Louis, Ella-May and Tanika, and this group really felt like a proper band, where each member found their particular skill, and these skills fitted together very nicely. This concept of each child having their own area of expertise is important for a sense of ownership over their own creativity.
Baber, who has extremely limited movement, found that his arm support allowed him to play the Sound Beam with incredible accuracy and skill. While some of the other children were keen to play on the iPad, Baber was happy to stay with the Soundbeam every week, developing his playing, learning how to play long, solid notes, and finding the precise points between notes to allow greater accuracy in his playing. Fil remarked that Baber was one of the most natural Soundbeam players he had ever come across.
Baber playing the Soundbeam
Louis – a really fun and lively child – was naturally drawn to the drums, both triggering electronic drum beats and playing real drums with beaters. Working in this area seemed to give Louis a particular focus, channeling his energy into playing at specific times (and also helping the other players to remember when they should be playing!)
Louis playing the drums
Tanika was a great example of how some really focused time and attention can really help with creative development and communication. Quite shy in initial sessions, it was after Alan Holland did a one-to-one session with her on the iPad between visits that her creative confidence really grew, and from that point she was much more musically decisive, playing with real thoughfulness and telling us clearly what sounds she wanted to use.
Ella-May was another example of how confidence can be boosted by taking creative control. Adept at a number of different instruments, and a particularly good turn-taker, we were told that the usually quiet and reserved Ella-May, upon returning to class, had shouted out ‘I’ve just done music!’
Tanika playing the iPad, with Ella-May on drums
Our third group comprised Andrew, Lincoln and Faye.
Andrew, like Ella-May, displayed an ever-increasing confidence in sessions. We were told that in class he was usually very reserved and quiet, but over the weeks he started to master his switches and Soundbeam, and by the point of the performance was notably vocal and was full of laughs and smiles.
Andrew controlling his switches
Lincoln, like Ellie, showed an ability to work out solutions to physical challenges. Struggling with some aspects of physical accuracy, Lincoln found a way to multi-task while performing, with a switch lined up directly next to his iPad, allowing him to swipe the iPad screen and then immediately trigger his switch.
Lincoln showing his iPad/switch configuration
Faye displayed quite striking developments in both confidence and physicality. Known to be withdrawn in class, we found that very quickly in music sessions Faye was very vocal, laughing and making suggestions. After learning a new skill she would high 5 us all! Physically, staff had been struggling to get Faye to point with her finger – something she seemingly hadn’t been able to do. When introduced to the iPad in the RAMP sessions, Faye quickly learned that the best way to play on Thumbjam is with a pointy finger – which she immediately did.
Faye using her pointing finger
The performance was a nice conclusion to the course in that it gave an opportunity for the parents and staff to see what the children had been doing, and also for the different groups to see each other. Although the real developments had taken place in the sessions (and will hopefully continue to take place into the future), the performance was real chance to focus on the performers and to celebrate the work they’d put in – and they all seemed to particularly enjoy it. The concert took place in Tom’s Space, a multi-sensory room in the school which allowed the children to pick their own lighting and backdrop for their pieces (one of the groups had taken space as a starting point, the other had chosen water).
In reflecting on the experience, there were two points that particularly stayed with me. The first was that the relationship with the school is vital, and that having a school – and particularly key staff members – who are willing to really make the most of the opportunity will reap real rewards for the participants.
The second point was about the nature of expectation and achievement. For all the expectations we have of what would represent successful engagement, we can’t meaningfully decide the most beneficial outcomes until we have met the individuals and started to get to know them. It is then our job to understand and encourage those aspects that, if nurtured, will truly make the most of the situation, even if this means abandoning our original plans. And while those successes won’t necessarily be musical developments, it is through music that they can be achieved.