Working with Groups of Wide-Ranging Ability


From the 24th to the 29th August 2015 myself and fellow Drake Music Associate Musicians Caro Churchill and Fil Hill worked on a project called Summer Soundtrackers at Z-Arts in Manchester. The project ran from 11am to 1pm each day, with a sharing event on the final day for friends and family. Summer Soundtrackers was attended by 9 learning-disabled young people from Manchester with the aim of exploring music-making, assistive music technology (AMT) and different approaches to ensemble playing and musicianship.

The project was very rewarding, with all of the participants and their parents/carers/support workers remarking at how much of a positive experience they had had, but the group represented a very diverse range of abilities, and the aspect that I am going to focus on in this blog is the various ways that we approached devising session content that would engage and stimulate all participants as well as creating ways for them to make music together as part of an ensemble.

The participants ranged from young people on the autistic spectrum through to young people who are non-verbal and are wheelchair users with limited dexterity and mobility. The main challenge was to find ways to keep engaged those who were able to make music faster or more easily, while also helping in a meaningful way those who found it harder to be involved.

A table with hand bells and electronic equipment
Mixing acoustic and electronic instruments

We began by introducing the different instruments; we used a Soundbeam, a Theremini, switches triggering sounds, a Makey-Makey attached to bananas triggering notes, Ableton Live to make loops, a midi keyboard, an electronic drum sample pad, iPads with Thumbjam and Garageband, an electric guitar, an electric bass, microphones with delay, and some hand percussion. After they had tried the different instruments and had a chance to explore them, the participants naturally gravitated towards the instruments that most suited them and with which they felt most able to express themselves. In almost all cases the participants were quite happy to concentrate on these instruments for most of the week, without wanting to move between instruments a great deal.

The participants were largely quite proud to have an instrument that was their specialism, and that also helped with them taking the project more seriously.

Over the course of the week we concentrated on a number of aspects of musicianship which would help to develop ensemble skills, and which could be meaningfully integrated into the music-making of all participants, regardless of their ability or previous experience. These were listening, turn-taking, mood (calm, energetic, etc.), dynamics (loud and quiet) and tempo (fast and slow). We found that participants were able to each concentrate on these aspects to the best of their own ability, meaning that all were engaging with the task simultaneously without comparing their own ability to that of the others.

We also found that introducing a number of AMT instruments, most of which none of the participants had encountered before, was a good leveller, in that no one was more experienced than anyone else at using this equipment, and so all were learning a new skill and concentrating on getting to know their own instrument rather than focusing on what somebody else was doing.

Bananas with electronic wires attached
Bananas attached to a Makey-Makey to trigger sounds

Indeed, as is often the case with AMT, certain instruments can be better suited to those with specific barriers to traditional music making, so for example somebody in a wheelchair with limited movement can actually find it easier to play a Soundbeam in a steady and controlled manner than someone with full movement. Again, this can help to level the playing field in terms of ability across the ensemble.

We kept all of the instruments tuned to C and/or in a major scale to ensure that even if things were being played quite randomly that they would still be concordant and not create a very jarring sound. The electric guitar was tuned to an open C chord to enable players to strum the open strings or bar/slide a single fret to change the chord.

One method that we found that worked particularly well to get the group playing together, listening to each other and leaving space for one another (possibly the hardest thing to encourage) was to ask participants to take it in turns to conduct the rest of the group. One member would stand in the middle of the ensemble and bring in the players one by one. The conductor – using any method they wanted – could start and stop players, raise and lower the volume (both overall and of individuals), speed up or slow down the music, change the mood of the piece, and choose different combinations of instruments to hear together.

This method worked really well in a number of ways. It gave the musicians a focal point outside of their own exploration, and put the overall decision making largely with one person at a time, rather than a number of different and competing ideas. This also meant that the musicians were starting to see themselves in the context of a team, and their instruments more as tools to achieve what was required of them, rather than thinking individually without a common purpose.

A participant conducts other musicians
Nathan conducts the group

For the conductor, the method brought about decision-making, leadership and communication skills, and also an element of responsibility and positive power, which in turn can lead to increased self-confidence.

One participant, Ben, particularly took to the role of conductor, exhibiting remarkable control and expression in his movements and intentions.

The last, and possibly most important, aspect that contributed to a sense of ensemble and equality, was the social aspect that came with the group meeting every day for six consecutive days. A sense of camaraderie developed over the week, with all participants showing support and encouragement to one another, and some particular friendships forming as the sessions progressed. There was also time after the sharing performance specifically set aside for the participants, families and friends to socialise and reflect on the project. This social aspect definitely contributed positively to an equality of intention amongst the group, and the benefits of this were seen in the wonderful performance given on the final day of the project.