Ramp It Up! @ Newfield School, Blackburn

A session in full flow at Newfield School
A session in full flow at Newfield School

The 10-week Ramp It Up! project took place on Monday afternoons at Newfield School in Blackburn. Newfield is a school for children and young people with a broad range of special educational needs.

Approaching my first project as a Drake Music Associate Musician, I was excited yet didn’t know quite what to expect. Fortunately, working alongside me on the project was the very knowledgeable technologist, Kristian Gjerstad, who had been involved in several RAMPs before and was a great support throughout.

The usual RAMP model is to help the school use the equipment that they already have more effectively. Before we started the project at Newfield we knew that this was going to be slightly different as the school were keen for us to introduce them to some new forms of assistive music technology in the hope that they could secure some funding to purchase their own.
As we entered the school we found a building that was new, well-equipped, light and spacious. Every wall seemed to be covered with large prints of pupils and recognition of their achievements. It was a really nice environment. The room that we had been assigned for the sessions was an incredible multi-sensory studio in which you could project images and videos onto the walls and the floor, creating an atmosphere conducive to creativity. We couldn’t have asked for anything better.

Colourful projections set the mood in the studio

Meeting the staff was equally as pleasant, as they were very welcoming, enthusiastic about the project and keen to learn. Lois Talbot, the music teacher at Newfield, had clearly worked very hard to make this project happen and was the driving force behind it. Lois was really keen to find out more about AMT and her support made our job much easier.

The project began with a couple of taster sessions, where the participants had a chance to try out some of the technology we’d brought in, including iPads, Soundbeam, Skoog, and AUMI webcam software. Naturally, the 12 young people took a liking to different pieces of kit. These sessions allowed Kris and me to get to know the participants and their particular needs, abilities and interests. Most of the group had quite severe physical impairments and limited verbal communication, but what we noticed in those initial interactions was the number of really strong characters within the group, who went on to blossom as the weeks went on.

During week three we adopted the structure that would continue for the rest of the project – two groups of four to six young people. Although the school didn’t have access to Soundbeam and iPads, they did have a huge array of switches and crick boxes so we decided to use that as our starting point. Having discovered that several participants, especially a young man named Daaiyan, loved animals, we began with an Old Macdonald theme and built the session around switches triggering samples from the Soundplant software. Although they had all used switches before, they hadn’t done so in this kind of music-making context so this proved to be quite an engaging experience for the group.

Week three also marked the beginning of the learning process for the Newfield staff and we were delighted by their willingness to get stuck in and learn how to use the software for themselves. By week four we had asked two of the teachers, Lois and Angela, to lead part of a session using  Soundplant. Their response to everything that we threw at them was such that, after the staff training sessions on weeks four and five, Kris and I felt able to take a step back and let them lead the session while we facilitated and offered support and feedback.

Several pieces of music were created over the 10 weeks as many of the students came in to their own. The first group, led by Lois and Dawn, featured some really strong personalities who showed great progression throughout the project. Yasir, who was very enthusiastic from the outset and continued to amaze us throughout, had an excellent awareness of his role within the music and showed great timing and patience. By the end of the project he had played switches, iPads, percussion, the Skoog, the AUMI webcam software, the makey-makey, used his voice and showed real confidence in having a go at anything that was put in front of him!

 Tyler and Yasir jamming in the studio

Tyler and Yasir jamming in the studio

The willingness to have a go, from students and staff alike, was actually an overriding theme of the whole project and made our work very satisfying.
Improvisation became a large feature of the final pieces of music and quite a few of the young people shone on the Thumbjam app for iPad, each developing their own technique. Ruby is a notable example here. We learned that she had a tendency to regularly move her hands up towards her head every few seconds, so staff thought playing something like an iPad would be a real challenge for her. When it was put in front of her, however, she developed a brilliant technique of playing the notes with the back of her hand using small movements, and importantly she continued to play with her hands down for extended periods of time. This progression in concentration and awareness was really great to witness.

 Ruby demonstrating her Thumbjam technique

Ruby demonstrating her Thumbjam technique

Both groups developed a blues tune and an African-themed tune which tied in with the school theme for the term of ‘Fairtrade’. Lois and Angela, who led the groups, both developed very interactive classroom set-ups featuring several different instruments and a lot of improvisation, but at the same time the groups felt quite different from each other.
Angela’s group, which she led alongside Tracy, featured a lot of live percussion to supplement the triggered samples and iPad improvisation. This worked really well as you had the likes of Saahil, who has a hearing impairment so likes to play the drums really loud; Daaiyan, who likes to have a large selection of live instruments to pick and choose from; and Zafirah, who with quite limited movement developed a lovely technique of scratching a drum skin, which we mic’d up with some reverb (it sounded amazing!). All the while, Ammaarah and Junaid would be keeping it solid, triggering their samples at appropriate times.

 Emily improvising on the iPad

Emily improvising on the iPad

The first group, led by Lois and Dawn also built up a wonderful palette of sounds, with a bit more emphasis on Thumbjam improvisation. Seeing all these different elements come together in such a relatively short period of time felt like a real success.
Week 10 saw a sharing session in which both groups performed the material they had developed throughout the project to an audience of staff and students from other classes. This made it feel a bit more special and was a great experience for the performers. Kris and I were so impressed with the final pieces that emerged!
Overall, my first experience as a Drake Music Associate was fantastic. Not only did I enjoy working with pupils and staff at Newfield school, and working alongside such a talented and experienced practitioner as Kristian, but I also feel that I learned a great deal myself. The project was a great success and I like to think we left a really positive mark on the school. Thank you Newfield and good luck with the rest of your musical journey!

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