Rumworth School is a SEN/D school, set in a pleasant suburban estate on the outskirts of Bolton. They work with children with a wide range of learning and physical impairments and have a great attitude to teaching and learning, with a real positive bent towards the arts and developing media skills. As a first time associate of Drake Music, I was uncertain about what I was to expect. Having had some experience of working with adults with learning and physical impairments, I knew that what was in store was likely to be rewarding, unconventional work that really challenges your skills as a teacher and deliverer of workshops.
I worked with Steve Watts for the first seven weeks of the project – we’d worked together before at The Manchester College, so we were immediately put at some sense of ease about the prospect of walking into a school and taking over a room for a morning every week for the next ten weeks.
We were really pleasantly surprised as we entered the school for the first time and were shown to the media suite that would be home for the next 10 weeks. It was an incredibly friendly, well-equipped and clearly loved space. The students appeared friendly and curious as to what this whole RAMP It Up! thing was all about.
We met the deputy head, Kevin, who filled us in with the essentials and introduced us to Gayle, the music teacher, who was to be our working companion for the next ten weeks. The media-suite was an impressively equipped room, packed with iMacs, portable camera-lighting and a green screen; this was clearly a school that took the arts and their media learning seriously.
From what we’d been told in the initial training session, we would be working with small groups, but on this occasion, we were working with two groups of 10 students with various learning difficulties including some with physical impairments. However, the extent of their impairments was really mild in comparison with what we were lead to expect during a Drake project.
The first couple of weeks were spent meeting the students in pairs and assessing their needs, interests and current level of ability (armed with a percussion trolley and a keyboard, we gauged that there was a strong sense of rhythm in the majority of the children and they were all very excited and intrigued as to what we were going to be doing with them.
Over the next couple of weeks, we got to know the students who were abundant in personality. There were no real behavioral issues – the main issues were with communication in various forms. We established, early on, though, that the two groups were very keen and loved being put at the centre of the action. Common interests amongst the groups – year 8 loved scary stories, so we decided that we would be turning the room into a haunted house and year 7 were very excited about a planned trip to the zoo, so we agreed to turn the room into an imaginary zoo where they created animals from their own imaginations.
The sessions, we soon discovered, were really short – just 45 minutes. After a couple of warm-up games, we were straight into the action but a week didn’t go past where we wished we had more time with them – you just got going and the bell went to usher them out of the room. In the first couple of weeks of the sessions, we got the children to invent their own animals (for yr7) and monsters (for yr8).
Here are photos of examples of some of the animals, which were a combination of their favourite animals and the sounds that acccompanied them.
The Ladybird Butterfly (fig.1), invented by Nadia, Fizzah and Humirah. They created the sound of their animal with a combination of rustling paper and hissing with the mouth. The problem with this sound, initially, was that there was no pitched element which made it difficult to, later when we sampled the sound, create melody from it.
The Crocodile Rapper (fig.2), created by Callum and Kyle. Both were really shy when we first met them, but this character really brought out their creative side. Callum impressed everyone with his impressive beat-boxing abilities, and Kyle created a little vocal hook (“The Crocodile Rapper is rapping tonight”) which worked perfectly in conjunction with each other and the rest of the group loved joining in with the hook.
The Squelephant (fig.3), created by Huw, Tegan and Joshua. The sound they created to go with the animal was a combination between the roar of a lion and the call of the elephant.
The Evil Gozilla (fig.4) was created by Danielle and Lauren and was a combination of loud roars and ape-like monkey noises.
Here are also some examples of the “monsters” invented by the year 8 group.
The FireFlame (fig.5), devised by Umar and Marcus. The sound they created to accompany FireFlame was quite “old-school” zombie-like.
“Creepy Craig” (fig.6) was created by Kyle and Elizabeth. Elizabeth was the self-professed Thespian of the group, and as time went on, assumed the role of Narrator of the story-based soundscape piece the group produced.
“Hello Kitty” (fig.7) was created by Jack and Jodie. The sound they devised to represent the monster was a combination between (quite a manic sounding) kitten and the traditional laser gun sound.
Once the children had invented their animals, we set about working out how to bring these ideas together. Steve and I demonstrated the Sampler in GarageBand on the iPad and the children set about sampling their sounds and experimenting with different ways of triggering the sounds. They discovered the arpeggiator and the various editing and triggering methods and found ways in which they could mould their invented sounds.
The school has 10 iPads which made working this way very easy. The media-suite, as mentioned earlier, was also equipped with iMacs, but there were several technical issues that were preventing our ability to use these. Technical problems, it began to become apparent, were the ball and chain around Gayle, the music teacher’s, neck – the inability to plan a lesson that confidently incorporates technology that she could rely on, was the main obstacle for her; just logging on had become a trial in itself! Introducing the various different creative possibilities opened up by the iPad, however, presented an accessible way for her to gain confidence to incorporate technology into her lessons, and as the time progressed, she began to feel more and more confident with using non-traditional instruments.
Overcoming the technical issues that the school were experiencing became one of the eventual, unexpected outcomes of the process. The school’s technical support had been outsourced to an independent company who had, essentially, locked the computer systems so hard that using them had become almost impossible. However, us as an outside voice reinforcing what the staff were saying appeared to have done the trick, because we flagged the issue on several occasions to Kevin who, by the end of the process, had decided that technical support should be brought back in-house, and working with the iMacs started to become a more credible possibility.
As time went on, we started to realise that this process was as much about empowering the teacher as it was getting the students to develop skills and the confidence to reincorporate technology back into her classroom. Steve taught her how to set up the SoundBeam, which had been stuck in a box in the music store-cupboard for the last 3 years, and we began to incorporate that piece of equipment into the classroom sessions. As time progressed, Gayle had gained the confidence to set it up on her own and troubleshoot. Steve discovered that the interface was quite fiddly, to say the least, but by the end of the 10 weeks, she was navigating the instrument quite fluently. She got the children to set it up one week as well, and, as children do, they picked it up in no time.
This process was different in lots of ways to how I’d envisaged it from the initial training session. The children’s abilities were generally higher than we expected and, because the groups were larger, one of the main roles was just keeping them on track. The support staff were amazing, though – very focused and helpful and even they seemed to really enjoy the sessions. The children certainly seemed to get a lot from them.
By week 8, Steve had finished and it was down to myself and Gayle to run the sessions. This was, initially, an odd process, and there was a period of re-establishing roles because Gayle was now being expected to take more of a participatory as opposed to an observational part in the process. We soon established a good working relationship, however.
The final three sessions were about putting together the ideas, noises, samples and concepts into a performable format. The haunted house seemed to evolve more quickly and relied solely on the sampling capabilities of the iPad to create a haunted house story, narrated by Elizabeth during the development sessions, and then performed by Jonathon on the day of the performance. This piece (year8) was more a sound-scape as opposed to a piece of structurally-based, pitch-orientated composition. We incorporated “the Devil’s interval” which Luke, the only wheel-chair reliant student, played on a xylophone each time the characters of the story pressed a doorbell. The piece had fun at its heart and we really made use of the portable nature of the iPad – especially when the two characters were chased out of the haunted house by all of the monsters at the climax of the piece.
The year 7, zoo-themed piece incorporated a greater use of pitched instruments and a perfect 5th, latin clavè rhythm. Humirah, who was quite low on the communication spectrum was able to hold the rhythm particularly successfully and this piece was based more on the “idea” of the zoo, with the children taking turns in joining in, and an iPad section coming in, playing melodies from the invented animal noises. This piece felt very alive and exciting and the children appeared to have a great time playing it.
On reflection, both Steve and myself, being first time Drake associates, found the experience exciting and immersive – it was a great opportunity to “play” as a method of generating material. We allowed the groups to guide the creative direction and we facilitated and ensured that focus remained. I would do it all again in a second, given the opportunity.
I was surprised by the level of ability present within the room as we had been prepared to deal with far more profoundly disabled students. We found that the main challenges, however, were being presented technically from an equipment perspective, as opposed to from the student body. Steve and I are from a Further Ed background and we found the approach to working really refreshing because it felt spontaneous and alive – something we both felt had gone missing from our experience of working at FE level.