Sounds of Intent – halfway through a 16 week course

This was originally posted as a blog by Jon Hering, but it’s such a great example of how the Sounds of Intent framework can be used to assess musical activity in the classroom that I’ve re-posted it here as a DM Education ‘Experience’.

As my second project working for Drake Music, along with Associate Musician Fil Hill I am helping to deliver a 16 week course at Abbots Lea at Matthew Arnold, which will introduce the Sounds of Intent framework as a means of assessing and monitoring individual children’s musical development, as well as helping to guide staff to introduce appropriate musical activity and material to best suit the children with which they work.

‘Abbots Lea at Matthew Arnold’ is a specialised 25 place assessment service for pupils aged 3 – 7 years with complex needs together with a KS1 ASD class all under the management of Abbots Lea Special School. This means that the children who attend have mostly not been diagnosed with any specific condition, but are assessed while at Abbots Lea in order that they can go on to be placed in another school that will best be able to serve their needs. This also means that the class contains children with a wide range of different needs, abilities and skills.

Sounds of Intent is described in detail at the website, but in a nutshell is a framework of musical ability. Divided into three sections – Reactive, Proactive and Interactive – and within these thirds into 6 levels – from the most basic, unwitting involvement with sound through to a sophisticated and self-reflexive understanding of music – the framework, along with it’s online log, provides a way of mapping an individual’s musical development.

Something that makes Sounds of Intent really interesting, and particularly appropriate for working with as diverse a range of children as Abbots Lea presents, is that the very detailed nature of the framework – by breaking all aspects of involvement down into very specific elements – means that one can really look in detail at specific children, and also track developments which might otherwise have been too subtle to notice – but which can turn out to be quite significant.

Additionally, the website gives guidelines for evaluating and interpreting observations, and strategies and resources appropriate for children who are working within the elements identified. This creates something of a ‘feedback loop’: as one identifies behaviours and abilities that correspond with elements of the framework, musical resources are suggested which will encourage development of these characteristics, and quite possibly lead to an increase in engagement, or at the least a more clearly defined and/or recognisable response, which in turn will either lead to a progression to another level of engagement (with its own associated resources), or will provide more activity which can be monitored and/or help with a more accurate way of interpreting the child’s response, which in turn will help to identify more appropriate and enjoyable musical activity for that child.

This system itself works in two ways: by identifying particular skills, abilities or preferences which can be explored; or by highlighting ‘gaps’ in ability or engagement that can be investigated and possibly developed.

From our work at Abbots Lea so far, here is one interesting example of the framework in action:

Paul (5 years old), was initially very unengaged in our first few sessions. It didn’t need the framework to recognise this fact, as he was often just lying on the floor, not responding to any stimuli, and reacting in a distressed manner if any attempt was made to engage him one-to-one.

In comparing our observations with the levels of the framework, we could see that he represented the lower levels of the Reactive, Proactive and Interactive elements – encountering sounds unwittingly, and not meaningfully responding to or creating them. Any engagement was isolated and inconsistent.

In looking at the suggested resources for this level, there were two aspects that seemed particularly relevant.

The first was to slow things down. Different people process stimuli at different rates, and activity that can initially seem to be having no effect can actually just require a lot more time and recognition in order to become familiar, comfortable, and to elicit a response. This can be particularly tricky to recognise and act upon within a group situation in which other participants are working at a quicker processing speed, and may get bored by the amount of repetition required for others to engage meaningfully.

The second useful aspect was the concept of mirroring – finding the smallest example of engagement from a participant and mirroring this behaviour for as long as they are engaged. In doing so the participant begins to feel both comfortable in the activity and willing to further explore, and also begins to realise that they are in control – a very powerful realisation that can quickly lead to much more explorative behaviours.

During a subsequent session, Paul showed an example of engagement. We use a set of pitched bells, which can be chimed by pressing a button on the top. We use these to explore sound-creation, pitch-relation, call and response and copying. I was ringing a bell, to see if Paul could copy or respond to me – however, each time I did so, he would just shake his head. I began shaking my head with him – an act which he found hilarious. This non-musical action was so appealing to him that he began to engage in the musical act that would provoke it – ringing the bells himself in order to make me shake my head. This in turn lead to him starting to explore variations on the act.

One of the brilliant aspects of working with two musicians for each group is that when situations such as this arise, one is able to follow them. In this instance, Fil and the school staff were able to continue to engage with the rest of the group while I continued to play with Paul. Thanks to the flexibility and understanding of the school staff, I was also allowed to continue this activity once the session had ended – while the other children were packing away getting ready for dinner, I was able to stay with Paul and continue our game. I increased the mirroring to posture, movements and vocal sounds, and didn’t let my own pace dictate the activity – while I would naturally want to develop the activity further, or continue the progression, the key here was for Paul to be controlling all aspects of the dialogue.

This engagement seemed to be something of a breakthrough with Paul, as in sessions since he has tended to be much more engaged – not always, but noticeably. He sings along with a number of our songs now, and even counts us all in for our Christmas song. He is much more quickly drawn towards the pitched bells now, and is generally more open to musical play and exploration.

Importantly, this increase in engagement is providing lots more activity which can be monitored and analysed using the SoI framework, which in turn will lead to more – and more appropriate – activities and resources for Paul.

This is just one example of how the Sounds of Intent framework has influenced our working methods. The course is still ongoing, and we are continuing to explore the framework, and discuss meaningful ways in which it might continue to be used – and useful – to the staff at Abbots Lea after we have left.

Jon Hering, December 2013