We are embarking on the final and fourth year of our Exchanging Notes Project, which has seen some phenomenal outcomes (musical, personal and social) for young people with PMLD at Rosewood Free School and young people in the Inclusion Unit/LINK Group at Woodlands Community School, both of which are in Southampton. In addition to this, the positive outcomes have had a ripple effect within the settings in which we are working and it’s with this in mind, that we are delighted to share this case study of Ashley, from Georgie, his Class Teacher:
Rosewood is one of only a few schools in the country which caters specifically for children with profound and multiple learning disabilities (PMLD). Many of Rosewood’s students have complex additional needs – including physical, visual or hearing impairments – and may only communicate non-verbally, using sounds, signs and gestures rather than words.
As a result, these young people face a lot of barriers to ‘traditional’ forms of music-making.
Georgie is one of the teachers at Rosewood who’s been involved with the project. She says Exchanging Notes has transformed her practice and changed her whole outlook on music.
“That’s been a real turning point for me,” says Georgie, “[rethinking] the preconceived idea of what music needs to sound like – and it’s been wonderful.”
Putting students’ needs first
The project has used a mix of one-to-one music-making sessions (led by SoCo’s specialist music leader Ignacio and supported by Rosewood’s teaching staff) and group sessions with the whole class (led by Rosewood’s teachers using the new skills and knowledge they’ve learned).
The one-to-one sessions have given students the chance to explore different sounds and instruments. Over time, Ignacio and the teachers have learned more about how each young person responds to sound, how they make their own sounds and how they prefer to interact with others – things which can vary greatly from one student to the next in a PMLD setting like Rosewood.
Ignacio has been able to draw on the teachers’ knowledge of the individual young people, and their expertise in recognising body language and behavioural patterns in students who are non-verbal. This has helped to build up a picture of each young person’s needs so that the music-making sessions can be tailored accordingly.
Music-making in practice
In the one-to-one sessions each student is encouraged to explore and improvise, using their device of choice to make music in whatever way works for them, which may be quite different from the traditional way of playing.
This might involve experimenting with acoustic instruments – tambourine, guitar, wind chimes and washboard among others. SoCo have also brought a wide range of music technology in to the sessions, including sensors that trigger sounds based on the young person’s movements, and iPad apps that can sample and sequence different sounds.
The young people may choose to join in with the music-making by responding to sounds that Ignacio makes – making a vocal sound of their own, or a movement like hand-tapping or finger-clicking. They can also use their movements to ‘conduct’ Ignacio’s playing, for example nodding their head up and down to signal a higher or lower note.
Rosewood’s students have had the chance to demonstrate their music-making skills beyond the one-to-one sessions – both during group sessions in class, and at special events including a memorable end-of-year performance at Winchester Cathedral.
There, a group of young people from Rosewood rehearsed and performed a piece in collaboration with the Southern Sinfonia chamber orchestra, plus performers from local choirs and other schools.
Zoe, headteacher at Rosewood, recalls: “There were so many special and very moving moments throughout the performance. For me the moment when two conductors, batons poised, watched and waited for our students to finish will be a lifelong image of respect.”
In the project’s final year the school will partner with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and work towards further recordings and performances.
Transferring music-making to the classroom
As well as working with an exciting range of partner organisations, Rosewood’s staff have also enjoyed several training sessions with external music-leading specialists.
“Our headteacher’s always tried to bring music in,” says Georgie, “but with Exchanging Notes, it’s grown and grown. It’s given us ideas, because it’s all well and good us teachers saying ‘we’d like this to work’, but you need professionals to come in and say ‘this is what can happen’. We couldn’t have done that on our own.”
Zoe agrees: “I’ve seen the whole staff team grow and develop, using music outside of the Exchanging Notes sessions with our students.”
Throughout the project, Rosewood’s teachers have been able to observe and adopt techniques from Ignacio’s music-leading style. They’ve also learned new practical skills, such as how to use various music tech resources to help students make and record their own music.
And the project has helped teachers become more confident in their ability to interact musically with students, and more willing to ‘have a go’ even if they don’t consider themselves very musical.
“I’m not the greatest singer!” says Georgie. “We can all be a bit inhibited, but if I can model to my staff by just making a sound or using my voice in different ways, it actually makes everyone else feel more comfortable.”
Beyond music teaching
The new ideas and expertise the staff have gained through the project have in fact made a difference across the whole of Rosewood’s curriculum, which is specially geared towards young people with PMLD.
“There’s a buzz around using music, and the profile of using music to extend learning has developed across the whole school,” says Zoe.
Outside of the dedicated music-making sessions, the staff at Rosewood use music in various other ways at different points in the day – for example to signal the start or end of a lesson, to energise students or to help them calm down.
The Rosewood staff have also discovered that Ignacio’s music-leading approach has some similarities with the specialist skills they’re used to using while teaching young people with PMLD.
For example, the school team are all trained in the use of ‘intensive interaction’ techniques, where they change their style of interaction to match the learner’s needs, and give the young person the opportunity to lead activities as much as possible. This closely matches the way Ignacio reads and adapts to each young person’s emotional state, and uses techniques like ‘mirroring’ the sounds a child makes.
Making this connection has helped the teachers feel more confident leading music sessions, and has helped both parties – SoCo and Rosewood staff – to learn from each other.
Ignacio has been able to meet regularly with the teachers and learning assistants during the school day to share reflections and experiences of what’s worked well in the music-making sessions. As a result, SoCo have been able to develop and share a whole new range of music-leading techniques and resources.
Sharing among staff
Each member of Rosewood’s teaching staff will be involved with Exchanging Notes sessions at different times throughout the week, term or year, so it’s important to them to keep each other posted on young people’s progress as a group.
“We discuss as a collective: ‘we tried this musical instrument’ and ‘what did you do?’ and ‘how did you facilitate that?’” says Georgie. “We’re sharing what we’re finding is working.”
Knowing what’s working can be a particular challenge, because some of the students at Rosewood are ‘pre-intentional’, meaning they may not have control over how they communicate in response to stimuli such as music.
“We’re interpreting everything,” says Georgie. “We just want to make sure that we’re doing the right thing. If you get some confirmation from that young person, however small, then you can really celebrate it. Young people’s responses to music have boosted morale among staff.”
The high level of staff engagement helps ensure that the project has a long-term impact. The more music-leading knowledge and expertise the staff develop, the less reliant they become on external specialists, and the more they can pass on to the students who come into their classes in future years.
“We’ve had such a wonderful opportunity with Exchanging Notes,” says Georgie, “seeing the progress in the students, having other musicians and professionals come in. It’s shown us what else is out there. We’ve seen the impact, we’ve got the evidence and we can show everyone the progress.”
Ashley, 17, is one of the students who’s taken part in one-to-one music-making sessions as part of the Exchanging Notes project at Rosewood. Georgie tells the story of how she’s seen him develop his ability to express himself.
“Ashley came into my class last year,” she recalls. “He’s pre-verbal, he’s on the autism spectrum, and he also has no functioning vision, so there are a lot of challenges in his life.”
Georgie was able to watch video footage of Ashley in an earlier music-making session to see where he’d started out from. This year she’s sat in with Ignacio on some of the one-to-one sessions with Ashley.
“The progress he’s made is phenomenal, especially with communication. He’s been able to express himself emotionally in such a way, it’s been really empowering for him.
“The music has really moved him forward to thinking ‘there’s a world out there, and it’s not just that insular world that I’m in, it’s out there and it’s a safe world’.
“As soon as he hears Ignacio, he knows what’s coming next. He really values Ignacio.”
Ashley has a form of echolalia, meaning he tends to repeat noises and words he hears. But Georgie has seen him begin to develop beyond this and articulate himself more expressively, both within and beyond the music-making sessions.
“He’s now able to bring two instruments together. He’s really exploring, trying to figure out how to make sounds. His vocalising has changed as well; his range of tone has increased.
“I strongly believe it’s because he built up that confidence to explore with a really safe session. He’s been able to experiment in his own way. It’s been very gradual, through that repetition. It’s about making him feel comfortable and confident.
“It’s empowering him to say ‘this is who I am, I can make this music my way, I can show you my emotions’. It’s absolutely lovely.”