Tales of the Young Person’s Orchestra

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We are excited to announce an innovative partnership with the Southampton-based SÓN Orchestra in association with Turner Sims.

Tales of the Young Person’s Orchestra is a collaboration with SoCo Music Project and SÓN. This exciting project will see delivery of an inspirational and inclusive musical experience for young people with Special Educational Needs in Southampton and Portsmouth. The project, which will run from January 2019 – April 2019 will encourage participants to compose original music whilst exploring different sounds and expressible possibilities of orchestral music.

Experienced music leader/composer Ignacio Agrimbau (MA, PhD) and professional classical musicians from SÓN will collaboratively design an inclusive music-making programme that is responsive to the possibilities, talent and preferences of the students participating. These supported creative music-making programmes will take place over the course of 24 music workshops in three Special Education Needs settings, namely Springwell School, Mary Rose Academy and Avenues College – Post 19 college of Rosewood Free School.

Marie Negus, Development Manager for SoCo Music Project states that:

“We are delighted to have been awarded funding by the Radcliffe Trust for this programme.  This provides a unique experience for young people, who wouldn’t usually experience the sounds and expressive possibilities of different instrumental families of the classical orchestra. I’m excited to see and hear how they formulate their own musical ideas from this experience, culminating in performances in the settings.”

Throughout this partnership, SoCo Music Project and SÓN will work together using their extensive experience in developing engaging music programmes for young people with Special Educational Needs and/or Disabilities (SEN/D) and ambition to nurture the next generation of musicians through education and outreach.

Robin Browning, SÓN Artistic Director:

“Since SÓN was founded 3 years ago, we’ve been on a mission to change lives through music across the south. We’re passionately committed to the power music has to impact young people’s lives, because all our musicians know, first hand, how much it has brought to their own world, and love sharing this with others. The chance to collaborate with SoCo – one of the pioneers in music outreach all over the region – is a wonderful opportunity, and I’m looking forward to building projects of real, lasting value together.”

For more information contact Marie Negus – 



The ICE Project – CAMHS Holiday Workshops

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SoCo Music Project were recently asked to deliver a holiday music engagement programme for young people as part of The ICE Project, a partnership between Hampshire Cultural Trust & Hampshire Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (run by Sussex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust), promoting the use of arts for positive mental health.

The overall aims of the The ICE Project are:

  • To use arts & culture to promote positive mental health; raise self-confidence and self-esteem and inspire other young people
  • To create an outlet for young people to creatively share their experiences and opinions
  • To use art in its various forms to create a conversation that improves understanding, compassion, people’s views and knowledge of the subject
  • To give vulnerable and at-risk children and young people the chance to experience and participate in extraordinary arts and culture

We sensitively crafted and delivered a series of music sessions that were designed to not only educate and inspire, but to enable interpersonal relationships between our participants to form and flourish. As always, our approach holds our participants at the heart of its design, and we delivered activities that took into consideration our participants needs, their musical interests and challenges that they may be facing in relation to their mental health. We ensured that these activities would gently challenge and empower them whilst developing them both musically and personally, providing a creative outlet for expression.

Sessions explored creating music compositions using music technology apps on iPads, drumming exercises, Songwriting, poetry and lyric writing and singing exercises. To create a safe and supportive environment whereby participants felt confident and happy to explore and discover their own musicality and to take creative risks, we introduced various music games, which we used as icebreakers to help relax the group and to teach participants useful music terminology.

Our participants’ confidence increased as their familiarisation with the others in the group, and the music leaders grew. This enabled them to engage whole-heartedly. A culture of respect and honesty was present throughout the sessions, which encouraged strong peer support amongst our participants, and friendships to blossom. They crafted some wonderful music compositions, which can be heard in these recordings:

Reflection time in the sessions fostered exploration of positive expressions from the young people about their experiences, with them seeing untapped musical creativity emerge and them having a heightened awareness and understanding of how music had been and could continue to be a tool for self-expression.

Some quotes from our participants:

“I feel very proud of what I created and I didn’t know I could achieve this”

“I felt able to open up and stay true to myself. I felt valued, I didn’t have to change myself to fit in”

“I felt I belonged in this workshop and participated. I worked well with everyone”

For more information about SoCo Music Project visit and for more information about The ICE Project visit

The ICE Project is co-funded by Artswork, Hampshire CCG and the Coles-Medlock Foundation.

SoCo’s work in Southampton Schools contributes to Youth Music’s landmark national study

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We are delighted to share a powerful and insightful interim evaluation report that highlights how sustained involvement in music-making can have a positive impact on young people’s attainment, engagement and wellbeing during their school life. We are especially proud that our work at Rosewood Free School features as a Case Study in this report.

Exchanging Notes is a four-year action research project, funded by Youth Music (national charity investing in music-making projects for children and young people experiencing challenging circumstances) with Birmingham City University appointed to carry out evaluation of the programme. Exchanging Notes explores pioneering new partnerships between schools and music providers, of which SoCo Music Project are leading one of seven projects in the country.

At SoCo Music Project we are working in partnership with two school settings in Southampton. Our experienced team of music leaders are working closely with subject specialists, class teachers and support staff to develop nurturing and creative environments, new resources and teaching models to support young people’s musical development and wider outcomes. At Rosewood Free School, where students have profound and multiple learning difficulties, many sessions are one-to-one, tailored around individual needs. At the Inclusion Unit at Woodlands Community College, young people at risk of exclusion have worked towards individual learning plans with activities including music technology, instrument tuition, composition and songwriting.
Our journey so far has been a challenging one at times, amidst funding cuts and pressure of schools’ performance measures that, in some cases are squeezing the arts out of education, but it has been heartening to witness and evidence some phenomenal and life-changing outcomes relating to young people’s musical, educational and social development.

For more information about our work through Exchanging Notes please visit here

The Exchanging Notes programme comes to an end this summer, but this project is just the tip of the iceberg of SoCo Music Project’s engagement programmes for young people in challenging circumstances and vulnerable adult groups in Southampton and the wider Hampshire area. We deliver programmes that transform lives for the better; using music as a powerful tool to develop skills, nurture creativity and improve the wellbeing of our participants. We strive towards increased inclusion and connectivity and as we develop our work to further increase access and participation we are keen to explore new partnerships and work programmes.

For more information about our programmes, and specifically Exchanging Notes, please contact Marie Negus

Exchanging Notes Case Study: SoCo Music Project and Rosewood Free School

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Exchanging Notes


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:


Rethinking music-making

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.

Overlapping skills

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’s story

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.”

Music For VI

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SoCo Music Project is delighted to announce a series of fun and exciting after school music-making sessions for young people with visual impairments. This project, funded by People’s Postcode Lottery, will enable students at Toynbee School to engage in unique workshops that encompass a variety of compositional and recording techniques. It follows a successful programme of creative engagement with Toynbee students last academic year, and will enable them to continue developing their musical journey whilst working towards accreditation through the Arts Award.

This project is part of SoCo’s substantial youth provision, working in Special Educational Needs & Disability settings across Southampton and Hampshire to provide innovative, creative intervention for a range of participants.

With sessions currently under way, Jim Chorley, Creative Practitioner at SoCo Music Project, is delighted to have the opportunity to continue working in partnership with Toynbee School and Global Music Visions C.I.C. to support the development of participants’ creative and social outcomes;

It has been a joy to work with the young people in the VI unit at Toynbee. Their musical creativity and enthusiasm is both inspiring and infectious. I’m looking forward to support the development of their considerable song writing and recording talents”.

For more information about this project, contact

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Measuring the Impact of the Arts

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On the 15th May 2017 The CHAOS Network hosted an afternoon of discussion and exploration about how, as artists and arts organisations, we can better measure the impact of our work. The session came out of a conversation from a previous Network meeting, and it was felt that a focused session, that included representatives from local authority, funding bodies, the commissioning unit and academia would be useful for all parties.

The CHAOS Network began in 2010 to provide an opportunity for creatives in the city to get together and talk, debate, share and promote the cultural offer in Southampton. CHAOS stands for Creative, Heritage and Arts Organisations of Southampton. Its inception coincided with SoCo Music Project taking on a new open creative space in the city and identifying a need for networking for creative in the city. Now a rich community of practice, the CHAOS Network has always been an open forum and welcomes new members from all creative backgrounds.

Creative practitioners and organisations in the city deliver a wide range of activities, many of which have a strong social impact. At a time where accessing funding is becoming more challenging, and local authorities are moving toward more commissioning based models, it’s becoming more important than ever to measure and evaluate the role of the arts in our communities. It is often the case that we can provide stories of how engagement with arts, music, theatre, film and more can improve mental health, enhance life chances, aid recovery, and even save lives. Often, however, these stories are anecdotal and lacking in clear evidence. How can we take these stories, these life improving activities, and ensure we are measuring and evaluating with credibility? Strong evaluation helps us to understand (and to learn from) the effectiveness of our work while also providing evidence of its impact. Where this impact can be aligned to local/regional/national priorities, it can put us in a strong position to access funding, commissioning and contracts that look to address these priorities. This could include a wide number of agendas, such as employability, health and wellbeing and behavior change.

The Measuring the Impact of the Arts event in May was attended by a cross section of artists/arts organisations, local commissioners and academics. A session on evaluation and frameworks was led by David Walters from the Winchester University Centre for Arts as Wellbeing, and city priorities and outlined by Moraig Forrest-Charde from the Southampton Integrated Commissioning Unit and Councillor Dave Sheilds, the Chair of the local Health and Wellbeing Board and cabinet member for Health.

Rebecca Kinge, a Southampton-based community organiser, coordinator for the emerging Creative Places project and Director of The Southampton Collective Community Interest Company was in attendance and has provide some useful notes from the event:

David Walters from University of Winchester gave us summary of his background and experience. Having been a musician he recognised that ‘things happen in an audience’ and he went on to work with gay men with AIDS and HIV in New York City and set up a community choir, where life and death was celebrated. Seeing the powerful impact of music making, he later established a community music venue in Hampshire (CODA Music Centre) which worked with everyone, formal education and informal music making. He then moved into the academic world, setting up a centre to study arts intervention in health and social care.

Points from David’s presentation:

Commissioners are cautious, they need evidence to support their decisions about investing in services. David made a number of points about how evaluation is included:

  • Often evaluation is tacked on at the end because the artist sees a need to demonstrate a particular point.
  • However, evaluation is subjective, and can show unintended outcomes and impacts. An objective evaluation has strength and power.
  • Good evaluation should be unique to every project. Much of the work takes place at the beginning.
  • Evaluation needs to change as you go along. It is important to try and recognise at the start where the pinch points may be, where the evaluation process may need to change direction.
  • Evaluating in an arts context can be challenging, it may not always be clear what the impacts are a direct result of the work that the artist is doing and what is a result of the environment around or some other factor.
  • Reflective practice is to be encouraged.
  • Wellbeing can be subjective. Universities can help with measurement techniques.
  • There are a number of evaluation techniques, quantitative, qualitative and case studies. Mixed methods are increasingly encouraged and seen as valid.
  • Economic evaluation. There is some strong cost benefit analysis of the impact of the arts. Dr Simon Opher made powerful argument about this, see this Artlift case study and BBC article here.
  • David also mentioned evidence that singing can help with chronic breathing and how the perception of pain can be changed.
  • Clearly define what went into a project, so that it can be replicable. Being able to replicate the work is important to commissioners. It is necessary to be clear about the skills that go into a project, and not just those that are particular to an individual who is involved in delivery.
  • Moraig Forrest-Charde (from Southampton Integrated Commissioning Unit) talked about the importance of knowing who the audience is, understanding the commissioner. Commissioners may have very little knowledge of arts interventions, so explain it clearly.
  • Dave Shields (Councillor with Cabinet responsibilities for Health and Wellbeing) talked about the other alternative interventions that may address the same issue, e.g. employment services, policing.

Representatives from the Southampton Integrated Commissioning Unit provided an outline of city priorities. These included the reduction of loneliness and isolation, helping those furthest from the labour market to move towards employment, and behaviour change (including tackling obesity and smoking cessation). As mentioned above, commissioners are cautious and would require strong evidence that arts interventions are effective at tackling these priorities. It was suggested that an advocacy document that highlights the positive work in the city would be useful, and that a priority for arts organisations should be to engage with the wider community sector. Commissioners and councillors are happy to continue this discussion and would welcome communications from organisations and individuals highlighting potential innovative solutions to city priorities.

There are many useful websites and tools that can help us to better evaluate our work, here is a selection:

Other useful tools for evaluation and measuring the impact of the arts/community activity include:

Inspiring Impact

Evidencing Impact Value Calculator (created for social housing but can be applied more widely to calculate social value)

Adrienne Pye, Senior Consultant for Evaluation at the Audience Agency ( recommended the Evaluation Toolkit from ixia, public art think tank

It was agreed that this event was the starting point, and that the conversation should continue. If you would like to be part of this conversation please contact me at:

The National Curriculum vs. Extra Curricular Activities

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My name is Olly Lewis and I work for SoCo Music Project, a local organisation that specialises in improving music provision within the county of Hampshire. In this blog I will be exploring the similarities and differences between the inclusion of Music in the National Curriculum and the presence of music in extra curricular activities. I will challenge how music outside of the classroom can in turn compliment the education system and how and why I believe it is of pivotal importance that extra curricular activities are encouraged and accommodated whenever possible if students are to seriously pursue creative pathways.


With the constant uprising of funding cuts, governmental changes and a shortage of teachers, creative subjects are suffering considerably due to the limitations of the National Curriculum. Whilst core subjects will forever remain at the top of the schooling hierarchy other subjects such as Music continue to be left on the substitute bench. I even have reason to believe that a school near my hometown of Bristol has recently removed Music from their education scheme altogether. Perhaps one of the most concerning changes as of recent has been the elimination of the levelling system. Although this system was an accurate and relative measurement of assessment it came with its flaws too. However, my biggest concern surrounding the abolition of this system is the requirement of every school to enforce it’s own replacement assessment criteria. Not only does this put additional strain on educational staff and restrict the time that they have to allocate to their specialist subjects and their students but it also means that schools will find it harder to compare their results with other schooling institutions. With something as subjective as Music, this can only be an issue.


With regards to Music, the National Curriculum is proving to be able to offer less and less. Even with the best teacher available, if that member of staff is the sole representative of the department and is being stretched too thin, only through seeking additional music provision outside of the classroom will students be able to explore and pursue music. Taking my own personal experience into account, as a Bristol-based teenager I was actively involved in a local youth music organisation called Bristol REMIX. Although my Music education was always beneficial with particularly supportive members of staff throughout every stage of my education (school, college and University), it was through my involvement with REMIX that I was really able to discover my own musical voice.

Through the provision of Bhangra workshops, Cuban ensembles, singing/songwriting workshops and performances at venues such as the Royal Albert Hall (BBC Young Proms), my interest and desire for a future in Music blossomed. In turn, this improved my performance in the classroom (not only in Music) and boosted my confidence considerably as I had formed a band with some of my peers and I was performing regularly in and around my local music scene. If my music education and upbringing relied solely on the limited amount of classroom hours available to me, it may have taken me much longer to discover my love for music or perhaps I never would have. Now 24 years old and employed by SoCo Music Project, I am working with a company that offer similar provision to what I grew up with and I am blessed by having the responsibility of delivering similar workshops to future generations to come. It is this opportunity for me to pay it forward that has always fuelled my passion for the work we do; these opportunities are much more important than most people will ever realise.

Having done plenty of work to strengthen the music provision in schools it is great to see just how this work can compliment the National Curriculum. So long as there is a budget, these activities can facilitate the musical welfare of students. If this is of particular focus, students can write and express themselves as they need to, they can record and share their progress with their loved ones, they can learn and explore the ways in which music functions not only on manuscript but on an emotional level. The only limitation of such provision is that it is harder to standardise and to assess the quality of the content. However, should art ever be restricted or confined in any way? Perhaps the freedom and flexibility of these activities is what allows the students to realise their artistic potential.


To conclude, the National Curriculum is ever changing and due to on-going limitations, the provision of creative subjects is always in jeopardy. This has a directly negative influence on the artistic freedom of musicians and interferes with the classroom and teachers’ capability of facilitating creativity. If a relationship with music is to develop outside of the classroom then the provision of extra curricular music activities is almost essential. This provision can be personalised and offers plenty of flexibility. With an art form that is so freely expressive, intricate and arguably spiritual, versatility in delivery is something that should only be sought after, for we all have individual voices.

Accessing thoughts, feelings and emotions in young people with autism and learning difficulties using songwriting

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My name is Jim Chorley and I work for SoCo Music Project. I’m a community music practitioner with my specialism being songwriting. I work with groups of vulnerable young people and adults across Southampton and Hampshire. I see my role as being a facilitator, enabling people to connect with their innate and inherent musically creative selves.

I have been working in a specialist secondary school in Basingstoke for young people with learning difficulties for the last five months. Along with three other colleagues, with have been delivering a tailor made 10 week music programme for the full year 8 cohort. There are four cohorts in total and at present we are teaching the third one. The programme consists of songwriting, drumming and percussion workshops, singing lessons and music production using relevant iPad apps, with the tenth and final lesson culminating with a live performance of their original songs and music.

I am aware that there is a pervading assumption and stereotype that people with autism cannot understand emotion and lack empathy, but there are up to date findings and research that offer a very different picture of an autistic individual’s response to emotional stimuli. This post offers an insight into using songwriting as a vehicle to both elicit and discuss these emotional responses, and how they can then be understood and utilised creatively and musically.

We start each cohort with a songwriting workshop and this songwriting thread is followed throughout the course. In the first lesson we encourage the young people to listen to an original song I’ve written called ‘Gabi and the Crow’. I play the song live using my acoustic guitar and for many this is the first time they have heard live original music in their classroom. The song is written about a young girl who every day would feed the crows in her back garden. One day she goes to feed them and discovers that they have brought her trinkets and treasures in return for her kindness.

Before I play the song I, ask the young people to listen carefully and try to find ‘what they think the song is about’ ‘What the title could be’ ‘Any lyrics they hear’ and most importantly ‘how does the song make them feel’ ?. These questions within this starter activity are to initiate a deeper and more profound listening experience. Asking these questions, as we listen to a song we’ve never heard before, isn’t usually the way we listen to music, but this task is designed to encourage the young people to begin accessing and understanding the thoughts, emotions and creative motives within and behind the songwriting process.

In the feedback element of the workshop the young people are encouraged to share their findings and talk about the meanings and motifs they have uncovered from their listening task. As mentioned previously, I am aware that there is an assumption that people with autism cannot understand emotion and lack empathy, but we find the young people will readily tell us how the song made them feel and how they related to the songs content. They will inform us that the song made them feel a variety of things, ranging from happy to reflective to interested to a feeling of sadness. At the beginning of this listening and speaking task we make sure to tell the young people that there are no ‘wrong’ answers and that because they are all individuals they will all respond differently. This encourages them to share their thoughts and feelings without the pressure of there being only one ‘right’ answer. This is a very different way of viewing ‘answers’ in an educational sense for many of the group, as they have grown up understanding that in other subjects there are hard and fast rules. Being right, isn’t what is required in these sessions. It is about being an individual and having faith and trust in your own personal feelings, emotions and responses. These discussions are an open forum where we as practitioners are also stimulated to view our songs from the young people’s perspectives and it is interesting how the songs can be seen to have very different meanings than we first imagined.

In the creation of their own songs the young people are encouraged to use the feedback process as a motivation to access and connect with their imagination and intuition.

In this connection they write lyrics, melody and music which are individual, emotive and relatable.

Songs and music play an important role in our culture. We listen for enjoyment and pleasure, we are elevated and enlightened and our thoughts, feelings and emotions are heightened. The young people with autism and learning difficulties that we have worked with, access all of these feelings and emotions and in educational settings can be inspired to create and write meaningful, moving music and songs.

Developing Urban Music

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Urban Music is a broad term and includes diverse genres such as house, drum & bass, hip hop, dubstep and grime, all genres that generally only make an appearance in informal music making, yet often make up the whole musical fabric in the lives of many young people. Since SoCo began delivering music making sessions in 2008, we found that in the youth clubs, the town centres and outside of school there was a passion for gritty, DIY Urban Music that was accessible, achievable and shareable for young people, especially those that would be considered “hard to reach”. Many an evening was spent in youth clubs across Hampshire, downloading instrumental tracks from YouTube and recording complex crafted bars with young MCs, rappers and poets. Their 8 or 16 bar pieces would have flow, expression and rhythm, conjure images of real (or imagined) life, be full of humour, anger and pathos. These were young people on the fringes of mainstream education, disengaged from the English, maths and music lessons that had no resonance in their lives, yet their creativity, their intelligence and their passion came alive through this engagement with a music rarely offered or even understood in school. It’s no wonder these young people were disengaged with their education.

Fast forward to 2017, the most recent recipient of the Mercury Music Prize, Skepta, is a grime artist, YouTube channels showcasing grime and Urban music reach audiences in their tens of millions but grime has not lost its connection with its roots. Prominent and popular artists including Stormzy, Kano and Wiley still record videos in car parks or town centres, and fame and notoriety can come not through intensive gigging, or label support but through a viral video. Young grime artists feel connected and have ownership over their music, grime can be made on a smartphone, they see those at the top of their game and see that it’s achievable.

So a vibrant and exciting genre that engages some of the hardest to reach young people and provides an opportunity to showcase their skills and talents in areas they find “challenging” in school. It’s a genre that has been supported for years in informal settings but is mostly avoided by schools, formal settings and music services. The formation of Music Education Hubs has promised to support “all” young people engage in music but still we find that Urban Music is not given the status or credibility in education that other genres are given, including contemporary music such as rock and pop.

This makes it even more important that there continues to be a supportive and inspiring offer for emerging talents in Urban Music in the community. Here at SoCo we believe we’ve found a way too take this informal activity and provide pathways and progression for aspiring young artists: we are creating a specific role within our organisation, an Urban Music Development Officer.

This role will have 3 distinct functions: mapping and supporting the Urban Music offer in the city; exploring potential partnerships and best practice across the country; and building a strong evidence base demonstrating the impact of positive Urban Music pathways for young people. Urban genres have been at the heart of our work for nearly 10 years, and now we want to extend that informal support, creating a solid and visible ecosystem for urban music to flourish.

We are at the start of this journey, focusing on the local offer we want to bring artists, producers and performers together, developing a culture for positive performance, collaboration and support. We want young people to share their ideas and skills, and bring in experts to increase the industry knowledge in the city. We are aware of some great projects taking place in other parts of our region: AudioActive are supporting emerging talent in Brighton; Music Fusion in Havant are supporting young artists with a label led by young people; Readipop’s Urban Orchestra provides innovative performance opportunities; and Gilles Peterson’s Future Bubblers project is providing much needed support for leftfield artists outside of London.

During this pilot phase we are working with Southampton Music Hub to build a picture of Urban Music in the city and start laying the foundations for a supportive and nurturing environment for existing, emerging and aspiring artists. We would love to hear from organisations and projects from across the country that are on this journey or who have made progress supporting Urban Music in their area. For more information or to discuss your journey with us please get in touch:

How does music challenge the restrictive linearity of Gender Identity?

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For several months, my colleague Jim and I have led songwriting workshops to Breakout youth group. The young adults that attended the sessions ranged between the ages of 11-23 and were members of the LGBT community. We delivered monthly sessions in Southampton, Eastleigh and Basingstoke with approximately 60 young people involved in total.

The aim of these sessions was to write and record an album that explored the themes of sexuality and of self-expression. The album consisted of 12 tracks that offered plenty of variety (e.g. band performances, poetry reading, singer/songwriters). The album will soon be physically available to those that participated in the project and will be digitally accessible to everybody else on BandCamp shortly.

But aside from the creation of this albums’ worth of original material, the sessions proved to be an immensely eye-opening experience for me. We were working with some of the most emotionally mature, strong, independent and inspirational young people I had ever met.

In a world plagued by prejudice and judgement, growing up is never an easy thing but some of these individuals I believe have had more life experience already than some people get their entire lives. From birth, we are assigned a sex and expected to conform to the demands and expectations of being a boy or a girl. That label is thought to define who we are. But what if it is not that simple? What if you don’t feel like you’re in the right body? What if it’s not that you just don’t feel like a boy or a girl but that you know you simply are not what you are ‘supposed’ to be? Some of these young people live and experience this reality on a daily basis. Some have supportive networks, others are not quite so fortunate.

For Jim and I, we were able to develop close relationships with these young people, explore the day-to-day challenges they faced and provide them with a platform for free-expression. Often, they told us that the provision of these workshops and this opportunity for them to express themselves through song was something that they looked forward to each week. One person in particular mentioned that it was the only time and place that they felt they could be bothered to talk to anyone, that it was the only place they felt they were truly heard, accepted.

The fact that acceptance seemed to be such a rarity in these young people’s lives really upset me. There was no reason as to why this should be the case as they were all particularly loving, friendly, empathetic people. To me, gay or straight, male or female, wishing to avoid such labels entirely, we should be able to be who we want to be for we all live our own lives and not the lives of others. It seemed clear to me that these young people were not the problem.

Fortunately, music helped us to explore this reality and explore this desire for acceptance. Jim and I learnt a lot through this experience, from things as basic as new terminology (i.e. non-binary, gender-fluid) to things far more significant (concerning aspects of these young people’s personal lives). But something that we found particularly fascinating and perhaps most challenging to address were pronouns. Instead of referring to he/she/his/her, we were encouraged to use they and them and address people by name. This was because some individuals were non-binary, and preferred to avoid the label of either sex. Others were gender-fluid, with their preference fluctuating on a sometimes-regular basis. Although this was new and difficult to embrace at first, it was clear to us that by avoiding sex-specific pronouns and by making more of an effort to address individuals by name we were able to make the young people feel more comfortable in our presence and as a result, they were happier to engage in the activities of the sessions. It had not occurred to me just how difficult it is to be labelled as man or woman, nor had it previously occurred to me that maybe people just don’t want to be one or the other. I would not be surprised if non-binary sexuality is often the result of frustration and the desire to escape the conformity of sexuality. Why should things be so linear? Why do we have to be a certain way? Can we really help it if something does or doesn’t feel right?

To conclude, it seems that the concept of gender identity is not quite as straightforward as some people make it out to be. When we begin to make categorisations (i.e. Man or woman, gay or straight), we begin to depersonalise individuals, remove their characteristics, traits and overlook what makes that person truly them. Music is simply a tool that can be used to explore and challenge the restrictions of this. It acts as a means of expression and allows us to communicate with each other in inexplicable ways. With such ignorance in the world, we need to rely on these alternative forms of communication if we are to truly understand, appreciate and accept one another. A lot goes on beneath the surface for a person. Discomforts, fears and anxieties cannot be left in the dark and require somebody to cast light upon them. If music is the key, then so be it.