Category Archives: Articles and comment

Music changing lives III: music therapy for profound and multiple learning disabilities

If you have a spare ten minutes and would like to see the difference music can make to some of our society’s hardest to reach individuals, then watch this incredibly moving video:

http://www.artsjournal.com/slippeddisc/2013/03/how-music-therapy-reaches-people-who-are-lost-to-the-world.html

Most of us will encounter someone with severe and disabling learning difficulties at some point in our lives, and some of us are in day to day contact with them. The approach used in the film – using ‘communication passports’ to document each individual’s unique modes of communication – is an ingenious idea for those who work with people with severe disabilities and one which I feel should become more widely known and used.

An organisation that works with disabled people to make music is Drake Music Scotland, which I visited a few months ago to see what they do and how they overcome the difficulties of making music when someone has disabilities like limited motor control. They have a number of very cool adaptive technologies, including a squidgy cube called the Skoog that responds to touch, a beam of light that produces sounds when it is broken (called Soundbeam) and a space age headband that reads your brainwaves to produce music (which I didn’t see in action).

In the comments on the video, someone suggests this approach should be used for the treatment of older people as well. I agree, and think that the arts have an enormous role to play in the care and enjoyment of the vunerable in our society. At the moment, I am working on a concept which involves providing support and befriending as well as a creative activity, such as music or art, for older and isolated people in the community. This is still in the very early planning stages, so I’ll post more about it as the project progresses.

Advertisements

Music Changing Lives II: Gareth Malone’s Military Wives

‘Before, we were just military wives, stuck at home with the kids. People are actually hearing us now and we’ve got a voice’ (Choir member)

Last November, a 3-part TV documentary called about a choir formed from the wives and girlfriends of the armed forces was aired, presented by choirmaster and musician Gareth Malone. The series culminated with the choir’s televised performance at the Royal Albert Hall in the Remembrance Day celebration, and the choir became something of a phenomenon when their spin off single ‘Wherever you Are’ out sold the X factor’s offering to become Christmas Number One.

Malone, who is about as enthusiastic and inspiring as they come and has also presented other series’ of The Choir in different contexts, recruits a wide range of women who are left behind when their husbands are called up and we journey with the choir from its tentative formation to the moment when it comes to national prominence via its televised performance in front of the Royal family. The resulting Military Wives Choir was formed initially from women at Chivenor Royal Marines base in Devon, all of whom had husbands on active service in Afghanistan. Later, Gareth decides to expand the choir and adds in women from Royal Citadel, Plymouth, causing initial resentment at their abilities but eventually a sense of pulling together and communal solidarity prevails. We see the choir perform first in front of the rear guard (members of the military who are not on active service), in Barnstaple, and at Armed Forces Day in Plymouth and at Sandhurst for the passing out parade-an event which Gareth admits is ‘the scariest gig of my life!’

The series sensitively explores what life is for the women left behind while their husbands are away and the vulnerability and isolation they feel, especially those looking after young children. The idea of the choir was to add a bit of fun to their existence as they wait for their husbands to come home: to bring them together and provide them with a collective ‘voice’. The emotion of the women as they sing is palpable, especially when Gareth arranges for them to broadcast one of their sessions over the radio to the troops abroad.

One woman explains what it is like having a partner away:

‘When your husband’s away, it’s like your life almost is put on pause…You don’t want to do things because you feel guilty that you’re having fun with your children….You just count your days down and wait till you get to the end…’

One young woman in particular, Sam, is particularly affected by joining the choir. She had originally wanted to study music at university and had sung in a choir at school, but gave up her dream to marry her partner and now has small children. Gareth identifies her as having a big talent but zero confidence to use it; at first, she refuses to sing in public and even when he asks her to sing in front of him in her home she is reluctant. As the series progresses however, Gareth puts more and more responsibility on her and by the end, she is confident enough to sing the solo in the Albert Hall beautifully and movingly in front of millions. After singing a solo at Sandhurst, Sam enthuses, “I feel so good now, I want to go back and do it again! It was amazing, I feel so much more confident now, and now I can just take on anything!” Gareth comments, “She needs to sing, this woman. And it’s really good to have helped her.”

After the performance at the Royal Albert Hall Gareth, summarises his feelings about the choir: “These are women who, because of their natural tendency to get on with it stoically, just hide their light under a bushel and that’s a terrible shame – they have so much to be proud of, so much to celebrate and I don’t think there has ever been a forum to celebrate military wives before and we’ve just made one, and it felt really really fantastic and an honour to be part of that. And music did that, not me, not them, music did it for them.”

See the Military Wives singing in the Royal Albert hall on youtube here

The BBC series summary is below:

‘Choirmaster Gareth Malone believes singing can help people through the most difficult times of their lives. Armed with his keyboard, Gareth has been invited to RMB Chivenor military base in north Devon, where the troops are about to deploy for a six-month tour of duty in Afghanistan.

While the troops are away, Gareth hopes to start a choir with the wives and girlfriends left behind to help them through the worrying time.

Gareth soon discovers that living on an isolated estate on the edge of the military base has left the wives longing to have a voice to express the difficulty of their lives. But can he inspire his fledgling choir to have the confidence to sing in public?’

Music Changing Lives I: ‘Inspiring Change’

Recently, I’ve been thinking about the different ways music can be used in the community, and I’ve decided to write a series of posts about a few that have made the news in recent years and their social impact.

I’d like to start with a lesser known but hard hitting project, called ‘Inspiring Change’ which took place in 2010. Its rather bland name gives no hint of what the project was actually about – it was a pioneering collaboration between Motherwell College, a dozen arts organisations and the Scottish Prison Service to provide arts outreach to those inside Her Majesty’s prisons. The arts organisations involved were Scottish Opera, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, the National Galleries of Scotland, the Scottish Ensemble, the National Youth Choir of Scotland, the Citizens Theatre and the Traverse Theatre, and funding was provided by the Scottish Government and the Scottish Arts Council. The project included rigorous evaluation so that the benefits that it brought could be recognised and applied to future projects of this sort.

Scottish Opera and the SCO collaborated on a project working in HMP Shotts, where the offenders were involved in creating an opera from scratch, including writing the libretto, music, designing costumes and sets, then staging a performance of their work. Reading violinist Rosenna East’s account of the project in the Herald, I’m struck by the enthusiasm and eagerness of the prisoners to participate in the project, especially to sing, when we are constantly told by the media that classical music, and especially opera, is for the elite and is definitely ‘not cool’. Rosenna writes, ‘Only one man says to me that he will get “slagged” if he has anything to do with the project’, and that this man eventually ended up in one of the music writing groups. How many of us would expect this reaction if an orchestra and opera company were to walk into a prison or young offenders institute? I find it surprising and wonderful that the stereotypes don’t fit.

The project at Her Majesty’s Young Offenders Institute Polmont was divided into three separate projects: the Scottish Ensemble’s Music for Change, which focussed on learning tp play and record music, National Youth Choir of Scotland’s VoiceMale, which was a series of vocal workshops culminating in a performance, and an art project by the National Galleries of Scotland in which individuals constructed life size human figures. A research paper (which can be found here) summarised the outcomes of these projects, and contained the following reactions from some of the young offenders:

‘I’ve never really had a chance to do anything like that. Never really had a chance to put on a show for anybody’

‘At the end of the performance I actually got compliments. They said it was good and I should carry on when I get out. It was surprising and it was good to hear, you know what I mean?’

‘I was just more eager to do it. It was something you wanted to do… Other things you wouldn’t want to put the time and effort into. I actually tried. I tried and made an effort for it.’

‘They [the arts practitioners] told you what to do but they never pushed you or forced you. They helped you. They weren’t too bossy. And the way that they did it, it worked out good, you know what I mean? You learned from them.’

 ‘Music gives you extra skills…it can open your eyes and you say [to yourself] I didn’t know I could do that before I came here and it turns out I can and I’m quite good at it’.

Overall the report emphasises the improved engagement of the young men: the sense of meaning and purpose the projects gave them, and the improvements in confidence and self esteem that being involved with others focussed on a common goal brought about. As the report stated, ‘engagement in the arts projects seemed to challenge the passivity of prison life.’

More information about Inspiring Change can be found on the SCO Connect’s page about the project here