Blog of Julian West

The Royal Academy of Music at St Ann's School

Julian West - Posted on 21.06.2018

Words by Carrie Lennard on Open Academy Music Technology Project

Open Academy fellows, led by Gawain Hewitt, took part in a composition project at St Ann's School, Hanwell.

St Ann’s is a secondary school for young people with severe, complex and profound learning difficulties. I selected two very different groups, one that was made up of more physically able students and another who have very limited movement. Our sessions run for 40 minutes. Group One (SLD , complex needs, more physically able) were very excited when they saw the Academy students and their instruments.

As soon as they heard them play, they were transfixed. The music was played again and this gave everyone a real opportunity to take in what was happening. The Academy students had already prepared a simple accompaniment for the young people to jam in with, using an iPad each, set up with the ThumbJam app in the C major pentatonic scale. Each student had a turn to improvise their own tuneful sounds and then, the opportunity to play in twos and threes, still all in tune with the accompanying music. It sounded fantastic. Then, moving on, Gawain asked if anyone would like to conduct, using a simple 'start' and 'stop'. This, some of the students could do, with support from the staff. This was the first session and wow, everyone loved it!

Next, was our PMLD group. We moved all our equipment to their classroom as the students there were positioned comfortably so as to make the most of our input. This was a very different experience. The Academy students, again, played their piece of music twice through to give everyone the chance to take it all in. Lots of smiles! It seemed that the young people were ready to progress to some musical activity. Again, each student had their own iPad set up in exactly the same way as with the previous class. Instead of leading from a prepared accompaniment, the students were given total freedom, time and space to play exactly what they wanted to play.

The Academy students sensitively, improvised a beautifully open-ended piece of music that enhanced everything the PMLD students played. A symphony! We continued in this vein for the whole session. It seemed that no one wanted to stop. In fact, quite the opposite! Jason had been fast asleep when we first arrived in the classroom but he quickly awoke and was smiling and playing energetically for nearly the whole session.

So, we’re very excited about session two. We know what can happen and because the doors are wide open in this beautiful and improvisatory way, new moments can spontaneously happen. We’re using our eyes, ears, hearts and the alchemy of music to bring out the best in us all!

SLD – Severe Learning Difficulties
PMLD – Profound and Multiple Learning Difficulties

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