Throughout the Covid-19 lockdown, many families with disabled children said they felt isolated and overlooked, with reduced access to vital services and opportunities for social interaction. In response, the LMN Wales team set up an ambitious new online music programme providing bespoke sessions for children with additional learning needs and/or mental health needs and their families. Many of the families told us that the sessions have been the highlight of their week during these difficult times.
LMN Wales musician, Angharad Jenkins (fiddle / vocalist from Welsh folk group Calan) worked with two families with very young children, between 1-2 years old. Both are non-verbal and have cerebral palsy. Here she reflects on what it was like to run the sessions.
How did you feel about moving your LMN sessions online?
I had already moved my private teaching online. However, I often use improvisation when working with children with disabilities and I was unsure whether this could work over a screen. I also needed convincing that online music sessions with such young children could be beneficial.
How did you prepare for the sessions?
I needed to find a space that I was comfortable playing in, which was quiet and removed from the rest of my chaotic family life, and look professional on-screen, so I hung up a white sheet to provide a plain backdrop for my sessions (and hide a bed!). Both myself and the families needed a strong internet connection and had to download Zoom. I called both families ahead of my first sessions to find out more about the children, their needs, any favourite music, and what – if any – musical instruments they had in the house.
Angharad delivers a live session whilst keeping an eye on her little girl: “I needed to find a space that I was comfortable playing in, which was quiet and removed from the rest of my chaotic family life”.
What happened in your sessions?
I always started off with a friendly ‘Hello Song’ but after that I approached my sessions with an open mind, using my ‘musical toolkit’ of activities and repertoire to dip into as appropriate. I always a played a couple of pieces for active listening – sometimes improvised or a special request from the family such as well-known nursery rhymes or TV theme tunes. I also included a participatory activity to give families a chance to use their musical instruments. The activities could be as simple as shaking a shaker along to the music or following the sound of the bells. The parents/carers had to be very active in this part, helping their children to participate. Each session ended with a goodbye song, followed by a chat about how the session had gone and requests for the following week.
V gets so excited with the mention of Angharad’s name. She loves listening to music that Angharad plays, she sings along and she loves playing the instruments too. V has developed greatly, she is now lifting musical instruments up and down, copying Angharad and playing the instruments.
“A lot of my work relies heavily on improvisation, and I enjoy responding to a child’s reaction through music.”
What were the challenges running the sessions online?
There were plenty of technical and practical challenges, including having a strong enough internet connection! I had a few teething issues with one family at the start, but we resolved it by moving closer to the broadband router. Another problem with making music online is the audio delay, or lag, which makes it impossible to play together. I had to encourage my families to sing along, but blanked them out as I played, or even switched them on mute! I told them not to take it personally! On a more practical level, a lot of my work relies heavily on improvisation and I enjoy responding to a child’s reaction through music. It’s harder to notice small responses over the screen and so I was very reliant on communication with the parents and grandparents.
It has also been great for myself and my husband – having the regular weekly sessions when we’re stuck indoors has given us something to look forward to, to see how much V enjoys it, it’s been great. We have also learned new music, enjoy singing to nursery rhymes and my husband can play a few notes
Are there any moments from the sessions that stand out for you?
Both children I worked with have a Baby Einstein Magic Touch Xylophone, which responds to touch. One child didn’t play it at all at the beginning of the sessions, but by week 8, she was able to purposefully move her hands up and down the keys depending on my instructions “go up” and “go down”. Her grandmother told me that she had continued with this activity between our sessions. The other child I worked with loves the sound of her favourite TV theme tunes, so I played the Emmerdale and Neighbours theme tunes on my violin every week; the smile that emerged on her face when she heard the music was infectious!
Since the first session, our daughter has come on leaps and bounds. She went from not being too sure of the noises to now loving the sessions. She is engaging with Angharad more and more and is now copying (her) actions. If we sing or play the Hello Song (away from the session), she starts smiling and rocking backwards and forwards as she knows what it means.
So, were the online session worthwhile?
Yes! Online sessions can’t ever replace the experience of live music in person, especially LMN sessions which are immersive, sensory experiences allowing children to get close to the instruments, feel their vibrations and the textures of the material – wood, silver, brass… You lose that element in the online sessions. However, I’ve still been able to personalise the content and make the sessions responsive to the children’s needs. It’s been lovely getting to know the families and watching the children develop and progress over the course of the eight-weeks. I felt I was able to make a small difference and give ideas to the parents on how to continue with the musical activities throughout the week. It has proved how important music is for the health and wellbeing of children and their families.
Advice for families and musicians? Stick with it!
Final thoughts …
My advice for families and musicians? Stick with it! Musicians shouldn’t be afraid to repeat the same repertoire and activities every week. Chose a couple of songs, and the children and their families will familiarise themselves with them over the weeks, and they will grow to love them. 2020 has been a strange and challenging time for us all due to Covid-19, and not least for those living with serious health conditions. In the wake of the lockdown we’re faced with difficult economic times but I hope that our governments don’t underestimate the power of the arts in getting society back on their feet.
Angharad has recorded two beautiful performances suitable for young children and their families which are available for free on our website (and below) in English and in Welsh. You can also read more about Angharad’s experience as a musician during lockdown in her pandemic diary entry for Live Music Now here.