Performing concerts for young people in special schools has been a core LMN activity from the outset, enabling thousands of pupils to enjoy professional live music, many for the first time. The challenge for LMN groups is to adapt their performance to suit the particular needs of the audience – for example, thinking about communication, the pacing and choice of repertoire, and use participatory activities – to ensure that everyone is engaged, particularly those with complex needs. Each LMN group refines their own approach over time; when they get it right, sessions can be memorable for both the audience and the musicians.
Earlier this month, LMN Wales musicians Rachel Marsh (soprano) and Philip May (piano) from the group Triptych undertook their first LMN Special Schools tour, visiting seven schools in the Poole and Barnstaple areas of the South West of England. The project was funded and supported by the Talbot Village Trust and Barnstaple Bridge Trust. Whilst they were travelling, Rachel and Philip kept a diary of their experiences. These extracts give a really vivid account of the type of work LMN musicians deliver in special schools.
Tuesday morning: Langside School
The staff at this school were inspiring: there was almost completely one-on-one care. We were quite nervous to start, but eventually relaxed. We took an entirely sensory approach to the session, using items such as the silk scarves and a big cuddly Olaf toy used as a puppet. One child was upset to begin with, but was very happy during our Frozen medley, which was very uplifting to see. Our performance of Mozart's Alleluia needs something more sensory involved for a setting like this in future. Overall, the children’s reactions were very emotional and strong. A number of staff – and Rachel! – were in tears both during parts of the performance and afterwards.
Tuesday afternoon: Linwood School
The staff present were fantastic – they got involved and encouraged pupils to participate (dancing during Happy which the children responded to). We incorporated a loud and quiet exercise into the session as the children had been covering this during the term. They had also been learning different hand signals for verse, chorus and instrumental, which we used in our Sam Smith song. We'll endeavour to use these in our future sessions with older children. One boy who was troubled at the start of the session ended up conducting in our exercise and participated with percussion too.
Wednesday morning: Winchelsea School
A really good assembly hall with good acoustics – we had to have head mics to be heard when speaking, though! Rachel had to tread carefully with noise levels when singing, though, and switched between using the mic and not. There was enough space to allow Rachel to move around the audience and interact/get up close when possible. The Frozen medley went down very well – a group of girls stood up and performed the actions and danced along with Rachel. The Mozart sketch went down well and made the children laugh. Our ‘listen-to-this-and-tell-us-what-it-makes-you-think-of' exercise with Reger's Maria Wiegenlied produced some excellent responses: 'made me sleepy', 'made me sad', 'really nice'. The headteacher noted that the reception class stayed in the room for the whole session when she had expected them to have to leave part way through. She was moved to tears at various reactions from the children. A number of children spoke to us afterwards and wanted us to come back. Some shook our hands, too.
Wednesday afternoon: Montacute School
We had the opportunity to use sign language in this school, using it to indicate 'loud' and 'quiet' in the conducting exercise. We'll use this in future schools, even if there are no hearing issues amongst the children. The use of percussion in “Amarillo” was a hit and we did it again as an encore! We might include a kind of 'goodbye' song in our repertoire for future performances. One would have gone down well here as we ended on a high, but could have done with an extra piece.
Thursday morning: Tregonwell Academy
We undertook 3 sessions in this school (each of which was split according to age group), each of which was distinctly different. The first session (the youngest children) was very positive and enjoyed by both the children and the staff. One teacher asked each child to say which activity they enjoyed most. Answers included “the Minion”, “the music”, and “the dancing”. The second and third sessions weren't quite as positive, although the 'Guess the Language' exercise worked well and kept them listening.
Thursday afternoon: Longspee Academy
This was another amazing session. The school has received visits from LMN musicians before, and used the session as a reward for a selection of students who had behaved well that day. Two pupils had – we were later told – challenging behavioural issues before the session but during the session they behaved outstandingly well and participated wonderfully.
Great support and encouragement from the teachers present. Even the less enthusiastic students joined in at times during songs such as “Amarillo” and “Happy”. Rachel noticed by the end of the session that our set could include more English language songs or we could perform the same songs but in English in order that the children may comprehend them more readily.
Our 'listen-to-this-and-tell-us-what-it-makes-you-think-of' exercise with Reger's Maria Wiegenlied made them fall silent! This was magical as they'd been very lively beforehand. With this in mind, we should probably incorporate more physical activities for those groups with much more energy.
Friday morning: Pathfield School
Absolutely amazing two sessions at this school as well. Jenny was a really inspiring teacher: she has raised the music department in the school from scratch and the school has received a number of significant awards as a result. She was a joy to talk and work with.
The students love to sing on a regular basis – during our first session the whole room of students sang Everything is Awesome from the Lego Movie with Jenny at the piano. They clearly enjoyed it and it was wonderful to hear. They were very excited during our Frozen medley; at the end of it one girl asked to sing the duet with Rachel, which we were able to do! After the first session some of the students performed to us (one boy on the accordian and the guitar). The same boy was able to repeat the chords from “Happy” and “Amarillo” (which we had performed in the session) and used the TV in the room as a mirror to find the chord shapes on the guitar and notes on the accordion.