Welcombe Hills School, Stratford upon Avon
A setting for children and young people with learning disabilities aged 2-19
CRE8US CHANGE SCHOOL PROGRAMME 2009-2010
Freelance musician, workshop leader and creative project manager
Working as a practitioner on a Cre8us project taught me more about my creative abilities in 20 weeks than I had learned in the previous 20 years. Reflecting on the experience, my learning came about through the opportunities for collaboration and risk-taking which the project’s construct enabled.
I’d worked as a music practitioner for several years before I became involved with Cre8us, as an orchestral musician and workshop leader with Orchestra of the Swan. I already had a particular interest in working in settings for people with additional needs. I’d designed, led and managed school projects and had almost always worked with other musicians.
A year or so before the Cre8us project I’d introduced Welcombe Hills to the Music Technology associates of Town Hall Symphony Hall Education, and we’d explored working together in series of three or four sessions. This led to some really interesting work and, though we’d all recognised that the students both enjoyed it and were able to achieve new things, further collaboration wasn’t possible at that time. The school had also begun to work separately with film specialists from THSH.
With the involvement and financial support of Cre8us, the school took a bold step. They invited a collaboration of live musicians from Orchestra of the Swan (a partner in the school’s specialist status), film and animation specialist Jonathan Lee, and Mat Beckett- music technology specialist.
Collaborating with other experienced creative practitioners was fantastic because each individual brought a different creative viewpoint and skill to the work. Before Cre8us I was making my way in the dark really, going on instinct and taking what I could of the training and networking which came my way. I knew that I was concluding projects feeling a bit dissatisfied and that there was more substance to be had, but couldn’t quite put my finger on what was missing. In common with a lot of freelancers, I seldom got to see how other practitioners worked or how they assessed themselves, and the educational work of other artists seemed difficult to access. I’d had great conversations with supportive and encouraging teachers, but these were disjointed and rushed because of time pressures and interruptions. It could be difficult to make meaningful observations or to implement changes in projects which lasted just three or four sessions. Working with my co-practitioners and Cre8us over a long-term project gave me the tools to identify and implement positive change.
Cre8us scheduled routine planning and reflection sessions within each school day which were facilitated by our Creative Agent, Nikky Smedley. In reality they were free-ranging creative conversations, pretty similar to the ones I was having in my performance practice. Ringfenced time was set aside with teachers to ask questions, examine progress and problems, and simply to imagine. The discussion time seemed incredibly generous compared to my previous experience. I felt that I should be offering Delivery all the time! It seems obvious now, but it took a while for me to realise that being able to talk in depth and to explore the needs and responses of the individual students carefully made the quality of the work better. Quite often, the ensuing class activity produced the answers to questions which had been left open in the discussion. It also enabled us to reflect in the context of the earlier planning, allowing us to draw sound conclusions and take decisive action for learning in future sessions.
I now schedule much more time with school staff to jointly plan and monitor the work we’re going to do, and I have the right vocabulary to explain why this is so important to meaningful outcomes for a school, its pupils and practitioner. If you’re only looking to tick boxes in the curriculum, you miss so much other valuable learning. I’ve learned to work much more effectively with teachers. I’m better placed to support them objectively, better understand the pressures facing them, and am better able to support the assessment of pupils’ development.
As a performer you take a risk every time you go on stage, but the rehearsal process manages out most of the unknowns to produce a polished ‘product’ for the audience. Workshops aren’t like that. Cre8us workshops are especially not like that. Thanks to the Unknown and Untested, they’ve been among my most satisfying musical experiences.
Before Cre8us, I’d planned session outlines in consultation with teaching staff and shaped them to work with curriculum goals. I’d noticed that when it was possible to go with the flow of what the pupils brought to the day, they were better engaged because they could influence the activities. I loved being led by the class. The downside was that this ‘risky’ method didn’t always sit well with class teachers. It sometimes led to moments of excitement (often interpreted as disruptive behaviour) and I sometimes struggled to find the right language to explain the learning which had taken place. I didn’t want the students to ‘sit down and keep still’ all of the time- it seems to contradict the effect of music on the body and mind. The absence of a Product felt like a tension. Given the pressure on teachers to account for pupils’ learning and behaviour, this is completely understandable, but I felt limited by it.
With hindsight, I needed to find a way to manage the attitude that a Music project should, inevitably, result in a high quality performance after two or three short sessions. I knew this wasn’t achievable given my genre and style of working, and I felt uneasy about a ‘product’ being the only means to demonstrate shared learning, alongside the loathing some students have of performance situations which can put them off joining in at all. I found it hard to put a voice to the real learning that was taking place from week to week within sessions, which frequently had nothing to do with the musical or curriculum aims of the project. They were associated with social and teamworking skills, problem solving, constructive discussion, creative thinking, confidence and self-esteem. I hadn’t yet been able to phrase these things in a way which would make the value of the sessions per se tangible and clear to senior stakeholders. I needed to be able to explain the benefits of risk-taking, going away from the session plan, and for the children’s creative choices ‘in the moment’ to have more weight, regardless of where they might or might not lead.
Finding myself with Cre8us in a special needs setting which supports holistic learning and celebrates every individual achievement was a gift. It enabled me, with the support of teachers, practitioners and the Creative Agent, to develop a flexible creative practice which I can explain, promote, justify, enjoy and- most importantly- evidence, thanks to Cre8us’ rigorous evaluation programme.
Cre8us put the Creative Process at the centre of everything that goes on by formally recognising that risk-taking is integral to learning and the development of ideas. The way we were supported to work led us to all manner of unexpected places and, by virtue of putting the students centre-stage and without limitation, allowed them to show us just how well they could achieve. They told us in their own unique ways what they liked and didn’t like and, in doing so, helped us to learn to look and listen in new and better ways. There is no greater challenge than to be asked to seek out Student Voice with students whose ability to communicate is severely restricted.
Not planning too tightly, and not seeking to create a concert-quality musical artistry each week were potential risks at the start of the work. I was fortunate in working with an excellent team of colleagues from Orchestra of the Swan- always willing to take a risk, always concerned about high quality workshop delivery but not worrying about artistry out of context. Able to improvise, relaxed about safe physical contact with their musical instruments, having an endless supply of ideas and encouragement. Tactile, sensitive and intuitive individuals. There were sessions which were challenging and difficult, but we took the learning from them and moved forward. The wider experience of our co-practitioners Jonathan Lee and Mat Beckett was a tremendous resource, and we worked hard to understand one anothers’ artforms so that we could support the students to combine the resources effectively.
We learned from teachers that Welcombe Hills valued our involvement as much for our personal qualities and non-verbal communication skills as for our musicianship, and in sharing that they have given us insightful, personal learning.
At Welcombe Hills, the idea of a performable Product had never been at the forefront of the school’s priorities for my practitioner work there. We shared our work with the other students when the pupils and staff felt that we’d made something they’d like to see, not with that being the aim at the outset. Within Cre8us, this really blossomed. The students were agreeable to a final Sharing of work in progress, demonstrating the types of activity they’d taken part in, much like an open session, and showing the films and audio work they’d created. I felt completely supported by the staff and the programme as a whole, and there was no pressure on anyone in the room. The response was overwhelming and moving.
In the sharing, the students (aged 10-16) danced with string ‘laser beams’ to improvised music, starting and stopping with the sounds; drew and painted free-form shapes whose shapes and textures beautifully mirrored the improvisations we played and – in reverse – drew shapes for us to characterise in music. Seeing this happen so naturally, with such synchronicity between a silent student and musician had a marked effect on the audience. We sang and played a song we’d written together called ‘Chocolate Land’, using well-developed language like, “Drink the chocolate river, choccy fox, lick it up in little drops”; and showed their films of a sad Hobo Oboe Snowman who finds new friends to cheer him up, and a Flying Carpet ride through the school. The response of parents and teachers was tremendous.
What have I learned?
I used to have quite a limited definition of myself as a musician who used the oboe as my means of expression. Through the challenges and formal reflection of Cre8us partnership work, I now think of myself very differently.
Having the mirror of reflective practice and the supportive honesty of co-practitioners, pupils, teachers and my Creative Agent, I learned that I’m a creative individual, not just an interpreter of other peoples’ compositions. I can be a producer, a catalyst for others’ creativity; I can use no instrument or any instrument or a piece of junk to stimulate ideas; I can make lots of sound or no sound, make it organised or chaotic and not worry about the restrictions of classical performance.
Initially, I was worried about the absence of pressure to create a ‘product’. I thought we might just meander through the programme and not be able to support any real learning. My more-experienced co-practitioners and our Creative Agent’s insightful observation showed me that learning will happen in most situations. The skill lies in identifying that learning (which may not be related to the musical aspects of what you’re doing at all), feeling confident to do so retrospectively, and having the skills to properly document the work and the learning.
In learning environments where time pressure and assessment can have such a high priority, it’s unusual and liberating to be encouraged to try new things; to not have to plan work to fit a curriculum; to stay away from a formula you know to be successful, and have someone ‘holding your hand’ while you walk the ensuing tightrope. Cre8us gave me that and, what’s more, celebrated the risk for its own creative sake. You can learn far more from something that doesn’t work the first time than from something that does. I suppose that’s the essence of the creative process which Cre8us helps to promote- the learning is in the doing of the thing, the journey, and not the finished product.
I now have the confidence and methodology to assert that a Learning programme is exactly that. It isn’t a series of rehearsals for a show. Preparing a performance calls for different skills.
I was allowed to take risks- that is, not to produce a concert performance, and even not to play my instrument within a session. I no longer feel guilty about making that choice because I have a better understanding of my creative ability. The students pushed me- deliberately and accidentally- to stretch my imagination, to make original and familiar things happen, to respond to them musically, physically, verbally and silently, and to laugh and enjoy the times when things didn’t quite work out.
I learned more about orchestral musicians’ ability to communicate without speech and to channel emotion in those weeks than I had up to that point in my life. We could sense something of what the students were saying even when they had no audible voice. We could internalise their mood and give it life in the world through our instruments, thereby influencing the experience of others. That’s what music, any art, is for. Giving voice to things for which there are no words. How did I forget?
With thanks to the teaching, support staff and management of Welcombe Hills School, Stratford upon Avon.
Freelance Musicians from Orchestra of the Swan:
Sally Harrop- clarinet
Naomi Rump- violin
Amelia Jones- violin
Tom Caldecote- clarinet
Simon Chalk- violin
Louise Braithwaite- oboe
Freelance Town Hall Symphony Hall Associate artists:
Jonathan Lee, filmmaking & animation specialist
Mat Becket, music technology specialist