The right tool for the job is sometimes a banana

As part of my ongoing campaign to fill my life with as much awesome work as possible, I have taken on some one-to-one music therapy style sessions with a young man who has cerebral palsy. This is the first time I’ve done a session that isn’t group work, and it’s really interesting to compare the two. One of the key advantages is that I can spend a lot more time developing the equipment and techniques that work best with his abilities, trying out new approaches, and observing closely what works best, and what he enjoys most.

IMG_2323For the young man in question – let’s call him Dee – fine motor skills aren’t currently possible but he has some movement in his arms and hands, and can vocalise, but both of these things take a significant amount of effort on his part. Because of my obsession with collecting and building unconventional instruments (which I’ll discuss in another blog), I’ve got a huge range of equipment to select from for music workshops, which for the technically curious I’ll list here – non technical folks can skip the rest of this paragraph. I use a laptop running Ableton Live and a multi-input soundcard (Tascam US-1641) instead of a mixer, using Live to mix the elements. I have an Akai MIDI controller keyboard, microphone, open-tuned guitar and Novation Launchpad, so I can jam on any instrument, or pass instruments to people I’m working with and grab loops to build songs. Live is also programmed with some drum loops and sound effects dependent on the group I’m working with. In addition to this, I add other input devices depending on the session, anything from Soundbeam to iPad to theremin to hand-made bits of equipment or reprogrammed video game controllers.

Right, non-technical folks back with me? Good – although I’m afraid I’m going to talk a bit more tech. So, with Dee, we had noticed some excellent early work with the Soundbeam – a device that’s like a keyboard but controlled by an ultrasonic sensor, and is triggered by any movement in front of it. Dee doesn’t have the motor skills to hit a key on a regular music keyboard, but by concentrating hard, he was able to interact with the Soundbeam and play along with the guitar I was playing. In this week’s session, I decided to also bring the Ototo gadget that I’d previously demoed in Forest High School. Again, I attached these to bananas, and the equipment needed a few modifications to deal with the slightly rougher play in the session, but once everything was firmly attached, Dee had a great time triggering a wide range of sounds from dogs barking to bass and piano sounds along with beats and accompaniment I provided.

All of this is great – there’s not a single session I deliver like this, where the focus is on finding out what people can do and building on it, that I don’t enjoy. If the enjoyment of the people was the only metric by which those working in community music were judged, everything would be peachy. But it isn’t. A great deal of formal music, including music lessons in school, is obsessed with grading music performances, and progression through those grades. The fun of playing is regularly replaced with rote┬álearning and exercises. One of the most joyous subjects can end up ground down to repetitive exercises. This was certainly my experience in my music lessons when I moved from Primary to Secondary school; my love of singing was quashed by an inability to read music and a lack of aptitude on recorder. I was labelled as Not Musical, humiliated and abandoned by the school system.

This is not uncommon, and I have spoken to literally hundreds of young people who share this experience – it’s almost as if removing the simple pleasure from music was the purpose of the process. Luckily for me, I am stubborn and contrary, and although I never gained the skills to be a virtuoso player or learned to read music, I used technology and bloody-mindedness to find my own ways to play and perform. Not everyone has the resilience to bounce back like I managed to, and I meet altogether too many people who consider themselves not musical, or say they can’t sing or play. And it saddens me that we allow students to leave education believing that they have no aptitude for the arts, and as I mentioned in my blog last week, I think it can lead to a lack of creative thinking that prevents people from fulfilling their potential in later life.

Play – by which I mean the act of enjoying something without judgement or grading – is extremely important in behavioural and emotional development. I have read a couple of really interesting articles about this recently – the first, by Peter Gray PhD. discusses how an absence of play can lead to an absence of personal control and ultimately depression in children:

The other I recalled was from a couple of years back, called ‘The Overprotected Child’ by Hanna Rosin, which discusses what we may have lost by preventing children to play on their own and manage their own risks and safety:

For some of the sessions I run, I try to invoke some of this spirit of the adventure playground for music. Sometimes I’ll lay out a table of instruments and give no instructions on how to use them, allowing those taking part to find out how things work on their own. This can often result in a terrible racket, microphones and guitars feeding back, synthesisers squealing, and support workers looking on in horror. But how often do we get an opportunity to go wild and make as much noise as we possibly can in the world today? Noise and play go hand in hand. It’s good to go bananas every now and again – sometimes literally.