Sunday, 10 November 2013

It's Been So Long!

In my role as a member of the Northamptonshire Musical Inclusion Development Team I've recently been working on some amazing projects with young people attending hospital schools (both residential and day); young carers; young people not in education, employment or training, and children in care.  As part of a strong team with a wide range of music and teaching skills and experience, we have an amazing opportunity to develop our work together in Northamptonshire.   Simon Steptoe does an excellent job in finding cold spots where we, as a team, can make a difference, and has provided thought-provoking and practice-changing training opportunities for us all.  I am SO GLAD to have been invited to be part of this team, what a great challenge and enhancement to my already diverse career in music.

I've also been contributing blog entries to the Youth Music Network ( ) - and have decided to keep a record of them here on my own site - so here they are so far:


I was looking through my phone at the end of a very busy week, checking to see if I'd missed any important messages that needed a response. Thankfully I hadn't, but while I was reflecting on all the different projects and children I'd been working with, I was moved to send a message to the mother of a child I've been teaching regularly for the last year, once a week, in small group African drumming sessions at his primary school.

"Just thought I'd like to tell you what a great student Liam has become in African drumming this year.  His attitude to learning has vastly improved, he's not so hard on himself, and is absolutely a STAR supporting young Isaac in the group.  I'm very proud of him."

Shortly after sending the text, the response came back.

"Ah, thank you.  He is so chuffed.  He is struggling with his own self belief at the moment, as he is below his friends academically, and being tested for dyslexia.  Your text has made my day.  I've just told Liam, and he now has a big smile on his face getting into bed."

The back-story is that Liam first came to me in Year 5 as an enthusiastic, lively boy, who got extremely angry and sometimes upset if he didn't grasp a rhythm immediately, especially as there was another boy in his group who was very quick at picking up new rhythms.  Initially I struggled with Liam, not knowing anything of his background.  I was frustrated that such a young child could be so angry.

A clue came one day, when I asked who would be coming to watch their performance in Celebration Assembly.  Proudly they all listed Mums, Dads, siblings, grandparents.  Liam became more withdrawn, angry and tearful.  It became clear that his Dad had abandoned him, he never sees him, and it is obviously a great problem for him emotionally, and has a great effect on how he sees his own self-worth.

In my role as a peripatetic teacher (which only takes up one day a week) I realised there is so much I don't know about the children with whom I work, and this incident was a real eye-opener for me.  I was empowered to change the way I work, focusing as much on the emotional development of my students as on making brilliant drumming music.  As a freelancer I'm not bound by syllabus, exam results, or other constant pressures that teachers are under.  My lessons are often student-led, and we have a great deal of fun, which, to quote the mother of another pupil recently:

"It is so uplifting to imagine Callum and Jacob in their drum lesson with you.  I so agree with having fun - you absorb the learning before you realise.  I'm so glad you're able to continue teaching them at High School.  I feel it's amazing expression, and exercise of Callum's energy and twinkle, that I hope he keeps as he grows up and his routine schooling becomes more rigid and less expressive."

I guess the main point of this blog, for me, is to remind myself, and hopefully encourage others, to keep our own energy and twinkle, to have fun making music, to change the world for our students, and never lose sight of why we do what we do.  What a brilliant way to live and work!


I recently attended a training day in Leicestershire, facilitated by Phil Mullen, focusing on working with Children in Challenging Circumstances.  Delegates were asked to present questions for discussion, and one of my questions was "Is there a place for instrumental or culturally specific music delivery within the context of working with CCC?"

You might wonder why I asked this question, as surely all music has its place?

The reason for my question was that there seems to be a great deal of focus on songs and songwriting for young people who face major challenges in their lives. As a facilitator whose work includes leading a great deal of traditional African drumming, I was beginning to feel that perhaps my skills were not as valuable as those of the rest of the Musical Inclusion Development Team (MIDT) at NMPAT ( who all offer songwriting options in their portfolios.  Songwriting is, after all, a very personal way to explore and express some of the deep issues that the young people are dealing with.  Can learning traditional rhythms from West Africa be equally relevant?

Several days later our MIDT arrived at a residential secure hospital unit in Northamptonshire, to deliver taster sessions for 14-18 year olds with chronic mental health issues, including PTSD and conduct disorders, leading to behavioural and educational challenges.

During planning meetings with staff at the unit, we had learned that they have a Djembe Drum Circle run by staff each week, and a range of other music activities, including guitar, drum kit and piano lessons, for which there is a waiting list.  I suggested opening our tasters with some traditional African drumming, which would be an immediate link between the young people and our team.  We then travelled to Brazil (not literally!) for a Samba Reggae session, and culminated with improvisation-based composition, with students and staff playing a range of tuned and untuned instruments.

This day's work answered my question in a way that discussion at a training session had not.  Perhaps I had forgotten what happens each time a group of people of any age, ability, gender or ethnicity enters a space that is full of drums, surrounded by a circle of chairs.  In that circle we all have our place.  We can be as visible or invisible as we want.  There is a leader whose job is to create a safe and supportive space where rhythms can be learned, absorbed, played, heard and shared.  Those rhythms and drums can stay in their traditional place musically, but they can also be used to play and create music that crosses all boundaries, working with any other instruments or voices in any genre.  I absolutely learned that my place in the team is equally valuable, and the improvisation at the end of the day was absolutely awesome ... particularly the drumming, I thought :)


I'm sure we all have memories of just one small, throw-away comment from a teacher or mentor in our past, that has stayed with us and shaped our development as people and musicians.

I was recently leading a West African drumming session with a group of NIEETs teenagers in Corby for the Northamptonshire Musical Inclusion Development Programme

At the beginning of the session I asked the young people what, if any, musical instruments they already played.  One girl said she loved music and had tried guitar and clarinet and piano, but "wasn't any good at them."  I told her that I had an adult student who had come to me with the same story, saying he hadn't yet found his instrument, and that now he is successfully playing djembe with my own group, The Sileby Slappers, and with other groups in the East Midlands.

At the end of the session we asked the young people for any feedback they would like to give us ... and one comment was "I think I've found my instrument ..."

Never underestimate what difference you are making.  You may feel like a drop in the ocean, but the ripples you make may become gigantic waves ...