Pete Wearn, the latest addition to our team of Music Leaders from Make Some Noise, reflects on his experience of making music at Two Rivers High School. 

In November 2020, I joined the long running Make Some Noise Next Level project at Two Rivers High School in Tamworth, led by Chris Watt.  It has been a turbulent few weeks, with the school being closed due to a number of positive COVID-19 tests at the end of our first day there, necessitating a rapid change to remote delivery, and now the January 2021 national lockdown putting the project on hold.

In spite of (or perhaps because of) this unconventional start, Make Some Noise have asked me to share some thoughts on my experiences as a music leader newly adjusting to a Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) setting with Youth Music Network so, based on my own experience and on the generously imparted wisdom of my colleagues, here are six things I have learned so far:

1. Be Adaptable

Although SEND is a catch-all for anyone whose educational requirements fall outside of mainstream education, the range of student needs you encounter is more diverse than you meet in a conventional classroom, and as such you need to be at peace with the fact that your carefully thought-out colour-coded & laminated lesson plan may need to be disregarded in the first few minutes of a session. It is key to keep in mind that since every group is different there is no single way to deal with every SEND class.

My very first experience in a SEND school was delivering a short six-week project based around iPad music-making & composition in a small secondary school last year – of the two classes we dealt with, one group were close in their abilities to a mainstream class, although with more of a tendency to go off track and become disruptive, while the other were much more limited in their engagement and we ultimately moved away from attempts to get them playing a chord-sequence in time together towards building soundscapes, and replaced our usual rhythm based warm ups with nursery rhyme singalongs.

2. Be Inclusive

With a wider range of abilities to deal with than in mainstream education it can be easy to focus on the work of relatively few outgoing and engaged pupils who dominate group discussions.  To make sure the whole group gets value from the activity it is important to make sure everyone has a chance to engage.

After our November shut down at Two Rivers, we conducted a lyric writing exercise remotely. What came back was less complete than if we had conducted the exercise in person, coming more in the form of word-clouds and ideas than complete verses, but conversely had wider engagement than expected, with contributions from across the school, including from students who had been historically more difficult to get involved in music.

3. Partnerships are important

One of the reasons I think the Two Rivers project works so well and has been successful is that the staff of the school are completely on board with the aims of the work and see the value in its delivery. Emails are answered promptly, equipment is freely shared, and people are keen to lend a hand or get involved.

Obviously, being the newcomer, I cannot take any credit for this state of affairs, but it has been refreshing to see, and all credit goes to Chris and the team at Two Rivers for the excellent relationship they’ve built over the years they have been working together.

4. Integrating technology is a useful tool

Technology has an important role to play in making music-making accessible to all in a SEND setting.  Utilising IT opens up composition and performance to those who may not have the motor skills to play a conventional instrument.

One key focus of Next Level is on forming and rehearsing an ensemble in order to progress to public performance. My first day on the project saw very significant movement towards the goal of public recital because of the decision to incorporate a mix of iPads and conventional instruments into the group, freeing up those who were able to grapple with a guitar or keyboard to do that without hinderance, whilst allowing fuller participation from those who had been struggling.

5. Cater to your audience (and don’t make assumptions)

With a SEND group it seems even more important than usual not to make assumptions about their interests and engagement.  Whereas it might be safe to suppose a group of teenagers in a mainstream school would have little interest in being taught pre-school staples like Old McDonald, for those with different needs it might be the perfect way to connect with them and enthuse them about making music. On the other hand, they may be obsessive about tech metal, but the key is to find out what works for them.

6. Remember to have fun

“Remember to have fun” should patently apply to any musical endeavour. Indeed, several musical collaborations I’ve been involved with over the years might well have survived a little longer if we’d kept those words in mind. In the educational environment however, they do sometimes get lost in the pressure to produce tangible outputs to show parents and funding organisations how hard we have all been working.  One of the greatest things I’ve seen at Two Rivers is the enthusiasm for music demonstrated by music leaders and school staff is quite clearly infectious and that shows in the response of the student body and their willingness to engage and participate with the Next Level project and other music activities.

Challenging Preconceptions: The Two Rivers Band on Tour across Tamworth, Staffordshire

Pete Wearn is a freelance musician working as an Assistant Music Leader for Make Some Noise. Find out more about Pete here