Music as Therapy: Bedelsford Special Educational Needs and Disabilities School (Kingston-upon-Thames 2023)

In Spring 2023, Musicians’ Company Young Artists Gonçalo Maia Caetano (guitar) and Gus McQuade (guitar) lead a nine-week music project at Bedelsford SEND School, an outstanding special school which aims to provide innovative education and a challenging environment for pupils aged 2 to 19. Organised and funded by the Company, the project was part of our music-as-therapy work.

Gus McQuade tells us more about this uplifting experience.

“I came to this project having cut my music therapy teeth with a performance at the Royal Hospital for Neuro-disability. Except for one pupil, who loved to clap, the other pupils at Bedelsford School had complex disabilities that affected speech and movement. Luckily, Cat McDermid, the Company’s freelance Music Education and Participation Advisor, who’s done a lot of work in similar settings, was on hand to give us advice. The class teacher, Amy, was also a great support.

We began each session with a ‘Welcome’ song on the guitar. After a couple of sessions, we then subtly began linking mood to elements such as beat, rhythm and pitch. For example, we’d say: ‘How is K today?’, and the teacher would tell us if K was happy or sad. We’d then reflect a happy mood by playing genres such as Bossa Nova or a Brazilian mix that are generally faster in tempo and upbeat in sound.

As the project progressed, we got to know each pupil a little better. One girl preferred slower music; another would open their eyes and look around when you played something they liked. In a later session under Cat’s guidance, we were able to put some bells in a girl’s hands. As she shook the bells we improvised in time to her movements. We also improvised based on eye movement. When the pupil looked up, we’d play at a higher pitch. When the pupil looked down, we’d lower the pitch.

For the pupil who loved clapping we’d play a rhymical chord progression he could control. When he stopped clapping, we’d stop playing, until he started clapping again.

Celebrating different music tastes fitted nicely with the class theme for the year: “Getting on with people and celebrating difference”. It also helped to bring them together and create a fun experience in a way they wouldn’t otherwise enjoy. However, despite their different tastes in music, there were a couple of artists they all enjoyed listening or clapping along to – French/Tunisian composer, Roland Dyens, and Luiz Bonfá – Passeio no Rio, who for one reason or another brought the class a whole lot of joy.”

Hear Gus, winner of the New Elizabethan Award 2022, perform classical guitar.

Class leader Amy Brushaber said: “The Musicians’ Company project brought great joy to my #PMLD students, who each responded in their own way to the different pieces of music. The musicians were so professional, with great talent to share!” Thank you to Amy, all the students, to our volunteer Richard and of course our Young Artists.

Interview by Suzy Willmott

Suzy is freelance copywriter who works with the Musicians’ Company