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

Young Artists Elena Accogli (viola) and Joe Skypala (trumpet) joined longstanding Liveryman and music volunteer Richard Lea in an autumn project at Bedelsford School. Working with nine students in Hippo class with profound and multiple learning disabilities (PMLD), the project drew on the power of music as a non-verbal means to encourage creative self-expression. Joe tells us more about this uplifting Musicians’ Company project.


Tell us a bit about Hippo class
Working with Hippo class has been an absolute joy. We held nine sessions over three months for nine students aged around eight years to their teens. Working with a group this small means you really get to know each student on a very personal level, understanding their likes and dislikes throughout the process.

Did the project have a theme?
We broke the nine sessions down into sections. We began by introducing our instruments and creating different sounds such as loud and soft, high and low, quick and slow. We then moved through three different sections which were a couple of sessions long each. This began with animal kingdom noises and providing visual representations of the animals we were portraying alongside the wonderful and funny noises we can make on our instruments. My reindeer noise and Elena’s bird chirps went down particularly well!
The next two sessions were based on weather and the four seasons. We incorporated some of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and used visual and physical cues such as ice and fans to create different feelings for the students whilst playing ideas based on this theme. We then finished with Christmas sessions – the kids joining in with their sleigh bells was a highlight for me!

How did you motivate the pupils to participate in each session?
We would start and end every session with a good afternoon and goodbye song. Every child would get a verse and chorus of the song about them, immediately engaging them and signaling that the session was about to start or end. All the pupils showed great enthusiasm for the workshops, especially when we were improvising around each student’s movements. They would immediately start different movements to encourage our playing in different ways.

What did you hope to achieve by the end of the project?
Our main aim was to create inclusivity through music and ensure no one was left out. We wanted to involve everyone in everything and give each student a chance to lead us in creating music through improvisation around their movements and interactions.
We wanted to create a fun but soothing environment where the students felt comfortable expressing themselves, allowing them to appreciate both music performances and improvisation while learning about different sounds.

How did you tailor your approach to their different needs?
Working in a PMLD environment means that you need to tailor your approach to each student’s specific needs. For example, one student has largely just control over eye movement, so we based our improvisation and his piece around how he controls his eyes. They are very aware this is how they communicate so we are able to create amazing sounds around these movements as they are so expressive.

Which activities did the pupils most enjoy?
Pupil enjoyment varied, with some reacting very well to the animal kingdom activity and in copying the sound of animals such as elephants and lions. In every session, Elena and I would compose a mini piece for each student based around their movements and personality. The uniqueness of these pieces went down very well with the students as they could tell it was specific to them and their personality.

What challenges did you face?
Working with non-verbal students raises many questions. How can we tell if the students are enjoying the sessions? Are the students comfortable with loud dynamics, high noises and sudden changes in volume? We also needed to consider whether to repeat certain ideas across the sessions to help the students feel more comfortable and to aid understanding. Overcoming these challenges made the project even more rewarding.

Any standout moments?
There have been so many standout moments. Seeing the students adapt to the sessions, share new ideas and get real enjoyment from what they were doing was massively rewarding. For me personally, having a particular student let out a massive smile as I played ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’ in our ‘weather’ sessions made me quite emotional as the teacher said it was her showing she’s extremely happy and at ease. It’s been a pleasure to work with Hippo class from start to finish. The finale involved playing in the school Christmas assembly.

Read about our spring project at Bedelsford School with Gonçalo Maia Caetano (guitar) and Gus McQuade (guitar)


Interview by Suzy Willmott

Suzy is freelance copywriter who works with the Musicians’ Company