Music as Therapy: John Chilton School Peter Pan Project (Ealing 2023)

Music teacher Nicola Cressey with Young Artist Robyn Blair, Company volunteer Sue Hind Woodward and former Young Artist Amy Thompson

Young Artists’ Robyn Blair and Amy Thompson helped bring Peter Pan characters to life with pupils at the John Chilton School. The school is one of 12 mainstream and special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) schools receiving music provision funded by The Musicians’ Company Future of Music Fund, The Musicians’ Company, and private donors. Robyn tells us what made this project so special.

“I’ve been involved in several Company projects, including one for the Royal Hospital for Neuro-disability and three for this particular SEND school. The first for the John Chilton was delivered during Covid on Zoom; the second was more about music therapy; but this had more of an end goal. Our aim was to put on a little performance for staff, parents and carers.

Amy and I were joined by the class teacher, Nicola – a trainee music therapist – who was a big support. Nicola would start each session with a ‘welcome song’ to help reassure and settle the pupils and to mark the start of each session. It also helped bring the energy of the group up.

Connecting with your audience from the get-go is always important and we quickly realised quite a few of the pupils liked to sing. We decided to use singing as a way to engage the young musicians, before introducing other instruments, in particular percussion as there were several keen drummers. The pupils were asked to consider which instruments and their sounds best reflected the characters in Peter Pan.

Peter Pan became the rhythm for our drumming, and the bells became the symbol for Tinkerbell. When it came to the villainous Captain Hook the children were encouraged to use their drums and voices to really express themselves. Even some of the quieter pupils became outrageously loud!

Switching between the instruments could become a bit chaotic, so we decided to use visual cues to help. As our tune involved bells in two different keys – C for the first half, F for the second half – we created red and green cards, which we would hold up to help them know which bells to use. This helped the young musicians feel happy and comfortable in what they were doing, rather than lost and confused.

Of course it’s impossible to get everything right and I was continually thinking – and learning – on my feet. As Amy and I came to the project with different skills and experiences, we decided to split our leadership responsibilities to reflect our knowledge and strengths. We also had great support in lesson planning from Catriona McDermid. She and Sue Hind Woodward, a Company member volunteer, also came to observe and provide feedback on sessions towards the end.

Certainly, working in a SEND school can be more challenging. It takes longer to set things up and you can need additional resources. For instance, you might need a wearable necklace with a microphone to help those who are hearing impaired. However, the needs massively depend on the class. It’s also important you don’t make too many assumptions about what you think the pupils know or can or can’t do.

When it came to the concert the atmosphere was electric. One girl came to every session saying: I’m so happy today because Amy and Robyn are here, but on concert day, she said: ‘I’m so happy today because it’s concert day!’, which made us both smile. With a room full of excited children and parents, we began the concert introducing our instruments, before switching to ‘Peter Pan’ drumming. This led us to the Lost Boys song and 15-20 minutes of fun and relatively few hiccups. It ended with a nice, gentle song about flying (and me mimicking flying actions!) and Nicola playing the piano.

The children had a great time, and there were plenty of proud faces and quite a few happy tears. We held the concert twice and seeing every single child in that room feel comfortable enough to join in and sing the second time round really touched me. It truly was a magical moment.


Interview by Suzy Willmott

Suzy is freelance copywriter who works with the Musicians’ Company