Music as Therapy: Music-making with Linden Lodge PMLD pupils (Wandsworth 2023)

Young Artists Sophia Elger (sax) and Josh Allen (tuba) at Linden Lodge School 2023

Pupils with profound and multiple learning disabilities (PMLD) enjoyed seven weeks of collaborative music-making with Young Artists Josh Allen (tuba) and Sophia Elgar (sax). The project introduced the KS1 and KS2 pupils to shiny instruments, compelling sounds and some toe-tapping rhythms. Josh Allen tells us more about this Music as Therapy partnership 

“There can be a lot of silence in a PMLD class which can be alarming at first. Instinctively you want to fill the gaps, but pupils with learning disabilities often need more time to process information. Learning this at the outset, and co-leading with Sophia who has prior Linden Lodge experience, set us up for a great start.  

Our first session began with a ‘hello’ song (aka ‘welcome’ song), which is simply the most wholesome way to start the day! We then introduced our instruments – their feel, weight, and sound – before playing a little tune (me: Freres Jacques, Sophia: Somewhere Over The Rainbow). This is where we began to introduce the idea of opposites – fast-slow, loud-quiet, high-low – and the real fun began.  

With both key stages we wanted to quickly involve them in every session, rather than just play to them. The KS2 class had already looked at the theme of rainforests, so we decided to explore soundscapes with a jungle theme. This was helped by the school’s fantastic array of percussion instruments, from djembes to frog guiros that make a realistic croaking sound. Wooden snakes that rattled, windchimes, bubble wrap, and a YouTube recording of rainforest sounds added to the overall experience.  

This activity proved to be a big success, and something of a breakthrough as the pupils had different motor abilities. Some found it really hard to grip objects, so just being able to hold a beater and hit a drum was a major achievement. We then progressed to synchronising sound-making by getting them to stop and start again together. This happened almost instantaneously the second time, which was remarkable given the pupils often needed longer to process information.  

At the end of the second KS1 session, we decided to give the students a chance to conduct me on the tuba or Sophia on the sax. Volunteering either themselves or each other (as they did with their ‘hello’ song), they would move their arms up and down, move their feet or make a facial impression from which we’d improvise. As the ‘conductor’ realised a certain action produced the same noise, their actions would become exaggerated, controlling the volume and speed at which we played. We also explored quiet and loud, and fast and slow, with humming sounds, singing and saying words quietly and then loudly, or slowly and then quickly.  

Young Artists Sophia Elger (sax) and Josh Allen (tuba) at Linden Lodge School 2023

The conducting activity worked so well we included it in every session before the duet and ‘goodbye’ song that rounded off each class. Cat McDermid, the Musicians’ Company’s Music Education and Participation Advisor, who played an advisory role, suggested we bring the pupils into the middle of the class. This helped to make the pupils more aware it was them conducting us and turned it into a more exciting activity.  

This wasn’t the only time we’d improvise. As the pupils came into class, we’d play a simple tune to gently expose them to different sounds. We found new and unfamiliar sounds were sometimes upsetting or confusing to the pupils, but by playing the music as they approached the classroom, we could build a sense of familiarity. If the stimulus was overbearing, they could also go into the adjoining sensory room with their assistant where they could stay involved by leaving the doors open.  

While the project created lots of special moments, there was one conducting session with the KS2s that really stands out. One pupil was having an off day and not engaging, but as we started improvising, they began tapping their foot. Sophia picked up on this and made a low popping sound on the saxophone every time this happened. Once the pupil realised their foot tapping triggered the sound, their whole face lit up. It was one of those magical moments where you realise music really can change someone’s day – if not their life.”  


Interview by Suzy Willmott

Suzy is freelance copywriter who works with the Musicians’ Company