Music as Therapy: Swiss Cottage SEND School (Autumn Camden 2023)

Musicians’ Company Young Artists Heather Brooks (harp) and Josh Allen (tuba) recently held our first music as therapy session at Swiss Cottage School in Camden. Working with a post-16 PMLD class, the talented duo helped the students experience live music, explore new sounds and have fun. Heather tells us more about this exciting school partnership.

“You have to think outside the box when working with a PMLD class*. Many of the students can’t communicate using typical speech and they all have slightly different needs. The one thing our group shared was a sense of fun, making every session the highlight of my week.

We spent the first two sessions shadowing community musician Holly Jackson. This helped us get to know the students’ needs, likes and dislikes. Her music sessions were pirate-themed, and we helped by handing out instruments, playing and singing songs. After this we got to run our own sessions which always began with the same mood-lifting ‘hello’ song.

Inspired by Holly’s multi-sensory themed approach we gave our own sessions nature and nautical themes. Our aim was to fully immerse the students in the sights and sounds of nature and the sea through soundscapes, storytelling and sensory stimulation. The students also joined in with instruments and in recording and relaying sounds using a brilliant piece of kit with an adaptive switch. This helped those with movement-limiting disabilities get involved in vocal activities such as recording underwater bubbling or bird sounds. The students even had great fun using it to mimic the fizzy, electric jellyfish sound I made on my harp.

Beyond using sensory cues such as touch, smell, vision and hearing to make the sessions more fun and meaningful, we used PowerPoint slides to reinforce the narratives and make them easier to follow and grasp. Being dyslexic, such teaching techniques can really help. We also used PowerPoint during the underwater theme to build on the idea of a school of fish. Depending on whether the slides were green or red the students would ‘play’ their instruments or ‘stop’. Individual students were invited to take the lead in the same way shoal members effectively take turns at being leaders. The students really enjoyed this game.

Every session had its highlights. One student is immobile, partially blind and probably the most challenged in terms of being able to respond. Josh was playing the jaws theme using a clapper – a type of percussion instrument that makes a snapping sound – while approaching each student saying: ‘here comes the shark’. When it became her turn, she began moving to the rhythm as it became faster and faster. Seeing her enjoy herself really made our day.

Our next theme will be Christmas-related and for the school concert. We’ll be giving some of our favourite songs for tuba, harp and cello (unusual combo, I know!) a festive twist and getting the students involved. However, the concert will have to go a long way to beating the success of our nature-themed finale which concluded with Josh making roar sounds on his tuba and me revealing and leaping around the classroom with a giant teddy bear! It generated a lot of smiles.”

*Profound and Multiple Learning Disabilities


Interview by Suzy Willmott

Suzy is freelance copywriter who works with the Musicians’ Company