At the end of March Hansel and Gretel was the theme at Springwood Heath Primary School in Liverpool, giving pupils a week of creative twists and turns inspired by the Grimm Brothers’ famous fairy tale. Organised by Drake Music with commissions from Arts Council UK, it was an exciting opportunity to work with 18 pupils for a week along with other professional artists: Mike Heath, a Manchester-based playwright, Jon Hering with assistive music technology (AMT) and Katie O’Brien who is a stage artist and prop maker. My role as a musician was to draw pupils into live music making and composition that fits within the theme of the play.
As pupils were fully acquainted with the original story prior to our visit it was decided between myself and the team that they [the pupils] would very much take the lead in dressing up the play for their families and the school to watch on the last day. This was anything from their lines to creating their own music, sound effects, mask making, colours, set design, costumes, characters and so on. This allowed them to work as a team and make creative decisions and subsequently watch them come alive on stage.
The team and I met up for the first time four weeks earlier at the school to discuss ideas, create a timetable, visit classrooms and meet the pupils. As Springwood Heath is a fully inclusive school for children from 3 – 11years old, facilities and resources were catered for pupils with varying kinds of needs, particularly with mobility issues.
The main challenge, I would say, was to get everything together and create a play in a short, intensive space of time while making it fun and productive for everyone involved. The feasibility of certain concepts was difficult to predict, especially since we were visiting artists, and it sometimes took trial and error to determine whether something was overly ambitious. Another difficulty arose in the form of a teacher’s strike on the third day, meaning nearly half of the pupils were absent from the workshops which slightly interrupted the flow.
From the very first day, we were greeted with energy and enthusiasm by the pupils as they got on with warm ups, drama, music and art. They had such a good attitude to learning and were always striving for the best. As the week progressed, my team and I would always confer at break and lunch times updating each other of progress, highs/lows, what needed adjusting and so on. Our meetings after school helped us plan sessions ready for the next day. I think this was probably the most important factor in ensuring everything was at the right balance for everyone. By Thursday, our fourth day, we started having the whole group blending in drama and music together – obviously it took repeated actions and modifying, getting music technology smoothly running etc but they slowly took shape.
I had a spacious music room with a selection of good quality instruments to freely choose from, such as xylophones, chime bars, drums, ukulele, ocarinas, piano, claves, recorders, drums and so on. As I talked to each group about creating music to fit in to certain parts of the story it was refreshing to see them choose instruments and make suggestions for themselves. It meant playing within their capabilities, testing out for likeness or not. We experimented with major and minor keys, pentatonic scales, modernism (random notes) to colour the mood of the play. We used our voices for animal calls and discovered some instruments could mimic the birds in the woods. We recorded our work in various methods by writing them out, using pictures and graphic scoring and some players memorised their tunes.
Mike did an incredible job of recording children’s conversations and actions into a script with lines for them to memorise or perform non-verbally within the story. There were a lot of songs and rhymes to it too which everyone joined in at times. He really promoted the drama and got everyone thinking about projecting their voices and facing the audiences too.
In Jon’s department, specialising in Music technology, I must admit for me it was met with curiosity and reservation because personally as a deaf person I feel music technology is not always that accessible. If I take my hearing aids out I become totally deaf and I would not be aware at all if there were any output of sound happening, unless there’s vibrations to be felt – but that’s not quite the same as hearing it. Take the Sound Beam for an example, you’re meant to dance your arms around the microphone-looking ‘heads’ and they pick up your movements to create sound. There isn’t anything to feel or see as you ‘flap your arms’ leaving you feeling rather silly and unfocused. It was explained that with your movements there are precise points where you can hold, flicker and roam with sounds. These sounds can be quite effective in certain parts of the play. There were a couple of pupils with restricted mobility who would find the precise fingering on the wooden recorder difficult, so to experiment with the Sound Beam gave the glorious power of controlling sounds through movement, no matter how big or small.
The Voice Transformer could make the quietest boy in the school record his ‘little’ roar and transform it into something really big and powerful enough to make everyone in the room jump. Cameron particularly liked the Thumb Jam as it turned him into a ‘professional’ cellist by simply stroking on the iPad. There were pitch lines set in a certain keys as he moved his fingers beautifully to light off the mood. There is no way that he could pick up a cello nearly as big at him and achieve the same idea in an instant. The Crick Box on the other hand provides a variety of sound effects such as a door knocking, dog barking, winds sweeping, a ‘ping’ for a lightbulb moment and more, activated by pressing pads.
What Jon brought to Springwood Heath gave me a better understanding of what Assistive Music Technology (AMT) is and its actual purpose. AMT may have started as an aim for participants with enhanced resources, but it clearly has a strong appeal to others too. None of the pupils involved had a hearing loss so for them experimenting with sound effects meant stretching boundaries as a sound artist. It would be an interesting project for deaf and hard of hearing participants in the future I think (and I’m clearly hinting Drake Music and Jon on this!)
My job was made totally accessible and possible by having the wonderful British Sign Language interpreter Tina Holmes with me for the week. Working in a strong lip-reading environment where conversations often bounced around between moving children and staff, there was no way I was able to quite follow everything. Some children had really quiet voices, and some would speak so quickly and bounce in excitement. Tina signed at break and lunch time for team briefing and was always totally aware of the natural dynamics of the day. As I’m from London some of the northern accents and lip patterns were unfamiliar. I remember saying to Alan who is an IT staff on site that his job must be really important to everyone in making sure that all computers and printers were running smoothly at school. He nodded his head and said ‘I lost my job’. I was so confused with his comment and said ‘Oh dear’ quietly but it was seconds later when I realised that he actually said ‘I love my job’!
I liked the small groups I worked with during music making, as it was about communicating musically, watching each other and using our expressions as a cue for timing or changes in tunes. Music making is very visual and hands on, I can see the beats and timing of the others by singing, clapping and playing on an instrument. When it came to the music technology department Tina described with her hands the sounds, its pitch, volume and intensity from machines. I did hear them with my aids in but a translation confirms what I’m hearing.
By Friday morning Katie did the finishing touches for the stage display and the Gingerbread House was quite magnificent! It had a lot of colour and detail, and pupils alsomade attractive animal masks for the forest theme. I loved the oven too which was a boxed up table but very realistic looking. As families, friends, teachers and other pupils turned up to watch the play, the stage lights went down it was quite emotional to see everything come together beautifully. They were all stars. The play finished with a group song and ended with loud and long applause.
I personally took a lot form the project and loved working with my team. Katie, Mike and Jon demonstrated high standards when carrying out their work and I would like to think that we showed everyone that anything was possible. We were very proud of the pupils at Springwood Heath, and thank you for a memorable week.
Related links: http://www.drakemusic.org/
Tina Holmes BSL www.thisbsl.co.uk Katie O’Brien’s blog: http://www.drakemusic.org/blog/drake-music-north-west/katie-obrien-springwood-heath-artists-residency-blog