Deirdre Bencsik

Sinfonia Viva Cello

Throughout all the sessions on this sensory room project, the Sinfonia Viva musicians used the simplest ingredients of music to find a means to interact (on any level) with the special needs children. The intention was not necessarily to create a specific piece of music through improvisation, but to encourage and engage the children to join-in with the music making using their own sounds and instruments with us. The sensory room provided a perfect environment away from the classroom where movement as well as sound encouraged freedom of expression - and silence too could be safely experienced - and used to anticipate interaction.

During the half hour sessions, we found that the children made specific choices depending on the sounds they preferred (or the ease with which they could create sounds from the instruments) and so we were able to interact with them in a sound world created from the outset by them.  An assortment of instruments – including drums, tuned and untuned percussion, recorders, a zither, glockenspiels, a harmonica, ukulele, iPad and audio recorder speakers - were set out across the room, and participants were encouraged to move around the room to try the different instruments at any time. Alongside this, the Viva team played a combination of clarinet, oboe, trumpet and cello, as well as ourselves sharing the different instruments available to the participants.

It was vital to engage at a respectful distance to start with, to earn trust and generate a feeling of safety with what were, after all, strangers, (even though a team member from the school was always present in the sessions). We did this by playing to the children, thereby introducing our sounds to them as well as listening to them sharing their sounds with us. When the children played with us, we used their speed, rhythm, pulse, dynamic, duration and pitch to play together in our improvisations. The impetus therefore came entirely from the children - who were encouraged to extend any ideas they had with playful games. Often the children began playing in short bursts, but with encouragement, their confidence grew and their developing sense of pride and enjoyment extended the duration of their playing (and phrases) with the Viva musicians. Some children also even began to exchange ideas, initiating communication through the music. At other times, we also saw evidence of mood changes, sharing between the children and a developing creativity and assertiveness.  

A key factor in the sessions was for the Viva musicians to provide a musical environment in which the children could comfortably add their own ideas and to encourage and support these in the music. At times this was achieved by one or more Viva musician repeating a simple rhythmic pattern or melodic motif which gradually then became a familiar (and safe) ‘holding’ foundation for all the other music to sit upon. At other times, the Viva musicians improvised melodies around any notes or rhythmic patterns which the children produced (either vocalised or played on their instruments). This extended the children’s own ideas and reflected back to them their sounds and music, creating an interaction within the music that the children soon became aware was being controlled by them.

Making the music a fun experience was paramount to encouraging the children to participate. Using interactive games and musical improvisations (of hide and seek, rolling and catching instruments, leading, anticipation of sound and movement and call and response for example) the music produced became a communicative tool and enabled the Viva musicians to engage with these children in their world with their own ideas without the need for words. One particular favourite was the ‘start and stop’ musical game where the children were encouraged to be ‘in charge’ of everyone’s playing, indicating when we played and when we stopped. This game provided lots of fun, gave the children a leading role and helped to develop their self-expression and confidence.

Another favourite game was a simple turn – taking game where everyone in the room was playing the drums with a beater. By placing everyone equally on the same instrument (the drums) this created a safe means to communicate directly in the same space and sound world. The children also enjoyed this game when we moved the drums up and down in the air for them to hit with their beater, (or swapped them around or moved them away and brought them back again) as this added the fun of anticipation and a physical stimulus to the game. There were also some moments during this particular game where the child extended the idea of following - to copy back a rhythmic pattern or number of beats a Viva musician had just introduced. This was a pivotal moment which developed the interaction between the child and the musicians; in listening and reproducing another rhythmic pattern the child exchanged ideas, rather than merely recreate them.

Another moment of development came when we were encouraging a game with one child who was playing three (tuned) bass bars and a number of drums, which were all placed in a semi-circle around her. This child was having a lot of fun creating improvised rhythms on the drums - and the placing of the bass bars created a three-note pattern which she returned to again and again after her drumming. When I swapped one of the bass bars to a different place, this girl sought to recreate her same three note pattern, so had to change her beating of the bass bars of one, two, three to one, three two. She then played the same original three note pattern she had started with. To extend this game I once more moved one of the bass bars to see what she would do: again, she sought the original pattern and in order to do so, had to then play two, one and three to reproduce it. Finally, I moved one of the bass bars to her opposite side and the girl smiled broadly – anticipating the game - and once more persevered (remarkably quickly) to discover her original three note pattern, even though now one of the bass bars was further away from the others. This game kept this child in focus for nearly twenty minutes and although she did not speak, we interacted with the use of these musical ‘toys’ and she revelled the opportunity to show us she had remembered and could find and reproduce the original pattern she created.

The complexity of any music made during the sessions frequently followed a developing pattern during the half hour. The children would freely explore (or be helped to discover) and play the instruments they chose, supported by the Viva musicians playing simple musical accompaniments (with either or both melodic and rhythmic lines). What then often evolved as the musicians began to understand how and what the children wanted to play was the sharing of their own ideas, not an imposition of ours. This was crucial to facilitate opportunities where the children, of all abilities, had the choice over what occurred in the music and between the musicians. With non – verbal children and those with few physical movements, this was achieved by observing and following any movement the child made and recreating that movement into sound for them. The moment whereby this was understood and reciprocated by the child placed that child in control of the music that we were playing for them.

These sensory room sessions provided a wonderful opportunity to use sounds and musical games to interact with the children and we felt very privileged to share their own ideas and have a great deal of fun exploring them and playing together. What has certainly been evident is that music is a powerful interactive tool that can unite us and encourage self-expression; not merely by listening and responding to it, but by actively being involved in creating it.