When developing Skoog, young people with autism were one of the key groups we worked with. The impact of active music creation for these pupils was a powerful driver in our work and one thing that became very clear was that we needed to try and create tools to support them effectively in making their own music.
And this can mean we need to let go of what we think ‘should be’ happening and let the students do what they want to, what they feel, as Dr John Bidduplh says, “In order to engage musically with people on the autistic spectrum we might have to suspend or even extend our own assumptions about what music really is, how sound is controlled and modified to make music compositions and performances etc.”
When giving talks about Skoog and the research behind our work I often use a couple of examples to illustrate this.
When working in North Ayrshire and North Lanarkshire David and I would pitch up to the schools and be given a space to set up in and then we were free to just spend time with students, often one-to-one, exploring sound and how we could help students control and shape it. In those sessions, there was often no talking – just the shaping of sounds and when you were in the moment with the students it was like an improvised ballet of squeaks, whoops, honks and some pretty awesome avant grade sounding stuff. You would often see staff walk by the door and as they passed they would make a bit of a bizarre face, a kind of ‘ what on earth is going on in there?’ face… But having been stopped in their tracks by these strange noises they were intrigued and would pause for a while – perhaps come in and sit down to listen if they had time.
And once they had been part of the music for a while their expressions changed. No longer was it some crazy noise (out of context) but amazing music. By taking time to be part of it they could understand the conversation that was going on and the sheer joy of controling sound in such expressive ways. Often they would wait until the session had ended to chat to us and say how impressed they were with a students concentration, engagement or musical skills. But the key point is you have to take the time to be part of it, to listen to what the student is doing and as our friend and associate Skoog musician Michael Dollan says “support them in how they want to use skoog”.
This holds true for most improvised or spontaneous music. For example I used to run a pretty awesome club night in Edinburgh with Chris Ross (Drums – http://www.makesnicethings.co.uk), Paul Keene (Rhodes Piano) and myself on Bass. The vibe was this. No plans, certainly no sheet music, just an improvised ride. Once there were some bodies in the room we would start playing, and usually around 45 minutes later we would stop. It remains some of the music I am most proud of making (some recordings from that period here: they dyad). The main thing I remember about it was looking out and seeing the crowd intently focussed on us, eyes twinkling, as they were being carried on this journey they had signed up for. But, if you saw any late comers, punters who had not been there from the start, well they would pop their heads round the door and it was as if they had been slapped in the face. They would wear that same ‘what in heaven’s name?’ type expression.
Again, you have to take time to be part of the narrative!
Dr Biddulph has more tips and advice for supporting music creation.
You can download a free PDF of tips and advice on making music with kids who are autistic here.
John has received national and international recognition and acclaim through his music and autism programme.
Professor Tony Attword (on John’s music programme):
Your work with children with autism using music in a fascinating and unique way. I strongly endorse your approach and intuitively find it extremely appealing.
You can learn more about John’s work at www.johnbiddulph.com.