Music Nurture Group Day at Stevenage Music Centre – by music leader Ije Amaechi

Ije Amaechi from Stevenage Youth Music Council

In Stevenage, Music Nurture Groups are a way for schools to help young people at risk of exclusion  who struggle socially and emotionally, to re-engage in school. Weekly half-hour sessions take place in school with groups of three to five young people, focusing on creative music-making and pupil choice and voice. Music leader Ije Amaechi describes a recent  Music Nurture Group day, which aimed to give pupils a first introduction to their local music centre.

Hertfordshire Music Service set up music nurture groups in eight schools in Stevenage, and in Spring 2020,  all the groups came to Stevenage Music Centre along with their teachers, their music tutors from the Music Service and community musician, Mark Howe who was to lead the day.

Musical warm-ups to level the playing field

To begin the day, the 30 young people and all participating adults, sat in a large circle. Mark began with icebreakers – making big gestures, wiggling around, reaching high to low, clapping hands, stomping feet, sometimes rhythmic, sometimes random. Most of the children joined in without Mark saying a word to instruct or direct. He whistled softly, the room fell quiet and he began passing a clap around the circle. Each activity flowed into the other, with very little dialogue throughout or between, which encouraged the children to go with that flow and copy what Mark was doing. The fact that no one knew what he was going to do or what was expected of them put them all on a level playing field and united them in the room, a brilliant way to begin the day.

Pupils take the lead with junk percussion: “Let’s see what happens when …”

Soon after, Mark introduced his double bass, which he “found in the sea” whilst rowing a boat one day. This story invited the children’s curiosity of the instrument and intrigue of what was to follow. He brought out different junk percussion – metal bowls, plates and jars, a big barrel to hit and placed them in the middle of the circle for everyone to see. Mark asked for volunteers to experiment with the instruments and in small groups they began  interacting with the instruments and each other’s sounds – hitting, tapping and spinning them. One of the children had a big smile when his bowl was the last to finish spinning. There was a great moment when one of the boys called out, ‘Let’s see what happens when we bang them together!’, when working with the barrels.

It was mainly the boys in the group who were putting themselves forward for coming into the middle of the circle, especially in the first half an hour. However, as time went on, gradually children, including the girls who were more reserved began raising their hand to volunteer themselves. Those who didn’t put themselves forward were  still very engaged -tapping a foot, watching the movements and taking in the energy of the room.

Mark then brought out his ‘break bass’, a homemade instrument. One of the girls shot her hand up high, which she hadn’t done before. Two more girls did the same and joined the band in the middle of the circle. They had little smiles at the end of playing and a slightly more relaxed demeanour. Different children took it in turns to play in the middle of the circle, then Mark brought it back to the whole group. Each child was invited to make a certain sound one by one, giving everyone a chance to have their turn without too much pressure on the individual, since everyone was doing it.

Subtle ways to involve reluctant learners

One of the children in a hoodie, slouched in his chair, didn’t want to play whenever it was his turn. Mark took care not to push him to, knowing he would when he was ready. One activity in particular helped prepare him for this.  Mark set up a jam, which begins with each participant playing their own rhythm in turn around the circle, then conducted people to drop in and out….’All the boys now’, ‘Everyone with cool glasses on now’, ‘Everyone with a pony tail now’! When he called ‘everyone with a hoodie on now’ he got a broad grin back from the boy, and though he didn’t join, he was ready to at the next invitation. Later, when the whole group split up, the boy played on the steel pans with his music tutor, Lyndsey.

Mark then asked each child around the circle to give “one word that you remember from this morning”, some being ‘rhythm’, ‘expression’, ‘money’, ‘randomness’, ‘kindness’, ‘noise’, ‘junk percussion’, ‘beep’, ‘everything’.

Next, Victoria sang a chorus that she wrote for all the nurture groups to ‘Sing and Play Together’, about being part of a nurture group (“I’m not feeling sad when we sing and play together’). Victoria did call and response with the group to begin learning the lyrics and gradually the children’s voices became louder and more confident. We used this throughout the day to create a calm, reflective moment for the group between activities.

Part of the plan for the day, was to give the children a chance to perform what they’d been learning with the tutors in school. Ross’s nurture group performed Lean on Me on the ukuleles, while Ross sang the lyrics. The rest of the group from other schools listened attentively and gave them a round of applause at the end. They repeated this and Victoria and Ije joined in, encouraging the children to sing too. Most of the children were just watching, with a few quietly singing. Lyndsey’s student sang an amazing song she’d written that seemed to be influenced by a bereavement,  while Lyndsey played the steels drum to accompany her.

The group returned to learning ‘Sing and Play Together’ with Michael leading on the ukuleles, showing the children how to hold it and play certain chords. This meant that everyone was included, most playing ukulele, one playing steel pan and one spinning the metal bowl.

Words captured from this section were ‘mystical’, ‘everything’ (again), ‘pipes’, ‘heavy’, ‘random’, ‘fun’, ‘passionable’, ‘heavenly’, ‘together’ and ‘uniqueness’, followed by Mark whispering at the end to bring the energy level back down.

Linking music with feelings, and creative composition

Lastly, the nurture groups split up into breakout rooms and had some time to create their own pieces together to show to the others at the end of the day. These included gamelan, steel pans, piano, percussion and ukuleles. The groups worked very hard and well together, perhaps motivated by knowing they were going to be sharing it later. Mark asked each group to pick a mood to represent their music and explained that the other groups will have to guess the mood when they perform it back.  One pupil suggested  ‘Frail’ for one of the pieces.

Later on, the children’s guesses ranged from ‘excitement’ to ‘hypnotising’, ‘calm’, ‘happy’ and Mark made sure they knew that even if their guess wasn’t what the group decided, it could still be that emotion, because music makes people feel different things and there is no right or wrong.

To end the day, everyone re-gathered in the auditorium and performed ‘Sing and Play Together’, which was a fantastic way of reminding everyone what the day was all about – music and togetherness.

Further reading

Hertfordshire Music Service is a founder member of the Alliance for a Musically Inclusive England (AMIE). Its MusicNet East Changing Tracks programme helps music services to become more inclusive by providing a peer network, resources and tools, and funding for action research on the barriers and drivers to inclusion.  Visit the AMIE Musical Inclusion Resource Hub for tools and guidance, blogs, videos, case studies and more, to help you break down barriers to music-making.

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