Music nurture groups: ten tip for new leaders

It’s your first session as a Music Nurture Group* (MNG) leader. In the next ten minutes, a group of students will come through the door, and they may be as apprehensive as you. They’ve never experienced a Music Nurture Group, and you have never delivered one. You have never met them before and even though you are an experienced teacher, there’s a definite feeling of uncertainty… Tim Fletcher an instrumental music teacher from Essex Music Education Hub, shares some tips to help you.


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A music nurture group is a weekly creative, instrumental music session for 3-5 young people in primary school. Participants are identified by schools as being vulnerable and at risk of poor outcomes due to mental health, behaviour or general confidence difficulties. The aim is to provide a calm and nurturing environment where children can build their resilience and agency and develop a sense of belonging.

The Hertfordshire Music Service nurture group model draws on learning from previous Changing Tracks work in Pupil Referral Units (PRUs), that children become excluded from school due to early difficulties preventing them settling into school, socialising and learning. Creative music nurture groups can help address this preventatively and can offer a way to embed inclusive practice within mainstream workforce development.

As with many new teaching situations, your first meeting with a new group of students can be a bit daunting. You may feel underprepared or worry that there aren’t enough resources. You probably feel that you don’t know enough about the students you are going to be working with, and you haven’t really been able to plan for whatever their needs are. You may not have been into the room where you will be delivering the session, and don’t even know where to find the chairs…

As a new MNG leader last term, I found myself experiencing many of these feelings before the first session. But by the last session, I have to say that it mostly worked out fine. There were frustrations and difficulties along the way, but there were also lots of smiles and ‘magical moments’. I saw a positive change in most of the students; some of these changes were personal, some musical, and some behavioural, but everybody got something from the sessions – including me. I learned to focus less on the musical outcomes and more on those that developed students’ personal attributes. I learned to accept a very wide range of abilities and needs, and to use these to help develop more inclusive practice. But I think that the most important thing was to reinforce my belief that music has a profound effect on children’s personal and emotional wellbeing.

Based on my experiences in running my first group, here are my ten tips for new MNG leaders that will hopefully help to get you through your first sessions.

DON’T UNDERESTIMATE THE VALUE OF THE PRE-START MEETING

Always meet with your contacts at the school in advance of the first session (I had my meeting only 24 hours before my start date, but it was invaluable) and take on board any advice they have. They should give you detailed profiles of the students and advice on how they might present to you, and how you might interact positively with them. Also, while you are there, take a look at the available resources – find where they keep any useful instruments and any other equipment that could be helpful. Ask to see where you will be delivering the sessions and try to explore the space if it’s possible to do so.

MAKE USE OF OTHER PROFESSIONALS

In your sessions you will be supported by Learning Support Practitioners (LSPs). Talk to them – they are a valuable resource. They will know much more about the students than you do, and can guide you when things get challenging. Ask them to give you feedback about how you might improve your interactions with the students – this can give you some valuable insights. I made it a priority to have a quick chat to my LSPs at the end of every session, and they were both supportive and helpful in providing advice and guidance. Also get them to join in with the activities in the sessions – if the students see their LSPs joining in, they are more likely to do so themselves.

I also interacted in between sessions with the inclusion lead at the school where I was working, and she was very good at providing practical help in relation to finding instruments and other resources. She also gave me some excellent feedback – the students would tell her about how much they had enjoyed the sessions (even if they hadn’t told me!) and she could see improvements in behaviour and confidence in the students who took part in the sessions.

TAKE AWAY THE BARRIERS AND TAP THEIR CREATIVITY

Given the right environment and context, children can be musically very creative. In my first session, to engage them with the piano, I asked them each to invent a tune. The only instructions I gave were ‘play one note at a time, and stick to the white notes’. I played some simple chords, and tried to follow the student’s direction as they improvised. Some of the outcomes were very good indeed, some were amazing, and they all managed to play something that worked. They amazed themselves!

PLAN YOUR SESSIONS, BUT BE PREPARED TO ‘GO WITH THE FLOW’

By all means plan something – have an idea about what activities you might do and what you are expecting the students to get out of the session, but don’t follow this blindly. You never know what might happen in the next hour, and something may occur that either derails what you planned and you need to go in a different direction, or something amazing happens and you need to go along with it to get the most from it. Think on your feet – be brave enough to run with whatever crops up.

KEEP IT VARIED – EVEN WITH LIMITED RESOURCES

Try to include a range of different activities from session to session, but also vary them within each session where you can (although you can go with one idea if it’s going particularly well). It may be tempting to keep doing a favoured activity from one session to the next, but this may mean that the students are not getting a broad scope of learning contexts. In my early sessions I mainly used small drums and focused on rhythm games, but after three sessions that helped develop rhythm awareness and perception, and concepts like tempo and counting, I felt that it was time for a change. Using the drums and other percussion instruments for improvised sound effects, and the piano for character motifs, I got the students to improvise and compose ideas for the ‘Three Billy Goats Gruff’ story. The results were very good.

ENGAGE WITH THE STUDENTS BOTH VERBALLY AND MUSICALLY

Your students may have difficulties dealing with mainstream educational practices, so you should engage with them in a way that makes it more likely that they will keep attending. Talk to them about their musical experiences and what they like and dislike, and get them to give you some quick verbal feedback at the end of the session. Listen to their responses, and try to use them to inform your choices of activities.

Even though you are there to run the workshops, try to avoid the temptation to set a task or activity and simply observe the outcomes.  You’re not there to just lead, but to model good practice and engage with them musically – get involved! In one session I became aware that I was kneeling on the floor playing a tiny drum with the group while another student conducted us to play louder and quieter…

KEEP IT FUN (OR EVEN SILLY), AND GIVE THE STUDENTS SPACE TO EXPRESS THEMSELVES

Invent mad stuff to do – they’ll probably love it. There’d been some chat on a music teacher’s WhatsApp group about using rap music in lessons, and one objection was the inclusion of violent and misogynistic lyrics in ‘Gangster Rap’. I played with the words to undermine the negative connotations and came up with ‘Hamster Rap’. This prompted a lesson idea where the students would create a rap about their favourite (or imaginary) pet. I created some prompts to get them to think about what their pets were like, and a template that divided the rap into beat chunks. The students engaged with it really well, and performed their raps at the end of the session – this was a definite success. One student even wanted to perform his rap again later for his class – he had never felt confident enough to do anything like this before.

DON’T TRY TO CRAM TOO MUCH IN

After my ‘Hamster Rap’ success, I considered a similar idea, but with a layer of music added to the lyrics. I thought it might be a good idea to encourage the students to learn a twelve bar blues chord sequence on the newly sourced guitars, and also write a blues lyric about their life experiences. I asked all the students to learn some ‘simple’ chords, but this was beyond them – big guitars, little hands. I probably persevered too much with this task, and didn’t leave long enough for the lyric writing. Neither aspect was completed. I’d have been much better spreading the tasks over two sessions, and perhaps tuning each of the guitars for the different open chords in the song, or getting them to learn one chord each.

DON’T UNDERESTIMATE YOUR STUDENTS

Your students may have hidden talents – try to find them. During the first band session, I had asked one student to play the piano, and showed him how to play some chords in the right hand. After a little while, I noticed he was playing the left hand notes also, with no input from myself – he’d just worked it out himself. In the last band session, a student that had been generally rather reluctant to communicate with me suddenly asked if he could sing. I had no idea that he could do so, or even wanted to. Of course, I said yes. He proceeded to sing Katy Perry’s ‘Roar’ rather wonderfully while I played the piano rather badly. It was a revelation.

ENCOURAGE A SENSE OF MUSICAL COMMUNITY

Getting the students to make music with you, and more importantly, together is one of the

most important aspects of the MNGs. Finding activities where they each have a role and have to interact with each other musically is a great way of doing this. I finished my sessions with three band rehearsals – I taught them individually how to play the bass, electric guitar, piano, and vocals for ‘Roar’ by Katy Perry. There were some frustrations as it was more complex than other tasks I’d given them, but with some judicious re-tuning of guitars, and the use of sticky coloured stars to show where the notes and chords were, they managed to play it quite well.

For my first attempt at running a MNG, this was a productive and fulfilling experience, and I learned a lot from doing it. It was, in many ways, unlike my previous roles teaching one-to-one instrumental lessons, or lecturing in music at FE and HE level, as I wasn’t aiming for the students to pass assignments or achieve a qualification, but it taught me to value the ‘soft skills’ of musical creativity, interaction and community, and the value of music making in improving self-confidence and agency.

But I think the biggest lesson I learned was to embrace the unexpected and run with it!

Further resources:

Visit the Changing Tracks Music Nurture Groups resource

Changing Tracks is a programme of peer support and learning for and with music services wanting to improve equality, diversity and inclusion. It is run by Hertfordshire Music Service and funded by Youth Music as part of the Alliance for a Musically Inclusive England. It was previously called MusicNet East. We help music services to be more inclusive by providing peer networks – one of which is facilitated by Music Mark  – training and consultancy, advice and resources.

Find out more about us, or check out the other resources and blogs on this site for more help for music services, and visit the AMIE Musical Inclusion Resource Hub for more inclusion tools and guidance, blogs, videos, and case studies.

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