Amazing Music Technology

“The best bit about music today was everything – but I REALLY liked the switches!”

J, student


Musician Andrew Cleaton led the first incarnation of our Amazing Music Technology project from 2012 – 15.

This was a research and investigation project working with a range of music technology equipment and software to enable children and young people with profound and multiple learning disabilities to make music.

Part 1: The Dales School
Part 2: Heatherwood, Oakfield Park, Riverside and Kingsland


The Dales School…

Music Technology can be off-putting; hardware, software, leads, speakers, controllers and other paraphernalia. It can take ages to set up, can ‘glitch’ in no time, and the trail of cables can make navigation and passing things around for taking turns complicated. We wanted to get away from that – by testing wireless working, we made the controllers as easy to pass round as a tambourine. Advances in technology – in music or any other field – will offer these young people amazing opportunities in the future; we wanted to start learning now.

Some of the equipment we used was assistive – that is to say it is specifically designed for people with Special Education Needs and Disabilities (SEND), or Profound and / or Multiple Learning Disabilities (PMLD). Some isn’t – we used iPads with music apps like Garageband and Thumbjam. And we also used conventional percussion and tuned instruments.  We particularly explored the relationship between assistive technology, music technology and ‘traditional instruments’. There is an immediacy and clarity of connection with traditional instruments which sometimes can’t be replicated by AT or MT; you hit a drum, it makes a sound right there in front of you – with the technology, you operate the controller, and the sound comes out ‘somewhere over there’ – where the speakers are.

“Lesson planning [at the school] is very well linked to pupils’ individual targets and carefully judged to ensure that pupils can enjoy success but can be challenged to achieve more. For example, in a lesson planned between the teacher and a music specialist, pupils in the primary department enjoyed being able to control music through a soundbeam with very small movements, while being encouraged to use new movements to trigger sounds. The glee and anticipation were unmistakeable.”

OFSTED Inspector at the Dales School, 2013

We experimented weekly with the hardware and software;  we found improvements which benefitted musical achievement. Apollo Creative (who makes Ensemble, one of the main systems we use) responded quickly to any feedback we gave their staff. We used Apollo Ensemble alongside instruments to create and perform group ‘soundscapes’; a range of sounds was investigated and agreed by the group to make a particular soundscape, loaded into Ensemble, and the group members took turns to direct a group performance.

We also used the equipment in unconventional ways (admittedly, you have to be confident to do this); take this example with Soundbeam. Conventional wisdom dictates that you should mount the Soundbeams on static microphone stands and the performers should move in the beams to trigger the sounds.  We tried the students standing still but holding the Soundbeam sensors like torches and sweeping them around the space.  They created music by rolling, throwing and bouncing footballs into the beams.  A real highlight came about one student suggested we try and “sneak around the beams without getting caught”.  It was a rare example of a music technology workshop in which the main objective was to achieve silence!

But the work didn’t stop when Andrew Cleaton went home at the end of his day in the school; class teachers and support workers ensured that the students had music making opportunities elsewhere in the school week. One young man now enjoys playing the keyboard, another is an enthusiastic guitar player. Feedback from everyone was excellent.  Students said that music was the “best session of the week.”

“I just wanted to say a huge “thank you” for allowing me to come to your session this morning. I was so moved by what you are achieving with those students. I spoke to one of the teachers as I was leaving the school and she said how much they enjoy your sessions and how much the children are getting from them. It was a real privilege to be there.”

Cathy Roberts, Education Development Adviser: Creative and Performing Arts, North Yorkshire County Council

Amazing Music Technology was funded by the National Foundation for Youth Music.

Here’s a very short clip from one of the sessions. The children were fantastically engaged and really happy when they are called by name in the Goodbye song…


Heatherwood, Oakfield Park, Riverside and Kingsland…

In Phase Two, Andrew Cleaton, the lead musician, used mainstream music technology and specialist equipment to enable young people with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) to learn and make their own music. Over 100 young people with SEND participated in the project, each attending at least 20 music-making sessions in small groups.

Young people worked in groups to make their own soundscape stories of a day out to the seaside, and worked 1:1 to create sound effects for film. They played guitars, drums, and all manner of conventional instruments together, or alongside Apollo ‘Ensemble’ assistive music technology. Children and young people with very limited movement and communication skills used Bloom HD, Thumbjam and other apps on iPads to make sounds for themselves with no assistance.

Staff at all the participating schools observed and reported on the enjoyment and achievement music-making brought; new skills and enthusiasm for music – listening, responding and making it for themselves. But it also had other clear effects:

“One of the girls has to be given water through a tube to her abdomen.  This can be a lengthy process, especially if she is tired, distressed etc…  This morning, immediately after music, the nurse commented that the girl was so relaxed that she’d never known the water go down so quickly!  The staff certainly put this down to the music session – lots of smiles, laughter and the relaxing Bloom App”

Whilst the project was running, new devices and apps appeared which we made the most of. Funded mainly with a grant from the National Foundation for Youth Music, the project was supported by Ableton who donated their ‘Live’ software for music creation and production, Numark, who donated one of their ‘Orbit’ controllers, and Korg who donated a Wave Drum mini. We road tested them to see how well they worked in situations they weren’t designed for – and the answer was very well indeed. Ableton Live provides access to a whole world of sound possibilities, controlled through the wireless Orbit. The Wavedrum has a clip sensor – which can be attached to a tray or table, turning it into a drum surface – great for wheelchair trays.

“iPads prove their worth (again)… Just had a lovely session at Heatherwood!  Some children off sick so opened it up to new participants including a little boy with good movement
but very hard to engage or relate to.  He hates touching or holding anything! He was a little jumpy at first – [put that down to] new experience – but settled down immediately upon hearing his name in the hello song.  He was very reluctant to touch my guitar but totally embraced the iPad and was really happy to play the guitar sound on Garageband.  He also loved Bloom.  By the end of the session he was happy to reach out and touch my hand to say goodbye.”

Andrew Cleaton, Amazing Music Technology lead practitioner

Boy with drum at an Amazing Music Tech session