Rachel Maxey on her time at Phoenix

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by Rachel Maxey, current Trainee Music Leader

Rachel Maxey, current Trainee Music Leader, reflects on her time at Phoenix a school for for students with Special Educational Needs, on a project inspired by Africa…

I had a great experience as part of the team working at Phoenix Upper School. It was my first experience of working in an SEN school setting and there was a lot for me to learn! For the first two workshops I was working alongside music leaders Sam Chaplin and Rosie Bergonzi, and we were joined by fellow Trainee Music Leader Alex Marshall halfway through the project for two more workshops and the sharing. Each workshop was one hour long and followed a similar structure, which was displayed on a whiteboard for all the participants to see. Setting up the expectation for each workshop helped create a safe environment. Rosie lead a warm-up based on copying actions, as well as devolving some leadership to participants. It was great to see the equalising effect of this kind of warm-up in this setting, as it was accessible to non-verbal participants and opened an opportunity for the more confident ones to step forward to lead.  

In the third workshop I was given the opportunity to lead the warm-up, also using the copying method. After discussing with Rosie, we decided I would try 8-4-2-1. This was a little more challenging, and Sam fed back that this would not be such a great warm up in this setting, because it limits participation. He shared his ethos for working with vulnerable people, part of which was avoiding warm-ups which are designed to ‘catch people out’. So many warm-ups that we learn as music leaders include this element and are perfect for mainstream settings. However, with vulnerable people who have more experience of being ‘left out’, there needs to be a greater focus on accessibility and inclusion. I was able to take this forward to the next workshop and I felt I was able to lead a more successful warm-up and song teaching exercise.  

Another feature of every workshop was the relaxation time. We used instrumental improvisation to create a relaxed atmosphere, while Sam lead some breathing and body awareness exercises. This was another great thing for me to learn and take forward to future SEN settings. 

As a way into song-writing, we used pictures of African animals and scenery to generate conversation and create collages in four small groups. Looking back, I can see this was another perfect exercise for participation and inclusion, as everyone was able to contribute while allowing others to stretch themselves. These became the basis for our lyrics for the following week, out of which our four songs developed.  

The group I was working with wrote a song about a lion. When all groups fed back to each other, I realised that my group would have benefitted from more space between lyrics in the song-writing, in order to make the lyrics more accessible to everyone in the class. Sam helped with this when he scored it during the week, by slowing the tempo and adding instrumental breaks with lion sounds to create a sense of space. The next two workshops consisted of sharing all our songs together. The experience of teaching our group’s song to the other participants reiterated to me the importance of slowing down my pace as a leader, in order to increase the engagement across the group. Sam kept reiterating to me the idea that maximum participation is the most important thing, and that the approach of driving up the energy and pace that you might use in a mainstream setting will not work here.  

 The culmination of this project was a joyous sharing of everyone’s work at an assembly. It was a complete riot and the energy level and joy of the participants was an incredibly rewarding thing to witness and be a part of. I wish I could have had even longer to see these young people grow in confidence, but it was a pleasure to be a part of that experience.