Photo: Participants from Highbury Trust music group give the sessions their thumbs-up in the sunshine outside the Plymouth Music Zone building. The walls are bright blue, the PMZ sign displayed outside is orange and red. All five people in the photograph are smiling. One person is using a wheelchair. Three people are raising their arms with their thumbs up. 

Plymouth Highbury Trust is a charity that provides a diverse range of services and social events for people with learning disabilities, living in the City of Plymouth. 

For many years we have provided regular music workshops here at PMZ and worked in a close partnership with Highbury, including throughout the Covid-19 pandemic when our music leaders connected with participants via Zoom workshops. As soon as was possible we brought the group back to in-person sessions at our building.

Here are some voices from both Plymouth Music Zone and Highbury about what the sessions mean to them:
Jodie (PMZ Music Leader) says:

“Supporting one another is a strong theme in the sessions. For example, I find ‘H’ is very calming to be around – her whole way of being influences how I feel as well. For example, she offered me a tap on the shoulder to communicate what she wanted to say, and I had a sense we were in the right place doing the right thing. The participants are very much like that with each other too – very compassionate. The staff are really brilliant which is a hugely positive influence on what happens.”

What’s unique about this group?

“Because they know each other very well outside PMZ, it really comes across in terms of interpersonal dynamics and there’s a real family feel to it. They know what each other has done that morning, for example. That often wouldn’t be the case for other groups where people don’t see each other beforehand. For example, they may refer to activities that may have happened that week, such as bowling or a disco. It probably really helps with skills such as listening which they’ve practiced outside this context and then they bring it in to PMZ.
The staff from Highbury bring masses of enthusiasm, confidence and willingness to try new things when some new experiences are thrown in.”

Do you think our resources and space at PMZ matter as a place for the group to come to?

There’s a lot of excitement coming in through the doors, even from the initial banter with Steve – it’s all part of their session here with us. That kind of stuff is all important. I think the space is good for the size of the group – it’s familiar, comfortable and people know what to expect. It’s a relatively small group – approximately 6 participants (sometimes more), plus the staff. Sometimes there are a few people who want to move around quite a bit, so it feels like a good size for that. I make decisions such as which instruments are visible – providing options and things for people to choose from, but without overwhelming them.

What happens in a music session?

Musically we frame the session with a few things that always happen. The ‘Hello Song’ always starts the session, and we always use signing for the songs (S always signs as it’s her main communication). We often do our singing / voice-making using a mic and amplification. Time for solos (individual expression) is important and the group are respectful of time defined for listening or playing.
H always chooses the warm-up song after we’ve done our welcome. There’s agency and routine in that as well as offering a chance for leadership other than the music leader themselves. I ask people to come up with a movement or something with the body for everyone to follow. Leadership is then passed around the room during the session and is welcomed respectfully.

Lots of slapstick humour – T pretends to play the drums, hovering above the actual drum kit. It makes everyone laugh. There’s a lot of self-awareness expressed in different ways, which is lovely for everyone. Because it’s safe and supportive you can make banter jokes without losing trust.

S brings in his whale toy and it became the focus of the session. One week we all sang to it and then it had a go at playing the harp. There’s something childlike and beautiful about it, but it brought happiness and a lot of laughter, so that’s got to be good!

Recordings are usually received well. There’s something they get quite excited and giddy about hearing themselves and identifying each other.

We sometimes use props such as the parachute, favourite objects from home that may become part of the session. We use the i-pad as an instrument quite a lot, which is quite popular.

Alongside planned aspects to the sessions, such as an ongoing song (this time round it’s been ‘Lean on Me’), there will be spontaneous suggestions and songs (such as someone’s favourites e.g. Eidelweiss, Country and western) and improvised jamming / play with space for expression in this way. Regularity provides some safety and it’s become routine and you notice that it gets built upon. For example, JM used to only sign part of the song, but now she can do the whole thing. P tends to start a song, counting us in – very much a leadership thing, which we all respond to and appreciate.

There’s a sort of confidence in the room which I find really inspiring – engaging with music is never questioned – music HAS to be made! There’s no trepidation with that. Challenges are dealt with communally and supportively. Everyone is always looking out for another person to help them be more comfortable physically or emotionally. For example, if someone was playing too loud and upsetting someone else, we’d work together to bring the volume down.

The group are enthusiastic, energetic (kind of linked!), respectful and caring towards me – everyone in the room – staff and participants. P also asks about other PMZ staff – legacy from different leaders and asking after them (e.g. Shane who used to work here). It’s lovely to feel that we matter.”

If you had just a few words to describe the feelings you have about the group, what would they be?

“Warmth. Belief in music. Communal. Supportive. I looooooooooove them – and that’s completely true.”

And what does the group think? Some thoughts from Highbury participants kindly gathered by their staff team:

“’S’ says that she likes the signing.”

“’L’ said that the singing makes her happy.”

“‘P’ said that he likes interaction with Jodie, counting ‘1,2,3,4’ etc and singing along.”

“’M’ said he likes playing the instruments, especially the drums and using the music iPad.”

“’H’ said she enjoys singing on the microphone and playing the instruments.”

“’S’ said she likes playing the instruments, shaking the maracas and singing.”

“JM loves the iPad and we all know it!”

“’V’ enjoys dancing”

Some comments from Highbury staff:

“There’s a good variety of instruments.”

“They like the instruments, singing and dancing.”

“Jodie is very engaging – she knows the clients well and understands them and listens to them and what they want.”

“PMZ has been an integral part in supporting our clients with their musical abilities. The clients really enjoy coming along to you each week and being a part of any events that you hold.” (M)

Please contact us if you, someone you know, an organisation or funding partner is interested in what we are up to or may be able to develop / work with you.

This piece was created by Anna Batson (Creativity & Learning Director), Jodie Saunders (Music Leader) and contributions from Highbury Trust staff and music workshop participants.