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Music for education & wellbeing podcast [11] TRANSCRIPT: Elle Williams, a classically trained guitarist who specialises in working with SEN students

AH: Hello, it’s Anita here. I just wanted to jump on ahead of the introduction to this podcast to let you know that we did have a few problems with the sound, and I hope that it doesn’t spoil your experience of the audio too much. And now on with the show.

Hello, it’s Anita here, and welcome to this month’s podcast. In this episode I’m talking with Elle Williams, who’s a classically trained guitarist who has been working as a music tutor for 10 years in mainstream schools. Why I thought you’d be interested in Elle is that she now specialises solely in working with special needs students and other people with additional needs. So welcome Elle and thank you ever so much for making the time to talk to me, it’s great to have you here.

EW: Thank you Anita, that’s quite an introduction. 

AH: So I usually like to start off by asking how did you end up where you are today and why is it so important to you personally?  

EW: OK. I started out as a classical guitarist doing performance and session work, so I’ve had a lot of experience of touring, playing both the classical guitar and electric guitar. Tuition has always been really high on my professional priorities. I was so lucky, as I developed my own skills, to have access to a wide range of tutors who were very attentive and very knowledgeable and enthusiastic as well. So I’m really, really motivated to be able to pass that on to other people and specifically those with additional needs who need a slightly more tailored, insightful approach than perhaps a mainstream tutor can offer. 

AH: Thanks for that Elle. That sounds a really interesting kind of path to take and I’m really interested to hear a little bit more about how you ended up specialising in providing music lessons for people with additional needs. Because I think that’s quite unusual isn’t it?

EW: Yes. Occasionally I’ll come across somebody at a conference or training event specialising in one-to-one instrumental tuition, but in all honesty I can probably count those people on one hand. Which seems an awful shame. It’s a huge, huge area which desperately needs skill applying to it. So hopefully I’ll get the opportunity to talk, perhaps a little bit later, about how we can think about upskilling more people to work like this.

AH: So I wanted to ask you a little bit about the types of people that you work with and the range of disabilities that you see. Because often I think the terms ‘additional needs’, ‘SEND’, ‘disability’ – they can be a barrier in themselves to people understanding just who is facing barriers to making music and the sort of needs they have. So can you talk to me a little bit about the range of people that you work with?

EW: Absolutely. I work with a really, really broad range of people. Currently I’m on a project for one-to-one tuition in special needs schools throughout Leicestershire. So they are MLD students with moderate learning difficulties there. Previously I’ve worked in hospitals, prisons, and secure units treating mental health. So a vast variety of different settings, all of which requiring different skills and of course all of them with hugely differing clientele. So the kinds of people I work with can range from people with educational needs, autism, emotional and behavioural requirements, sometimes a physical disability, so a huge, huge spectrum of society which is really, really inclusive and enriching for me as a practitioner.

AH: And how did you come to specialise in this area?

EW: A long time ago, I answered a ‘phone call to a gentleman who was looking for a guitar teacher for his son. Just a fairly ordinary enquiry. What was different about this one was the gentleman had been ‘phoning around lots of different tutors trying to find somebody who would just give them an opportunity and give them space. And the reason for that was that his son was non-verbal with, I would say, moderate learning difficulties and additional needs. And the problem that he was encountering is that a lot of the tutors he spoke to felt that his son either didn’t possess the ability to learn in a conventional way so weren’t prepared to entertain him as an option, but I guess more of them felt they didn’t have the skills set to work with this young man. So I saw an opportunity. I’m open minded and flexible in my approach, let’s give this family a try. So I gave this gentleman and his son the opportunity to come and meet me, to listen to me play and just have musical interaction and see where it led. I didn’t get the opportunity to work with this young man for a huge range of time, although I would’ve liked to, circumstances meant that he moved away with his Dad’s work. So I worked with him for a couple of months and I think what’s most important is that during that time the son got the opportunity to try out different instruments, different ways of making music, and to be settled and expressive in himself. But also, dad got the opportunity to see there was a potential for learning, and for trying out new things for his son. So overall it was a really, really nourishing experience for all of us, and I think it led me to consider working with more people with additional needs, and perhaps thinking about the skill set that I had and that I felt I could develop for that purpose. Because very often, the people that I worked with just needed a chance. They just needed to believe that there’s that little glimmer of light, and that bit of ambition there that can be nurtured. 

AH: Yeah. So I’ve heard, you know, a lot of families and individuals, that they’ve found it really difficult to find somebody who’s willing to work with them, whereas they’d be willing to work with anybody that they sort of found a connection with. So often it’s a fear in music tutors that they’re not going to be able to deliver a good quality service or they’re not going to understand enough about that person or not have specialist skills. Obviously you do, sometimes, need specialist skills – which we’ll go on to talk about – but sometimes it’s about, as you say, taking a leap yourself and thinking, ‘I want to be open to this’. Can you tell me a little bit about your next step in terms of thinking, ‘Right, I think I can do this, now where do I get the skills?’

EW: Sure. At the time, I was working in mainstream education much more, so my initial thought was to go to the special educational needs advisor in my school and basically ask if I could work with more people on the SEN register and see what happens. Which is possibly not the most structured approach, but it was the one that was available at the time, which led to some really, really beautiful work and some great opportunities. So I’ve a lot to be thankful for there. In terms of seeking CPD, you know, continuing with my own education, I think this is really important, and I have a huge respect and commitment to professional development. So my training has been a real tapestry, shall we say, of different areas encompassing community music practice, I’ve also trained as a musician in health care with Opus music – I was one of their apprentices a couple of years back, which was a wonderful experience. And what I found there is the opportunity that I had to work as a musician in health care, with older people with dementia, has enabled me to find lots and lots of transferrable skills. A lot of the people I work with, with additional needs, are non-verbal. So obviously there’s a big skill set required in that kind of work, perhaps above and beyond other special needs projects and those that are in more mainstream sort of settings.

AH: So how long did it take you to develop the skills to get to the stage where you are now, which is that you totally specialise in this area, and are very confident in what you’re doing?

EW: I’ve been totally specialising in SEN work and work with those with additional needs for the last five years. Before that time I was working with special educational  needs in a mainstream setting. So I’ve probably been working in this way for about eight years. I’m constantly developing more skills, really reflecting on my own practice and finding new avenues to explore. So in terms of ‘When did I feel ready?’, I guess as the job required it. I upskilled and went with the students to give them the best experience possible. In terms of when will I be the finished product, I’m not sure there’s such a thing. 

AH: That sounds like a really sensible approach. I guess we’re all learning, all the time.

EW: Absolutely.

AH: Particularly in music education practice. So what would you say is the reason why there aren’t more people like you? Why is there this sort of fear around it?

EW: I think there are two sides to answering this question Anita. One is that, certainly as far as I can see, that the training opportunities are not there. I’ve really struggled in my own CPD to find strands of education which apply directly to what I do. So more often than not, the knowledge and the education I’ve sought is allied to it. So for example, with the community music practice some really, really great courses and some really useful things going on there. And it’s taking gems and little pearls of wisdom out of allied practices and then sowing them into my own work.

AH: Ah, that’s interesting. So no once place that you’d be able to signpost people if they were considering this?

EW: Sadly, not at the moment. If anybody out there is listening and they know of the perfect CPD all rolled into a nice little package that I can feast on, please do let me know. But no, as far as I know, there is nothing specific to this. I’ve taken a lot of  inspiration and certainly given a lot of thought to some of the practice of music therapists. And I’ve found that a really useful route to pursue to the extent where I have supervision voluntarily with a music therapist who enables me to gain an insight, from a psychological perspective, of some of the behaviours and choices that my students make. Because many of them are non-verbal, I’m looking at other cues such as body language, their positioning in the room, their musical and non-musical behaviours – gesturing, that kind of thing – to elicit responses from what we’re doing, to guide me as to whether I’m doing the right thing, and whether we’re working at a pace that is suitable to that individual. So that’s only one area. I think the other  reason that one-to-one instrumental tuition is seen rarely in special needs work, is that musical encounters that SEN students tend to have tend to either be music therapy based, which of course is hugely, hugely valuable, and I have a massive respect for the music therapy profession, but it is different in its approach. Whereas music therapists will use music to work towards therapeutic goals with the students, my goals are musical goals. So obviously I have insight into, to some extent, why students are behaving with me in the way that they are, and what will they benefit from, and what they’re getting from the tuition. I’m using that insight to further musical knowledge and technique on an instrument rather than for a therapeutic purpose. And then the other type of music making, which again is wonderful that you see a lot in SEN settings, is the group music making activity. So orchestral outreach projects and drum circles and that kind of thing, which are all great and I’ve had lots of involvement with those activities over the years, so, it’s really, really valuable stuff. But I think one-to-one instrumental tuition isn’t something that’s out there on the radar as something that is possible in very specialist settings. Possibly because there aren’t enough of us yet doing it to be making a loud enough noise but give me a chance, I’m working on that.

AH: Yeah, it does seem a bit crazy doesn’t it? Because when you and I met before at a conference a few months ago, we both got quite excited and on our bandwagons about the fact that, ‘Why isn’t this happening? It seems crazy.’ There’s one-to-one music tuition that should be available for everybody. You know there is quite a movement now spearheaded by Youth Music called ‘The Alliance for a Musically Inclusive England’ and working with a range of organisations trying to create change in music education in all sorts of ways for all sorts of people who find barriers to making music. So hopefully things are beginning to change, but the one-to-one music lessons, I’d be really interested to hear from any listeners if they know about anybody providing specialist one-to-one tuition. Hopefully though, this whole movement of change will encompass one-to-one tuition soon. It’s really interesting to think about it in terms of, ‘Look, there’s music therapy on offer, there’s community group/ community music making, but one-to-one is that third rung that isn’t there’. How do you think it differs in terms of your actual practice? 

EW: My work focuses very, very much on my relationship with the individual. And even when I was working in mainstream it was noticeable actually how my client list or my student list remained the same. But through whatever means, I’m good at retaining students. We have really great relationships, and that’s an intentional part of my practice is to take an interest in the student as a whole. So obviously the way that they behave in music lessons, and what we achieve and what they want to achieve, is hugely, hugely important. Around that, things like taking into account transitioning from classrooms into the music room for example. So I make a big thing of greeting students individually and personally and taking an interest in what activity we’re leaving behind in the classroom and perhaps what will be there when we return. Because we need a calm approach to be able to learn and be able to work together. 

AH: That sounds like classic community music and inclusive music practice doesn’t it? That whole thing about taking a holistic approach and thinking as much about maybe personal, social outcomes as well as musical.

EW: Absolutely. And some of the best outcomes, obviously, although I should very much say the musical outcomes are hugely important, which they are, but some of the best, most enriching outcomes are actually when I work with somebody in a piano lesson and then they can transfer back to the classroom and have a better, rest of their day. Or their dexterity that they’re developing can enable them to fit shapes better together in their maths class, or whatever else it might be. So I’m generally, genuinely interested in the whole student as well as what goes on in my room.

AH: And so if there are people who look after groups of music tutors, like hub leads or music services leads, and they’re thinking, ‘We’d really like to encourage our tutors to expand their skill base and to be able to work with young people with additional needs’, what would you say to them? What could they do to help? I mean who helped you when you were starting to do this work?

EW: I think that the bottom line for most situations like this will be funding. In a lot of cases, certainly in the past, I worked for Leicestershire Music Hub who started off the project I’m currently working in by subsidising lessons for students in SEN settings. So from the point of view of hubs, funding, either funding practitioners who are already skilled to come in and deliver tuition and sort of kick-start the project, is a really, really valuable thing. And likewise, any music hubs that are able to fund career development and training opportunities is a really valuable asset as well. 

AH: A lot of this community music practice, more inclusive practice, is often learned on the job. So you were saying about the lack of training and formal training courses. But actually a lot of musicians say to me that they much prefer shadowing, and observation and feedback and learning in that type of way. So I guess that’s another area that possibly music services and hubs could help by placing people together, a sort of buddy system, or observation system, or shadowing.

EW: Very possibly. There wasn’t really anything, certainly in my area of youth work, there wasn’t anything that I was aware of at the time that was up and running. It still feels very, very much in its infancy. But yes, certainly any music hubs out there who are listening who would have the facility to do that, I would definitely, definitely encourage you to. I think there are two areas to this. One is enabling confidence and experience in practitioners who are able to work with students with special educational needs who are perhaps in a mainstream setting. So I notice a lot when I get out and network, and talk to music tutors, there’s so many who are very, very highly trained and very well revered and working in mainstream situations, but have just not had the opportunity to pursue further development for SEN work. So in those settings I think upskilling people would be hugely beneficial. But then I think, certainly in the areas that I’m working in currently, where we’re looking at MLD, so multiple learning difficulties, and with some projects PMLD, I do believe that it’s quite a specialist skill particularly combined with music. So yes, we are crying out for very specialist training in that area.

AH: And so that would be more formal training as well as some shadowing?

EW: In an ideal world, yes. 

AH: So if a music tutor is listening to this and thinking, ‘I’d really like to do more work with a wider range of young people, and include young people with additional needs in my work, working one-to-one’, what would you say to them? How would they start and where would they go?

EW: I think tutors who are working with special educational needs or wanting to do that within a mainstream setting would be well advised to look at training opportunities through local authorities. I know sometimes, some of the best training opportunities actually I’ve had have come through charities and through people who are willing to work with dyslexia for example, or autism in mainstream settings. There’s a lot of information that can be gleaned for the music tutor from those situations. Just about how to present what you’re doing in an accessible manner. How to I guess win the attention of your student and maintain it. So there’s some really, very excellent, generalised special needs training opportunities out there to find.

AH: Excellent, and that’s something that if you’re working, for example, for a local authority music service, you may be able to access reasonably easily?

EW: Yes. Absolutely so.

AH: So, you’ve talked about tutors working in mainstream education. But what about those people who probably want to take that step further, to either work in special schools, one-to-one, or work with families who have children who have perhaps profound and multiple learning disabilities?

EW: I think Anita, that this is certainly a more challenging question, it’s a more challenging area of my work. I think initially, for anybody who isn’t accustomed to going into specialist settings then finding an opportunity to do that is a definite starting place. So I don’t know, maybe contacting your local LEA and seeing if there’s any opportunity to shadow lessons, perhaps classroom music lessons for example in an SEN setting. Lots of special needs schools that I’m affiliated to, do have classroom music teachers and music specialists within them. So certainly accessing some of their group work situations in the first instance will probably teach you an awful lot. Once you’ve done that, this is where I’ve spent probably the last decade doing research, reading a lot of research papers, certainly on SEN music referring to a lot of music therapy texts and music therapy conversations about the subject. So sadly, I don’t believe that there is, currently, and inclusive training for what I do. I hope one day that I’ll be wrong about that and that will be a thing of the future. But my education has certainly been a big composition and a huge learning curve of lots and lots of different areas. But I think I’d advise anybody that wants to go into that to not to be put off. To be confident in your abilities. The fact that you’re interested means that you’ve got an enquiring mind and you’re clearly reflecting on what you do already, and that will stand you in excellent stead to develop into a really, really good tutor hopefully.

AH: And there are some other organisations that I know can help. I’m not sure how much training they do for one-to-one tutors, but maybe that’s an area they might look into if they don’t already. So Drake Music who are really well known as being the specialists around music with people with disabilities, as well as music technology. They’ve got some really useful resources, they do training, and they’ve also released a guide some years ago called ‘We All Make Music’, which is a really fascinating read. Just recently they launched a new document that shares their ideas and concepts about inclusion from a disability perspective. So that’s a really interesting read as well, and that’s available on their website. The Alliance for a Musically Inclusive England that has a resource hub on the Youth Music Network website and there is a section on working with young people with disabilities that’s sort of growing. So people in the Alliance for a Musically Inclusive England are adding resources and guidance and advice and little bits of signposting all the time. So it’s definitely worth signing up to the Youth Music Network enewsletter and going and having a look at the Youth Music Network website.

So finally Elle, I wonder if you could give us three practical pieces of advice or three calls to action, either for other music tutors who might want to be more inclusive in their work, or for music hubs and music services.

EW: Sure. On the level of the individual, I think my number one bit of advice would be that the answer is always, Yes. So if a young person, or an older person for that matter, approaches you wanting to play an instrument, and it seems like a strange choice maybe or something that’s going to take some work, the answer is always, always Yes. Your job is to find the way. Which leads me on to my second bit of advice, which is, be confident in not knowing what the outcome will be. I think I always look at the relationships I have with my students and the path that we’re on, in a sort of joint enterprise kind of capacity, in that neither of us really know where this is going, but we’re in it together and we’re going to work it out. And it will be great. And my third bit of advice is to share. So share what you’re doing. The opportunity to pass on your good work, whether it be through sound recordings, or feedback, or in my case sometimes report writing. So share that within the settings that you’re working with, with classroom teachers, get them on board with what’s happening. Make sure it gets sent home to parents, to management and people at the school. People perhaps in your local music hub who are responsible for funding and all these other great big wonderful things like that. A lot of what I do is about really fitting in with the setting, and being part of the workings of that school. So most of the settings I work in I’m quite widely known around the school so some of the students will come up to me and say, ‘How is such and such getting on with the piano’, and we’ll have a little bit of a chat about that. So it’s almost like having a residency within the school, and once the whole school embraces the idea, then you’ll certainly have no shortage of students or fans in the playground.

AH: I love those three pieces of advice. Really brilliant. And it’s also really great that you finished on a piece of advice that’s relating to communications, so thank you for that.

Thank you ever so much for coming on the podcast Elle. It’s been really, really good to hear about your work, and I just hope that there are more people like you in say three or five years time as a result of all the really great inclusive work that’s going on around the UK. So thank you again. And if you want to read more about Elle, I’ll share the link to her website and other links that we’ve mentioned today in the show notes. Thank you very much for listening.

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