Creating music through technology at PACE

Over two weeks in May 2019, the deaf musician Eloise Garland and I ran afternoon workshop sessions at the PACE Centre in Aylesbury. They involved primary schoolchildren at Philip Green House, Coventon Road, Aylesbury, and their secondary counterparts at the Bradbury Campus, 156 Wendover Road, Aylesbury.

The workshops were an opportunity to promote Subpac technology in a specialist educational setting, and built on previous collaborative work on a Decibels and Audiovisability Creating Music through Technology R&D project, funded by the Sobell Foundation and Arts Council England (ACE).

This revolved round Laurentia Tan, a medal-winning deaf Para-dressage rider, and her access to music in international competitive dressage – which made Decibels and Audiovisability, a multi-disciplinary creative initiative with music and deaf people at its core, ideal partners.

The Creating Music through Technology project aimed to raise the profile of both Laurentia and Subpac (vibrotactile) technology via film, music, journalism, and visual art made by deaf people. Taking this work to schools like PACE, which is aimed at children with motor disabilities like Laurentia, was therefore a natural next step.

With both sets of children, the workshops took two parts. The first part was a 45-minute school assembly, with a short film of the R&D being shown on a large screen and a briefing of the project. This was followed by a demonstration in which Eloise approached each of the children with the Subpac vest for them to feel – 15 children in the primary school assembly, 10 in the secondary – before I took up the mantle to do a live drawing of a horse with it on, allowing the musical vibrations to influence my mark-making.

The second part was a 30-minute repeat of said demonstration the following week, before the children went back into their group classrooms. Each group – there were three in Primary, and rather fewer in Secondary, allowing more scope for flexibility – had three 20-minute activities each.

The first group discussed the assembly with their conductors (teachers) and LSAs (1:1 learning support assistants); the second group explored feelings in music with Eloise; and the third group, with me, had a go at painting or drawing with the Subpac vest on. (I decided to let them choose their own art materials by way of adapting to their individual disabilities – cerebral palsy is a wide-ranging umbrella term.) When they had finished one 20-minute activity, Eloise, I, and designated staff then swapped places.

The results were very exciting. The children had clearly made mental notes of my live drawing, and created their own movement paintings. Some even managed to evoke the sense of a galloping horse in their abstract marks. You could actually see their confidence growing as they went on – I got the sense they felt empowered by the vibrotactile qualities of the vest. You can see in the below selected images how they responded to my original live drawing (bottom).

I have been an artist and writer for over twenty years, often collaborating with other deaf and disabled artists: most notably as Founder Director of Salon, a grant-funded Deaf contemporary visual arts project that ran for five years. Yet that was the first time I had facilitated, or co-facilitated, an art workshop with disabled children specifically, and as a parent of a disabled child, it meant so much to me: my own daughter is a PACE student. I felt this was crucial to the development of the children’s independent, critical thinking – creativity is after all key to advances in technology, science, and the humanities.

Eloise was very popular in her music activity, getting the children to suggest emotions which she conveyed briefly on her violin. This gave the children much pleasure and incentivised them to ask for more. It didn’t matter whether it preceded or followed the visual art activity – far more important was how their juxtaposition fuelled the children’s imaginations on a multi-dimensional level.

I’m not just saying that! The staff themselves were very moved by the workshops, and I’m pleased to share their thoughts here:

“Very interactive and creative work shown to the children. Allowing the children to explore with different instruments, music, etc.”

“Really interesting and innovative workshop. The music and emotions part was particularly useful for our children who are learning to recognise their own emotions.”

“Innovative, opens the door and gives lots of opportunity for people to live normal lives and access sports and dance.”

“Exceptional piece of equipment presented in an easy to understand way.”

At the time of writing, Eloise and I are preparing to run similar 90-minute workshops at PACE this summer. Although these will be paid by a different charity – and the illustrator Tim Reedy will be replacing me for half the sessions – they are no doubt inspired by the wonderful time we had together, and I am grateful to the Sobell Foundation, Decibels and Audiovisability for helping implement the project.

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Audiovisability: the project that drove my creativity

For three months last year, I was an artist and writer with Audiovisability, supporting their research and development (R&D) project funded by Arts Council England.

The project revolved round deaf Para-dressage rider Laurentia Tan, a multi-medal winner who has been competing in Paralympic and global sports events for ten years – and yet has never won gold. It came about due to her growing frustration over barriers to participating in individual freestyle, the only dressage test set to music.

My role was to shadow her in a variety of ways – online discourse, information-sharing meetings, interviews, flying to Cologne for a weekend – and combine that with my own research and development, eventually writing a report accompanied by my own drawings. The result can be viewed here, with a shorter version on Disability Arts Online here.

Laurentia has cerebral palsy. It was for that reason – among others – that Audiovisability’s creative director, Ruth Montgomery, invited me to take part. I am, after all, a parent to a child with cerebral palsy who has explored that road through my blog and my Kindle book, My Daughter and I, which can still be downloaded from Amazon UK. Besides Laurentia and I had been wanting to meet for years – almost since my daughter Isobel was diagnosed at age one in 2010, just after the sportswoman had entered competitive dressage.

Audiovisability therefore facilitated a precious moment where, Laurentia paid us a personal visit and lent Isobel her latest silver medal, won at the 2018 World Equestrian Games, to wear for a photo opportunity. I can’t overstate how significant this was for my child’s self-confidence, for her younger non-disabled brother to witness this, and how proud I felt that day.

Meanwhile Ruth sought to both bring the R&D to a wider audience through a variety of creative disciplines, with music at its core, and use it as an unique opportunity for the artists to build on existing skills and expertise.

So not only did Laurentia boost her music literacy through a combination of music lessons and collaborative discourse – but as one of the contributing artists, addressing a subject that I knew very little about enabled me to spawn a new writing language; which in turn, also pushed my drawing into a more innovative, almost allegorical style.

Given the almost polarised demands of the two strands – bombarding my mind with structural, grammatical thought for long periods of time (even when taking a coffee break!), and then switching to freeform drawing – it was possibly the most challenging and intensely creative task I’d taken on.

Nevertheless, it provided an invaluable opportunity to drive both forms of creativity to new places, transforming my art and my writing as a whole. This new development will be crucial in realising an ambition that I have of producing illustrated children’s books in future.

I am privileged to have worked alongside such a wonderful bunch like the Audiovisability crew, and I look forward to more collaborative work with them. Indeed we are planning for workshops, funded by Decibels, to take place at the PACE Centre in Aylesbury later this year, which will explore similar dressage music themes with their students.

May I extend deep thanks and appreciation to Ruth Montgomery, fellow musician and producer Eloise Garland, sound designer Chris Bartholomew-Fox, German dressage coach Volker Eudel, film director Louis Neethling and most of all, Laurentia Tan and her mother Jannie, for their kindness, patience and time.