Sound Young Minds – inside the room

Posted on: February 3, 2022 in: CLS Behind the Scenes, Education and Outreach

Written by Gawain Hewitt
Names have been changed to protect young people’s confidentiality

It’s January 2018 and I’m setting up for a Sound Young Minds workshop with the City of London Sinfonia (CLS) in a classroom. Ok, while this is factually correct, it doesn’t really tell the full story as this is a workshop in The Bethlem and Maudsley Hospital School and today we’ll be working with young people from the Snowsfields Adolescent Unit. So it is a school, yes, and exists in the familiar organisational structure of one, but it’s housed deep within a secure mental health facility in South London. To get to the classroom you need to first navigate the warren of the Denmark Hill hospital site which houses Kings and Maudsley. Once at the right building you need to enter via two secure doors, one of which has a type of airlock. You are now in the hospital corridor, from which a final locked door allows you access to the classroom. It’s a strange entry, but it’s important to remember that despite being within a hospital, we are actually working in a school, and once we enter that final door we are within their area and care.

Setting up a session like this is one of the most important parts of this work for me. Colleagues have learned not to speak to me in this time as I imagine the session, and carefully place instruments and machines around the space, decide on a seating plan and make sure everything I am using is working properly. During the session itself I want my attention to be fully on the young people and the music making, so this process of setting up allows me to feel confident and ready. There is also an element of risk assessment to it. Some of the young people we are working with are at risk of self harm, so I make a list of exactly what is out in the room, and check in with teachers as to any specific risks. Sometimes, for this reason, it can be agreed that we work with the absolute minimum of equipment, but for this session I have iPads, some speakers, tuned and untuned percussion and I also have my guitar.

This care in the layout and setup is also present in the team. CLS carefully pick the musicians who are part of the team, and the roles, seating and musical arrangement have as much impact on the session as they do on a concert or a recording. It could be said that what we are setting up here is an extension of the concept of chamber music – with each player taking a part, with the changing roles and leadership within the music making and the passing of motifs and musical ideas. What we are setting up in the room is preparation for an orchestral experience, one in which we have yet to meet all the players. The musician is there to bring their experience of ensemble playing, to bring the current orchestral pieces, to weave it all together – modelling playing, taking it somewhere sublime, mirroring someone’s playing. To sit alongside someone and be their leader, peer and player. To welcome and be welcomed. Today I have Ruth on the viola and she is fantastic.

Experience has taught us that there are numerous trapdoors to making music with young people in this setting. If we say we are going to make music, then generally every single young person in the room will say ‘no we are not’ and then put a lot of effort into disengaging. If we praise someone explicitly, they will reject that praise – it will not register and it might even lead to surprising or dangerous behaviour. If we do something and it is good, and we then ask to repeat it, it will not necessarily happen again – so no performances or sharing in the traditional sense take place within this project. So this presents a lot of challenges. However we have also found that if we talk little and instead focus on sound and music making, engagement will come out of exploration. If we play our orchestral repertoire with courage and conviction, without trying to ‘make it appropriate’ it will be met with respect. If we treat everyone’s sound as equal and reinforce sound and music making by playing with people, they are affirmed in a non verbal way, and seem to embody a noticeable improvement in esteem. If we bring our best artistic self and treat them as part of the music making with status as part of this new musical ensemble, if we treat the work and the people in the room with respect, then the quality of the work can be very high.

With this in mind there are a couple of unusual parts of my practice that it is worth highlighting. The first is that I record the entirety of each session as an audio file. This is transparent and is with full consent. This allows me to edit out recordings of the sometimes extraordinary group music making to share and as a record of the work. It also means nothing needs to be repeated, so we can stay in the moment. The session structure is fluid and led by the engagement of the young people. It is not important to me to speak or introduce the project. Sometimes I don’t say a word until the end. My advanced planning is a selection of resources which I prepare with orchestral musicians – many many things – we have scores of repertoire, we have facts about the orchestra and about composers and pieces of music, but the session is not organised into a linear structure. They are tools to assist the young person on their musical journey, and to assist me and the musician in getting the best from us and them. The room is set up to facilitate this as well, with a range of different musical experiences to explore, from shakers, to sequencers, to sound beams, to guitar, to drum machines and loopers – but also with an eye on encouraging ensemble or group music making.

So, it’s January 2018, and I am set up. Young people start to enter the room in dribs and drabs. They’re used to working independently on their own workstations but we’re bringing them together as a group, sometimes with young people sharing a session who won’t normally tolerate each other. We are able to model a different way of being together through our experience of group music making. Some young people arrive with a statement – it could be positive, or it could be a loud statement of not going to engage. Some are visibly unwell in the way they present, others not so. They sit around the room. Some within the planned seating I have arranged, others pointedly not. Teaching staff and sometimes clinical staff are dotted throughout, so we might have between five and seven young people and the same number of adults, who are also bringing all their experiences, expectations and insecurities to the music making.

Today I start with a looper. A looper is a piece of music technology that records and repeats a sound indefinitely. On mine I can also reverse that sound. So a really silly start is to say your name and loop it. Then reverse it. Then learn how to say your name backwards phonetically. You then record that and reverse it again and see if you have said your actual name. It’s a great start. Silly, playful, engaging. Definitely not music making. Sometimes I’ll play a drum beat along with the loop and we’ll spontaneously move into a musical jam around the repeating sound of a backwards name. Ruth is weaving melodic lines around it on her viola while I, on the other hand, am probably clowning a little. Playing a table or a chime bar, making something that sounds good out of nothing. Both of us with the intention of encouraging the young people in the room to make a sound, any sound, because once we start we are on a journey somewhere. One of the most challenging parts of this work is considering what success looks like. It’s a question that we constantly revisit and as such I think that the most honest answer is that it means different things on different days. One of the names I catch and reverse doesn’t record in its entirety, but in reverse it has a definite melody. And it also definitely belongs to the young person too. It’s from their voice after all. We’ll call this young person Bob (not their real name). Ruth picks up this melody for me and holds onto it for the rest of the session. This is to become the main theme for today.

This game lasts a good seven to eight minutes and really serves to break the ice. Today I take the opportunity to introduce myself and the team, and I invite Ruth to play. She has one of the pieces that’s about to be performed in a CLS concert with her and she plays with great conviction and commitment. To be in the presence of an artist on the top of their craft in this way up close is always a privilege. I’m, as ever, stunned. And the room is changed. One of the things I really value with Ruth and other CLS musicians on these projects is that they don’t bring the easy stuff. This is a challenging workout, for her and for us. We are most certainly not being patronised, this is proper and it sets a tone.

I’m keen to get back to doing, so I use a technique I often use, which is to ask everyone to grab an instrument and make a noise – any noise (I have to watch out for any adults in the room taking the best instruments!). Just make a noise. It’s a cacophony, but also freeing. And STOP! You can learn a lot from a group from how they stop. This group are listening and respecting each other as they do. I now borrow some of the concepts from Terry Riley’s piece ‘In C’ and we explore playing and layering repetitive phrases as a mechanism for semi-composed and semi- improvised music making. I lead the group in developing rules as to who plays, when and how, if and when we can change our motif and other rules and thoughts. We do many versions with different leaders and starts and ends and one in particular stands out, the group playing together as a rhythmic unit, as a proto-orchestra, while Ruth takes the melody, exploring the melody and improvised variations on the melody that came from Bob’s voice. I accompany on guitar, and a student takes strings on the iPad resulting in a piece that is remarkably polished.

Today is Bob’s last day in the unit – they’re going home. As it happened they chose to stay on an extra hour to finish the music session. They delayed being discharged from a Psychiatric Unit because the music making was so enjoyable. There is no more powerful endorsement. We heard that a few months later Bob returned to the same unit, and on their entry to the classroom raised their arms in a flourish and sang their melody from our workshop – “da da da!”

What it doesn’t look like is a pre- conceived outcome in my view. The headteacher, John Ivans has said that when we work in his school we access the well part of the young people. We’ve had sessions that have been musically confusing, and difficult personally, only to be told at the end that it was unprecedented for the young people to sit around a table together for any length of time or work together. We’ve had young people sit quiet throughout the session and then quietly engage when they think we are not looking. And we have some that just staying in the room is an achievement. It is an enormous privilege to run these workshops, and for me I have come to really see that music making in this way with this team and group of young people feels exactly the same to me as any other music making I do where everyone is present and respectful. It has challenged me as a musician and artist to think about what is important and what is good music making. I would challenge that this is important and the very best music making.

Sound Young Minds, led by lead artist Gawain Hewitt with CLS musicians, is a groundbreaking programme working in hospitals with young people with mental health illnesses. The programme explores how music can have a powerful impact on young people during particularly challenging times in their lives. Sound Connections is the independent evaluator and critical friend for this programme.

Sound Young Minds is a bespoke programme originated by City of London Sinfonia in partnership with Bethlem and Maudsley Hospital School and Lavender Walk Adolescent Mental Health Unit and funded by Youth Music (include other funders), that builds confidence and self-esteem in young people living with severe mental health and psychiatric conditions through music-making.

Now in its fourth year, it is the only programme of its kind in the UK and is one of the central pillars of CLS’s singular identity informing every aspect of its work from world-renowned concert stages to care homes, the digital sphere to schools.

Sound Young Minds won the RPS Impact Award 2020.