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Guest blog - exploring music-making with neurodiverse children and young people

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Music Spark Show

Earlier this month, Sage Gateshead hosted MC², a mini conference exploring music-making with neurodiverse children and young people. The event was attended by music leaders, music teachers, and educators from across the region working with children and young people experiencing challenging circumstances.

Jo Montgomery was one of the delegates attending the event. Jo is a Music Leader at In Harmony Newcastle Gateshead and the Young Musicians Programme at Sage Gateshead.

Jo wanted to gain a deeper understanding of the impactful role music-making can have with neurodiverse children and to explore how she could support children with additional needs to flourish through music-making.

In this blog post, Jo tells us about her experience of attending MC² and how this will inform her practice.

Neurodiversity is an umbrella term covering a broad range of neurological differences including, but not limited to, Autism, ADHD, Dyscalculia, and Dyslexia. Recent studies have indicated that one in seven people may be classified as being neurodiverse.

I arrived at the event with lots of questions. How can I support autistic children in my Year 2 group better? How can I keep children more engaged in a big group session with very mixed abilities?

I’ve experienced how music can break through conventional boundaries of educational development in my work across In Harmony Newcastle Gateshead and the Young Musicians Programme at Sage Gateshead.  Music is often viewed as medium where neurodiverse children can communicate and excel creatively.

The MC² mini conference started with an inspirational session from Adam Ockelford, Professor of Music at the University of Roehampton in London.  Adam talked about his ground-breaking work and research with children with support needs and abilities, including ‘Sounds of Intent’. He also showed us some of his work with young people through video extracts.

It was very moving to see how music can be the only channel of communication for some children with profound and multiple learning difficulties. These children demonstrate clearly that disability is not a barrier to musical ability. I was incredibly moved by the musicality and sensitivity shown in the playing of a young person with profound and multiple learning difficulties who has no speech. Their interpretations of Bach and Bernstein on the piano were stunning and as Adam explained, music has become a ‘proxy language’ for them to communicate, to take turns and assert their individuality.

Adam Ockelford, Professor of Music at the University of Roehampton
Adam Ockelford
Open Orchestras, Middlesbrough
Open Orchestra

There then followed a presentation from Rebecca Johnson, Musical Inclusion Manager and Ben Hopkinson, Music Leader from MUSINC’s Open Orchestra programme in Middlesbrough. Open Orchestra is a programme which supports young disabled people to learn a musical instrument and play with others independently and expressively in an accessible and sociable environment.

I was inspired by their creative use of music and the mixture of electronics, string instruments and percussion shown in the videos, something I’d like to research further and bring into my own practice. We were provided with information about online resources for music that would suit this kind or type of group as well as the technology used in their sessions. It was also lovely to see a practical demonstration of some of the music and instruments used; ‘Peace Piece’ was beautifully directed by Ben Hopkinson and performed by people in the audience, demonstrating how a beautiful soundscape can be achieved very simply.

Finally, the Music Spark team presented an inspiring, entertaining and practical session highlighting the programme at Sage Gateshead. Music Spark is an exciting and supportive music training programme for young people and adults with additional needs. The programme aims to support young people to learn and develop their musical and leadership skills.

This was my standout moment of the afternoon. Several young people involved with Music Spark spoke about how being part of the programme has impacted their lives, what they’ve gained and how they’ve developed their skills and experience over time to become music leaders and role models.

Music Spark led some vocal warmups, including ‘Random Beats’ and a great song called ‘Ola Ola’, that my colleagues and I are planning to use with some of the groups at In Harmony Newcastle Gateshead.  I think it’s going to be really popular with the children at Hawthorn and Bridgewater Primary Schools. This was a joyful and musical way to end an inspiring and informative afternoon.

Music Spark at Sage Gateshead


I’ve come away from the event with new knowledge and skills for working inclusively with neurodiverse children and young people.

My key takeaways are:

  • Disability is no barrier to being a musician or a music leader.
  • The most simple sounds can be used for communication and interaction, it doesn’t need to be complicated to be effective.
  • Patience and consistency could be the key to finding the right ways to work with children with neurodiverse children
  • As a Music Leader, creativity, flexibility, and improvisation are key
  • Keep celebrating creativity rather than conformity!

More from MC2

MC2 is a series of mini conferences exploring inclusive music making. Find out more about previous MC2 events below.