Sound Tracks and The Great North Wood

Here is the article that we wrote for PMLD Link. It says a little more about the work I do with Emmie and Keith as Sound Tracks…. (Coralie too but she is working hard as a Speech and Language Therapist at time of writing :))


Sarah Glover, Emmie Ward, Coralie Oddy and Keith Park have formed a collective – Soundtracks – to provide multi-sensory storytelling, poetry, music, song and dance workshops for adults with severe and profound and multiple learning disabilities on the theme of The Great North Wood

Sarah writes:

The Great North Wood History

 Oh the trees grew all around, even in, your own home town…

I first found out about The Great North Wood when studying for my MA in Museums and Galleries in Education. I was researching the history of Crystal Palace Park for various projects, which included the creation of a community audio trail. During my research, park and parish boundaries were frequently mentioned and there was talk of the ‘Vicar’s Oak’ that once stood on the triangle. Looking at area map excerpts through different time periods I became intrigued by the time before the palace and park and in particular with John Roque’s 1746 map of London. I found a copy of Roque’s map in Lambeth Archives and this map clearly marks ‘The Great North Wood’ in large lettering over Norwood and Dulwich. Having lived in West Norwood off and on over the years I had had no idea of the name’s origin. If ever you get the chance to take a look at the map, you should!

I can not confess to be the most knowledgeable person on The Great North Wood. The London Wildlife Trust are a good source of information and they are currently working on a Heritage Lottery Funded project on the theme. The trust manages areas of land which include remnants of the wood that you can visit today, such as Sydenham Hill Wood. I am fascinated by the wood and the stories it holds. I am particularly interested in the mix of tangible and intangible history of the area and I am passionate about helping to make local heritage accessible to as many people as possible. Key aspects of life in The Great North Wood are used as starting points during the sessions – the nature and characters of the wood.  We have always left these aspects open for development during the sessions – and the learning has been for us as project creators as much as for the students.

We are beating, beating, beating the bounds… we are beating, the bounds…

The Great North Wood once covered most of South London and stretched from as far as Deptford to Selhurst. Many clues about the area’s history are in names – area and street names such as Vicar’s Oak Road. The wood was centrally made up of Oak trees, and boundary oaks such as the Vicar’s Oak (that no longer stands) were important landmarks. People would have visited these oaks when taking part in the annual tradition of beating the bounds. From what I have heard, this was when the parishioners walked along the lines of their parish boundaries to make sure that they asserted which land was theirs. We celebrated the beating of the bounds in our April session. This included using real sapling wands and processing around a symbolic (hand drawn) tree while singing a song we created.

Have you seen Margaret Finch? They call her the Gipsy Queen….

 Names continue to tell a story, such as Gipsy Hill, which refers to the gypsies who once held summer encampments in the area. The most famous of these gypsies was Margaret Finch who was given the name ‘Queen of the Gipsies’. Day trippers from all around visited the gypsies, apparently including Samuel Pepys’ wife, Elizabeth in 1668.* The thought of excited day trippers going to have their fortunes told and and the festival feel that must have been provided us with lots of stimuli for songs, drama and music on the theme.

Stand and deliver, your money or your life…

I am familiar with The Highwayman being taught in schools from when I working as a teaching assistant in a school.  We didn’t use the poem in this project. However, the highwaymen who would have roamed The Great North Wood were the first characters we introduced. The drama developed during the sessions. Sometimes we were all the highwaymen and sometimes one or two highwaymen and highwaywomen collected treasure from the rest of the group. This was supported by song and the words: ‘Stand and deliver!’

The plants and animals of the Great North Wood have been a theme throughout all of the sessions. Nature has been fundamental to the sensory storytelling and interactive storytelling. To date we have used more general animals and plants that could be found in woodland, but there is a huge scope for developing around nature particular to The Great North Wood.

The Great North Wood Sensory Stories

It was a long time ago…

I was first introduced to sensory stories at a day workshop with Joanna Grace at a Diversity in Heritage Group meeting. I had always been interested in how to make museums, galleries and heritage sites more accessible and had a fair amount of experience in education and disability. However, this was the first time that I learned about a clear, practical, interesting and instant way to get started. I then attended a training weekend with Joanna Grace. As well as learning more about developing and telling sensory stories, I also met Coralie Oddy. Coralie also had an interest in The Great North Wood and we resolved to write a sensory story on the theme.

It was the time of The Great North Wood and the trees grew all around….

Sensory stories are usually made up of about ten parts/sentences and throughout the story you try and cover as wide a variety of senses as possible, so that each sentence has a sensory experience connected with it. Our sensory story was the starting point for the themes we covered and continue to use during the sessions. We first thought about what we could use to represent the wood itself. We wanted to create the feeling of immersion in the wood and Coralie had the idea to use a hoop with leaves that dangle from it. We could then place the hoop over the heads of individuals so that they would truly be immersed in the leaves. The hoop proved helpful in creating a special atmosphere in the sessions. It helps us begin with a sense of calm and familiarity. This, combined with Emmie’s beautiful flute playing means that there is a mystical feeling of being transported to the wood.

The trees grew flowers which bloomed and turned into rich, juicy berries…

The theme of woodland has given us a bountiful amount of ideas. Sensory stimuli are used throughout the story and the whole session. However, in each session at some point in the story there is a prolonged period for sensory exploration. We take around a variety of stimuli to participants and while introducing people to the different items we also observe what interests and simulates enjoyment. Items are mostly inspired by the workshops with Joanna Grace and include visual stimuli such as laminated pouches filled with coloured water and small objects; as well as touch stimuli of gak and various kinds and water beads in water. We always have a couple of scents on offer.

Coralie writes:

Highwaymen hid in the woods. You could hear the sound of horses hooves and running feet….

 Gaining an understanding of what different individuals respond well to (or perhaps do not enjoy) has been really important for developing the sessions. In one group, we found that a wide circle arrangement was important to give some individuals space, whereas another group developed a real sense of intimacy by having the story circle brought tighter. Some individuals have developed their confidence in participating by being offered the chance to add extra sensory layers to what is now a familiar story (such as using clapping sticks to create a ‘tick tock’ sound during the part of the story ‘It was a long time ago…’). Others have shown subtle signs of greater engagement as the weeks have progressed. One visually impaired individual who found noisy stimuli difficult really benefitted from experiencing the story in terms of different kinds of touch on her arms and hands – light tapping fingers for rain fall, for example. It also gradually supported her to engage more fully with other sensory aspects of the story – she was happy to smell differently scented gels and hand creams when used within the context of hand massage, and matching speed and intensity of touch to music being played seemed to increase her tolerance of these sounds. Another individual who tended to wander and rummage through people’s possessions during the sessions was able to have her needs met and be included within the ‘action’ of the story by having leaves scattered in front of her, which she carefully picked up and placed in a bag for us to scatter again. Following and accepting the preferences of individuals has been helpful in supporting them to try new sensory experiences. Experimenting over time has been key!

Emmie writes:

I have recently completed my PG Cert in Sounds of Intent  (Adam Ockelford 2008) at Roehampton University. Originally designed to enable children with PMLD to access music,

Sounds of Intent ‘maps’ musical behaviour and development and divides musical expression into three distinct but interdependent areas: reactive ( listening to music), pro-active ( making music) and interactive ( making music with others). It emphasises an individual approach to musical expression in which the student is guided along at their own pace and direction.

Our aim in the sessions was to provide an array of interesting sounds for people to listen and respond to. This included the words in the stories, the rhythmic call and response of Keith’s poems and chants as well as instrumental music and songs and soundscapes to create the atmosphere of birds singing in the woods or wind blowing through leaves. When working with students with PMLD who might not be aware of sound as a separate entity its important to try out lots of different sound experiences and observe their response. One of the most important sounds for them to hear is their own vocal sounds. With this in mind some of the songs in each session are adapted or purposely created to include vocalisations, which everyone sings together. Students also consistently respond to hearing their name so we use their name not only in hello and goodbye songs but in songs that relate to parts of the story as well.

Its really important to make sure that sound is as different as possible from the background noise many of our students experience in residential homes where the tv or radio can be playing almost constantly. To do this, we have to bring the music over to people and sing and play close to them accompanied by lots of engaging eye contact, expression and a “live” sound. I also make sure that I provide lots of drama and contrast in playing quiet, louder, slow and faster and that there is a variety of sounds created from a range of instruments and voices to create changes in “timbre” Stops and starts are also utilized to create drama and to remember that “silence can be as important as sound!” ( soundabout)

To help students with PMLD make sounds using instruments, body or voice ( pro-active domain) we initially reflect back involuntary sounds to highlight awareness of them, if the student is not making sound intentionally. The next step is to find accessible ways to make sound and to enable people to have as much control in doing this with minimal support. We have lots of different instruments so people can experience the soft and resonant sounds of djembe drums or the pure metallic sound of a tone chime. We have lots of small shakers and hand held percussion instruments that are easy to hold and string them on to belts if the player does not want to hold the instrument for too long. This way it can be held and released at the players will. For tuned instruments we’ve had great fun with a small child’s accordion and playing guitar chords on garageband on the ipad.

Our students with PMLD have different musical preferences and we constantly review how we can accommodate their needs within the class. Some students find it very difficult to relax within the class unless there is some music. For other students especially with sensory processing issues we have to be aware that loud sounds can be distressing and we have to make sure the volume of the music does not become too loud. For some students ( as Coralie said) experiencing touch stimuli enables them to more readily engage with the music as it seems to provide a focus that grounds them and allows them to enjoy listening.

The real joy comes in making music and sound interactively and Keith’s poems and chants do this beautifully. Working with Keith has inspired us to look for call and response songs and to create our own songs within which there is turn taking between music makers and a rich musical conversation emerges. It’s really important to leave time and space to as Keith says to “see what happens” and be ready to respond to our students and allow their input to flourish.

During the sessions we have learnt to look for “magical moments”. One of these was when we sang: “come and gather” a “campfire” song (written by Sarah) where we all sat close together in a circle around a flickering fire on the ipad. Something about the closeness and swaying to the music created a wonderful connection and calm between everyone. Another was when we marched around the room chanting and holding birch wands and re-enacting the ancient tradition of “ beating the bounds” There was a feeling of excitement and energy amongst our students. Is it the music, the movement, proximity to one another? We’re still figuring it out but when these moments happen we know we’re on to something good!!

Keith writes:

Our aim is to bring music, song, poetry, dance and storytelling together in a creative and accessible format for adults with severe and profound and multiple learning disabilities.  Both Sarah and Emmie are singers and musicians with a vast knowledge of folk song. Sorted!

And here, as a taster, here is our chant of The Great North Wood.  This can be performed as a poem using call and response but also as a circle dance, as the words suggest, or as both together.  Emmie has set it to music, so it is now a song: and so then, of course, we can perform it as a song, a poem using call and response, and a dance, all  at the same time.  We have also had guidance from British Sign Language users and teachers so in addition the chant is signed. An interactive poem, sung to live music, danced and signed at the same time.

A Guardian reporter, should one ever come and join us, might describe the workshop as an example of ‘Gesamtkunstwerk.’ We just think of it as putting it all together.

The Chant Of The Great North Wood

If come you can

Then come you should

To join us all

At the Great North Wood

Hand to hand

Each to each

We dance around

The copper beech

Eye to eye

So we can see

Us dance around

The old oak tree

If come you can

Then come you should

To join us all

At the Great North Wood

Side by side

Come and go

We dance around

The mistletoe

Toe to toe

You and me

We dance around

The rowan tree

If come you can

Then come you should

To join us all

At The Great North Wood

Circle dance

Beneath the sky

Our circle

Has no I

Root and tree

Flower and leaf

The Great North Wood

Beyond belief

If come you can

Then come you should

To join us all

At The Great North Wood

Anyone wanting more information on The Great North Wood is welcome to contact or by twitter at @Soundtracks16