Power in the Pride: Providing Ensemble Experiences for SEND Youth

The Ensemble seeks to connect and inform all people who are committed to ensemble music education for youth empowerment and social change.

Power in the Pride: Providing Ensemble Experiences for SEND Youth

Hannah Carpenter, singing teacher and choral director, Surrey, England; Cohort Member, Global Leaders Program 2022


Create Together participants always rehearse their songs with a sense of fun. Photo: Pro Corda.

In the majestic barn of the historic Leiston Abbey grounds, 23 Year Ten students sat in stillness, captivated by the sound of gentle notes from the piano. As their transformational journey into the magical world of musical theater began, the additional needs and disabilities of these young people seemed far away. Five immersive days were to follow—days of creative musicianship, visual arts, composition, drama, and song, culminating in a final staged show.

I was privileged to experience this process in action as a member of the 2022 Global Leaders Cohort, which allowed me to spend time with the U.K. youth music organization Pro Corda during one of their Create Together residencies. Guided by the inspiring and innovative leadership of Andrew Quartermain (Pro Corda CEO), Laura Feeney (Creative Director of Outreach), and Di Jones (Artists & Participatory Arts Facilitator), the participants were able to bring to life a unique interpretation of the famous musical The Lion King. 

Since 2006, Pro Corda has been delivering programs for SEND (special educational needs and/or disabilities) students. Its Create Together initiative is the U.K.’s largest holistic music education program designed for children and young adults with additional needs and disabilities. Its ethos: encouraging personal and social development through ensemble experiences.

Students constructed their hand-crafted animal masks in Technical Theatre workshops. Photo: Pro Corda.

The activities of the five-day Create Together residencies are centered on chamber music principles: group interaction, decision-making, improvisation, and performance. The residential element of the program is designed with the recognition that feelings of isolation and loneliness are common among those with additional needs. Participants make the Leiston Abbey their home, and the course leaders and support staff eat, play, and create alongside them, forming a special, trusting atmosphere.

Part of the essence of the program is the nurturing of a positive and calm association with the physical performing space. The course leaders know that for these participants, familiarity with their environment encourages them to be spontaneous and creative. So while the stage was always referred to as a special and magical space, it was also the platform for morning yoga sessions, friendly evening house concerts, and daily “Time to Relax”—a structured session of guided listening and breathing.

Daily vocal sessions were full of life, laughter, and character exploration. As one participant said, “I’m usually very quiet at school. I don’t talk or sing…but here I can.” Those who initially showed minimal verbal communication became visibly more relaxed. Often, a participant’s capacity for attending to sounds was more advanced than their ability to produce them, making for very special moments when participants shared an outburst of vocal or instrumental creativity. In a Creative Musicianship workshop led by Laura Feeney, participants were encouraged to think on their feet. Through guided work with handbells, chimes, and drums, student compositions emerged and were recorded with great pride. Woven between these musical sessions was Technical Theatre, which involved the creation of large African animal masks, an exploration of shadow art, and whole-cast discussions on staging and movement.

Students bring the stage to colorful life for the Final Show. Photo: Pro Corda.

The five days whizzed by; words were memorized, movements polished, and stage directions diligently followed. The creativity and confidence with which the students took the stage for their final show would be the envy of many professionals! They were buzzing with their achievements, each in their own way.

Create Together is a window into a world where music truly transforms its participants. As educators, we must seek such opportunities to step out of our typical roles and contexts. As the head teacher of the residential school stated, “Our students thrived in so many ways, bringing so much joy to us and to each other.” There is a remarkable social function to music when working with students with additional needs and disabilities, which gives a special intensity and joy to the process of creating together!

For more information, visit Pro Corda’s website.