Blog: Making music at Oaklands School by Niroshini Thambar

16 February 2024

Photo by James Stamler via Unsplash
Photo by James Stamler via Unsplash

In November and December last year, I spent time at Oaklands School in Edinburgh for a short residency with participants from Beech class. Working with fellow artists Sanjay Lago and Liam Rees, we each brought our respective practices and experience in acting, writing, directing, music and sound. Oaklands has a treasure trove of sensory materials and equipment in the school, along with a wide range of classroom percussion, both tuned and untuned. We were welcomed to the school by both staff and pupils with the Expressive Arts department being very generous with their resources to support the residency, alongside our own.

We spent a week in total with Beech Class, a group of secondary pupils from S4-S6, focusing on making music and sound through play and experimentation. As a sound designer, composer and musician, I am always interested in the qualities of sound and music, how it can make us feel and move, and how we can create environments and connect through playing with sound. This became the focus of the residency. Our sessions ran in the expansive school hall, as well as in the smaller classroom.

Each day we ‘arrived’ in our space in low light by listening to the ambient musical soundscapes of Brian Eno before I introduced a particularly resonant chime that each person was invited to play and listen to. We then moved through moments of dancing and movement to a range of music both live and recorded, chosen with the pupils. We then explored sound and music in various ways.

I played live music either on my violin or melodica, usually with Liam accompanying on Djembe and often backed up by Sanjay on a drum of choice. Participants could choose to listen, move or select an instrument to play along with in whatever way they wished to. We discovered what an instrument sounded like, but also what it might feel like to hold and touch. Were they rough or smooth? Did they feel cool or warm? We also explored the possibilities of making sound with other objects. What does it sound like when crinkling and scrunching a foil blanket, or bouncing ping-pong balls across the surface of a drum? (and how quickly does it become chaotic when many ping-pong balls bounce in various directions?!)

Beech class certainly like to dance and move, and Liam’s drumming became an anchor point, whilst Sanjay brought in his Ghungroo ankle bells to share with the class during the dancing. Over the course of the residency, we discovered musical likes and dislikes and a group playlist started to emerge including Arabic pop, R&B, country and folk. We also took turns to record our voices using a microphone into Logic Pro on the laptop, listened to and chose beats and loops. In addition, I brought in a Soundbeam, a piece of accessible music technology that allows participants to play a range of digital musical instruments with simple switches as well as through their physical movement triggering musical notes and sound via ultrasound sensors.

Our residency became about making connection through music and sound with our selves, each other and our space. All these different music and sound-making ways provided points of access for us to express ourselves and try things out. We improvised musical soundscapes. We danced and moved together. Choosing to play a musical instrument for the first time, hearing one’s voice playing back through the speakers, deciding to sit back and listen, expressing what we liked or didn’t like; all these brought joy, energy, calm and chaos at different moments! We had a brilliant time with the pupils and staff of Beech class, and everyone was so generous with their own time and focus. I am grateful to have experienced such richness of connection and communication during these brief few days with a wonderful group of collaborators.