Singing promotes connection and integration: between brain and body, and connects what is inside us with the outside world; it connects me to you and you to me. We don’t have to sing with words, and singing does not have to be beautiful or tuneful. Research suggests that we sing before we can speak: the babble interchanges between infant and carer, where feeling and meaning are expressed and exchanged without language, contain all the elements of music.
People with severe or profound and multiple learning disabilities (PMLD), who may not use words, might be able to draw on a bigger palette and range of sounds than most of us as they may not have restricted themselves to the sounds that are used in their language and accepted by the prevailing culture.
This guidance supports you to interact in a playful way using your voice. Our voices can make many different kinds of sounds including singing, which is simply breath made audible. You don’t need a ‘good’ voice – your partner will enjoy your voice because it comes from you.
You might want to run this as a scheduled session, but can also take advantage of opportunities that arise spontaneously and naturally, for example if you notice random or repeated vocalisations
What you need
- Just you and your ability to listen, tune in and be playful with the sounds your voice makes
- Optional – backing tracks – YouTube have lots of backing tracks in different musical genres
Guidance and instructions
- Singing comes from the whole body, and works best when relaxed. If this is a planned session, it might be a good idea to start by feeling into your body. You can do this by moving, brushing or tapping it. You can help your partner to do the same with gentle touch, asking for permission first. Particularly bring awareness to your feet and notice the contact of your sitting bones with your chair if sitting, to bring the awareness and the voice into the body. A little rock on the sitting bones can help to ground us and settle the nervous system.
- If your partner doesn’t vocalise, or doesn’t vocalise much, you can start with breath – noticing when they breathe in and out and matching their pattern with your own breath – perhaps then you can make your out breath audible: this can bring awareness to their own breathing, and may encourage vocalisation.
- Movement often accompanies sound [think of how we gesture when we speak], so another ‘way in’ is to copy your partner’s movements and let sounds grow from the movement. You could initiate movement, perhaps a gentle swaying, which is relaxing but has an energy and rhythm which invite sound.
- Listen carefully to your partner’s vocalisations – is there a discernible beat, or a melody or ‘phrase’ that is repeated? What happens if you ‘answer’ the vocalisation in the same vein: this can be a more or less exact imitation, or an approximation. Sometimes our singing partners have thoroughly explored the sensory possibilities of their vocal apparatus and can produce far more interesting sounds than us! You might want to take time to explore your own vocal possibilities and see if you can learn some new techniques. This turn-taking, whether it is imitative or question and answer style, can turn into a piece of music. It may be different every time, or follow a more or less predictable pattern. Either way, it may be something that becomes a channel of communication [expressing feeling and sensation, rather than information] or simply a source of fun that can be taken anywhere.
- Perhaps your partner’s vocal sounds seem imitative rather than musical – it can be great fun to exchange animal sounds, bird sounds, or sounds that we hear around us – natural or mechanical.
- Don’t be afraid to pause; it’s really important to wait for your partner’s response: it may take a little time for them to process what they have heard, and it may take some time to establish a regular ‘back and forth’ Silence is also a part of music.
- If you feel that a little more support is needed, you can explore backing tracks. There are lots of these on YouTube, in different musical styles and it could be fun to try new ones out. I have known a few people with PMLD who have loved bringing out their inner rock chick or heavy metaller. You could also try acoustic guitar tracks, handpan or harp. Choose music which has the support of a rhythm and chord structure, but enough ‘space’ in the music to add vocals. You could begin with something like this: Go to YouTube
- There is no right or wrong, musically speaking – just make the sounds that you enjoy, that feel good – some of them may not ‘work’, but others will, and the aim is connection and pleasure, not musical perfection.
- Whether you are vocalising along with a backing track or not, don’t forget that you are aiming at a vocal ‘conversation’ so make sure you leave gaps which invite participation. It may take a while for your partner to understand and enjoy the game, but when they do begin to join in, it will feel fantastic!
- A word about praise – in this kind of activity, the interaction itself, the connection, offers a huge reward for both participants – really enjoy this connection for its own sake – being treated as an equal communication partner is more valuable than being ‘good’ or compliant. The reward is the smile, the eye contact, the moment when you realize you are in the music together.
What to observe, assess and record
- Changes in breathing, in body language, movement, vocalisation
- Pleasure / displeasure
- Emotional reactions
- Interaction – through, for example, vocalisation, body language, touch, movement, eye contact
- Frequency and length of vocalisation
- Variety of sounds
- Ease of turn-taking
- Does your partner sometimes imitate you?
- Can you introduce new and different sounds?
© Eleanor Gibson
Created August 2021