Music-making in all its forms has been affected by the pandemic. This is particularly the case for music therapy charities working with people with profound and multiple learning disabilities and/or sensory issues, for whom a multi-sensory approach is often important. Social distancing measures have evidently made such an approach more difficult.

However, Soundabout is an example of one organisation that has successfully risen to the challenges posed by the pandemic. Soundabout is a national charity based in Didcot, Oxfordshire that uses music, rhythm and sound to give children and adults with a learning disability a voice. Thanks to the creativity and expertise of its music practitioners, Soundabout has moved many of its services online whilst ensuring that they remain multi-sensory, interactive and fun. These include virtual performances by the Soundabout Inclusive Choir and the launch of Soundabout LIVE sessions. Practitioners stream these sessions via Facebook and YouTube. Parents/carers or teachers receive an advance warning about the theme of each session so that household items (such as pots and pans, bowls of water, and soft scarves) can be used to create a multi-sensory experience. The comments function is used to help guide the direction of the session.

Responses to Soundabout’s online sessions have been overwhelmingly positive. There have been over 100,000 minutes of video viewed since lockdown began, and Soundabout has more than tripled its social media community. One of the new families reached by the online services commented:

“Your live sessions have been such a gift to me and Ava. They’ve been an utter joy to be part of. Ava has no vision so has no idea you’re behind an iPad screen and when she hears her name, she reacts in the same way she would if you were with her in person. […] Thank you so much for being so reactive to the current crisis and reaching out to families without exception, many of whom you’ve never and will never meet in person. You’ve been one of our greatest lockdown gifts and many beautiful things have come out of this awful pandemic and I hope they remain beyond it, as for so many families, there will never be a normal!”

This quote brings home the fact that social isolation is not necessarily a ‘new normal’ for people with disabilities. Social situations can be made more difficult by certain practical barriers (such as access to transport and public spaces, and a lack of changing facilities) as well as insufficient understanding and awareness of disability. Soundabout Programming Manager Philippa Higginbottom expanded on this:

 “I think that lockdown has really emphasised the needs of people with SLD [Severe Learning Disabilities] and PMLD [Profound and Multiple Learning Disabilities] and highlighted that often they have been living a life of ‘social isolation’ as a norm. As a result, it has made more people think, be able to empathise and understand their situations. The positives are that more services have been adapted to be online, which has made a huge difference to many people and families.”

Philippa explained that Soundabout is keeping a close eye on government guidance; yet, the nature of Soundabout’s work, and the fact that singing is a big part of what they do, means that they are currently unable to return to face-to-face activities. When ‘real-life’ sessions do resume, however, the charity plans to continue its online delivery. Philippa reflects that “we wished we had started it years ago as for some of our new families, isolation was a real problem before lockdown and will continue after things have eased.”

Soundabout’s successful branching out into the online world sends a message to us all: when we are creating a ‘new normal’, let’s make it a more inclusive one.

This year, Soundabout is celebrating its 25th birthday with an online version of its annual fundraiser: Thomas’ Tea Party. The virtual inclusive music festival will take place on Facebook on Sunday 12th July, with the line-up including an introduction from Jessica Hynes and music from Kate Nash. The event is free to access, with a suggested donation of £10 to help Soundabout continue making music change lives. To donate, go to:

Katie Bunney

Katie Bunney (she/her) is the Music Editor at The Oxford Blue. She is a saxophonist and third-year music student at St. Catherine's College.