Our second 'insider' case study

Every six months or so we meet with one of our grantees to talk with them about the brilliant work they’re doing, in a little more depth than time usually allows. It’s always completely inspiring. Read on below to find out more about the fabulous work that Rowan - one of the projects we supported in our fourth round of funding - is doing. Written by Jenny Seabrook.

Set up in 1984, Rowan is a Cambridge-based arts centre and charity, where artists work with people with learning disabilities to improve their lives. Using the arts, Rowan provides a safe and creative environment, where student artists thrive, growing artistically, gaining confidence and self-esteem, as well as making new friends. Although student artists contribute financially towards their time at Rowan, this doesn’t cover the full cost of activities and materials, so they actively fundraise to make up the difference.

Rowan’s original focus had been very much on the visual arts, and the centre offers courses in woodwork, ceramics, print, textiles and mixed media art. In 2016 they applied for a Dosoco grant in order to introduce music and performance workshops into the mix, and we were delighted that they met the necessary criteria. Their grant was awarded later that year and the money has enabled them to buy instruments, allowing participants the opportunity to engage in musical activity – singing, listening, playing and composition.

“Music has really enhanced the lives of Rowan’s students…”

We visited earlier this year to see and hear them in action. Arriving just in time for a coffee and the all-important biscuits with some of the student artists and Hetti Wood, Rowan’s Communications Ambassador. We were given an incredibly warm reception as we sat in the bright and sunny refectory space. Stopping to say a cheery hello as he passed by, Des Trollip, Operations Director told us how “Student artists at Rowan were thrilled to receive a grant from Dosoco for new musical instruments. Music has really enhanced their lives and the new instruments have given them musical opportunities they haven’t had before.”

Student artist Tracie, chipped in enthusiastically, saying “I love woodwork and creating art but I love music in a different way. It makes me relaxed, which wood doesn’t do. I need to relax in my life which is sometimes stressful. I am so glad Rowan has started music and I hope it doesn’t stop.”

What a wonderful thing to hear!

Jeanette and David, playing the ukuleles bought with Dosoco grant money

Jeanette and David, playing the ukuleles bought with Dosoco grant money

Hetti explained that once music was added into Rowan’s existing provision, such was the demand that it soon moved from the once-a-week pilot session to being offered three times a week, with seven or eight students in a session (some doing more than one weekly session), as well as some newly introduced one to one piano lessons. Jeanette who we met waiting to go into the session with tutor Zoe and her classmates, told us “I like music and I like my teacher… singing is the best. I love every song. I do drama and print but music is the best. I LOVE it”.

Jeanette’s enthusiasm is infectious but Hetti explains that although the students can be incredibly uplifted by playing and listening to music, it also gives them the chance to express other emotions. She describes an occasion where the students were watching Singing in the Rain, and Jeanette got a bit upset. She found some parts quite emotional which took her by surprise but Rowan recognises that it’s really great to have that outlet and Hetti says that music lets the students express emotions that they might otherwise find difficult to.

She tells us about another student who is prone to being quiet and can struggle to communicate, yet who got up in front of an audience at the Rowan music performance at Cambridge University Press’ Cass Centre in March. Playing the Ukulele, she really “came alive” and was so full of joy that her Mum was moved to “happy tears” in the audience.

This concert had an audience of 120 and was a great success. It featured a mixture of the ukulele group, singing and compositions, as well as a drama performance, and the T-shirts (as seen in the picture below) were designed by one of the student artists.

Rowan’s music group performing in a recent concert at the Cass Centre in Cambridge

Rowan’s music group performing in a recent concert at the Cass Centre in Cambridge

We are invited in to watch a music session with tutor Zoe and first up is a group session on the Ukulele. After helping the students to find the correct finger positions, aided by the simple but effective system of coloured-coded stickers (red for C chord, blue for G chord, and so on), they launch into a rendition of My Dog has Fleas, and – giggling at the silly lyrics (“he eats blue cheese, cheese, cheese”,  “he likes his peas, peas peas…” etc) – they are delighted when Zoe tells them that they are deemed the best of all the groups at this song and it’s decided they’ll perform it at the summer concert. Cue much cheering!

Working together

It’s so lovely to witness the group working so well together. They laugh and joke and gently tease each other, clearly having great fun but also taking it very seriously when it matters. They play with intensity and accuracy, studiously counting pauses and keeping time together, playing in all the right places. We clap as they finish each piece and they join in, clearly loving the applause and attention.

The session moves on from playing to singing and the students take it in turns to pick a song for the group to sing along to, from a music book, with recorded accompaniment and percussion instruments played by themselves. It’s really noticeable how patient they all are. The first student takes the serious task of song-choice very carefully and quite slowly, studying every entry in the book. But they wait patiently and there are no arguments or disagreements. First up, ‘Cruella Deville’ from 101 Dalmatians, which everyone (Dosoco representatives included) sings with great gusto.

Rowan student Tracey spending a happy Friday morning drumming

Rowan student Tracey spending a happy Friday morning drumming

It’s clear from watching this group that the experience of making music together has had a hugely positive effect on their confidence. The way they interact, encourage and patiently help each other – from finger placement on the ukuleles to following the words on a lyric sheet – is a joy to see, and there’s a great sense of teamwork. Hetti says that this translates into their shows too. At the end of one song at the Cass Centre performance, one student apparently got completely carried away and was having such fun she kept going even though her friends were shouting “stop!”. But everyone, including the audience, was laughing too. They show extraordinary confidence on stage, Hetti says, with no nerves or qualms and as soon as one show is over, they’re keen to move on to the next one. This then, is not just about the music. All of these things translate massively in turn into other walks of life and it is so life affirming and wonderful to witness.

Just remembering that day as I write this is bringing a massive smile to my face. It’s so good to know that this Dosoco grant money has been so very well spent. Music really does improve lives!

Find out more about Rowan and upcoming events on their website: www.rowanhumberstone.co.uk