Interview with Jessica Pitt, PhD
How did your previous interests and work lead to this project?
I started work at Great Yarmouth Community Trust (GYCT) back in 2003 as an early years music practitioner, Charlotte Arculus stepped into my role when I moved on to study for a PhD. She has developed the work hugely and we now have a centre of excellence for music and arts practice in early childhood based in Great Yarmouth.
Having studied music in education at Dartington College of Arts in the late 70’s it wasn’t until I had my own children that I became fascinated by the very youngest children’s responses to sound and music. I started a singing group with other mothers with small children where we lived in Nairobi and a career change was born. When we moved to the Netherlands I was fortunate to find that there was a recognised qualification for music teachers for which I enrolled. I learnt so much about working with music and very small children and their parents/caregivers. I’ve always had an interest and belief in the power of working with parents and children together because vital interactions and emotional communication is conveyed through the music.
I was so excited when Charlotte asked me to be involved in her vision of working with the speech and language therapy team in the East of England on a project that both she and I knew would make a difference for families, based on our experience of the inter-disciplinary working over many years at GYCT. Joined-up work across health, education and care services is what can help many families in the early stages of a child’s life.
How is this project different to other research projects in the field?
It is an action research project which means that all participants: Speech and language therapy staff, early childhood music practitioners, parents and the children contribute to the project through cycles of plan – do - review. It has felt dynamic and innovative because of the amazing group of practitioners and families that we’re working with. They have brought their expertise and an open and flexible attitude that means change in practice and thinking about communication difficulties has been possible. I think the project is unique in that it is embedded in a centre that has worked with families and music for fifteen years. Families have a choice of other music groups to move on to once they have finished with the SALTMusic group so that the benefits can be strengthened beyond the lifetime of the project. The use of observation through the collection of film data allows the team to think about their work and the impact on the children and families and the families view an edited film of their time at SALTMusic which gives them the chance to reflect too.
Practitioners discuss together after every session, completing a detailed form for each child. This has been a terrific tool for reflection and has aided the changes in pedagogy and practice. We also meet together as a full team at the end of every term and reflect on our learning; this is also an important review point where the team unifies and grows together.
So, the reflections are weekly about every child, and termly about the programme as a whole, which is in turn, informed by the team’s thoughts about the individual children.
What would you say has been your biggest moment in the project?
Hearing a child with little or no language sing out a beautiful song that he created in the moment while all the group members attuned and listened to his gentle and beautiful voice as he sang his five-word melody, when he could barely say ‘stop!’ The moment was enabled by the most sensitive facilitation by the music leader who allowed for space and silence for the song to emerge. The rest of the group members (parents, children and the project team), heard and valued his song, took it up and created a lovely harmonised, artistic co-constructed piece. This to me epitomises what music can do above all else. It allowed a child with communication difficulties to express something deeply felt in an artistic way that allowed others to join in with this expression, adding and embellishing with their own artistic contributions. It was creativity in action.
One of the key ideas acknowledged in this work is that the home environment has a huge impact on language development. Can you explain this in a bit more detail? Do you think technology has a role to play?
Friedrich Froebel the founder of the Kindergarten - a pioneering and visionary educationalist of the eighteenth century said that mothers (parents) should be regarded as a child’s first educator. He saw the role of the mother as hugely influential and I have found in my work over decades that parents are vital in any work one undertakes with young children. The emotional connection between parent and child is so important to interaction. Musicality lies at the heart of the communication. Enabling a key caregiver to participate in activities with their child in an environment where they are supported to play together can be transformative for their relationship and for learning.
We have found this in our SALTmusic work, parents who play with their children, copying and celebrating their children’s attempts at interaction can encourage more child-led communication. They let go of their worries and concerns about their child not talking as and just enjoy the relationship and the competence that the child displays through their play with sounds and objects. This attitude can be transferred to the home environment because it has been experienced and felt by both parent/caregiver and child. A handout which explains the importance of being relaxed just doesn’t have the same impact.
Technology itself is neutral, however in some cases it may be used too frequently thus inhibiting time for children and their important adults to communicate face-to-face and to bond and develop a communicative connection. In many homes the television may be on all the time which can create a complex auditory environment within which to try to hear and understand the spoken word. This can make learning language difficult.
What did you take from your experience at MERYC 2017?
Well that is a complicated question for me to answer as I was a chair of the organising group for the 4-day conference, I have many thoughts and feelings about the event. It was great to have presentations from across the world on the subject of early childhood music which I think raised its profile in UK. There were also some very good keynote addresses.
The SALTMusic project was presented by three of us, we focused on the early stages of the action research and how the team was developing together as a Community of Practice. I enjoyed writing the conference paper as it helped me to think through the early stages of the project and relate it to academic literature. This always gives a different perspective. Our work was well received.
What did I take from the MERYC17 experience? Deep joy and satisfaction in seeing my masters students rise to the occasion of giving their first presentations and seeing many friends and colleagues relax and detach from the everyday, to focus on what is for many of us a deep, and absorbing interest. To be able to see a vision for the conference that we’d had and nurtured over about 3 years come to life, live and breathe for those 4-days was very satisfying. A fantastic team and a great experience. Our field is small, committed and passionate. Early childhood music stands on the edges of several sectors: early childhood education; music education; community services; wellbeing practices – people come to work in our area from a variety of backgrounds which makes for a rich and diverse professional body but can lead to a lack of high quality effective practice. That is something the newly constituted charity MERYC-England hopes to address. We are a small board of trustees, chaired by the amazing Dr Susan Young and hope to act as an advocacy group for quality practice and raising standards.
Are there things that adults can learn from the ways that these young children were communicating?
I think so.
We have noticed that children use their bodies to express themselves, I think we have become locked in our heads when we communicate, our bodies are just a means to carry our heads around. Gesture and movement are essentially human – I think if we all moved more we would be happier.
Children explore and are curious and they play according to their interests and fascinations. They are tremendous improvisers and I think music education can take something from this playful attitude to experimentation with sounds and objects and improvising from the heart.
Do you think perceptions are changing in regards to music’s involvement with EY speech and language? If so, how?
There have been a number of funded projects involving speech and language therapy and music in early childhood all of whose findings seem to be aligning. The SALTMusic project plans to bring together the learning from these projects at a summit day in June 2018 after which we hope to have a strategic statement about young children’s communication. Many young children arrive at school with poor communication skills and this is a priority for most opportunity areas in the country. Musical activities informed by speech and language therapy theories can build confidence and provide the adults working with children with the skills and understanding of young children’s emerging communication. We want and need people to listen to what we know can make a difference for young children and families. Unfortunately, music and the arts are not considered to be of prime importance these days by those who hold the purse strings at government level. I want to say in no uncertain terms that if we don’t take action now music and its incredible powers of transformation and translocation will only be available for those who have the money and understanding that it is worth experiencing. It is not a nice ‘add-on’ that you do when you’ve ticked every other box on the learning profile. It is vital to our living a good and fulfilling life. It is as essential to humans as breathing. It really worries me that we are losing sight of something incredibly important to human life and living, having to justify music’s existence on a curriculum because of what it can do for all other learning. Imagine saying that literacy deserves its place on the curriculum because it helps with physical development! Or maths is important because it helps social interaction! This is what we have to do with music.
Music is good for speech and language development because music is basically a vital expression medium, it is just good for you - for me - for everyone!
What do you hope to see happen in the EY speech and language field in twenty years’ time?
I would love to see funded parent-child music groups with an established referral route from SLT as an integral part of the services offered for young children with communication difficulties.
I would love to see all EY music practitioners fully trained in using playful musical approaches based on solid theoretical principles as part of their practice in early childhood.
I would love to see my book (which I plan to write with colleagues from the project) on every SLT team’s and EY music practitioner’s bookshelf!
Sum up your experience of the project in three words?
Teamwork, Transformation, Tremendous