Sal McKeown visits The Channel at Arts Centre Melbourne to learn why its Accessible Music Program is proving such a hit.

In April I spent a morning at The Channel, Arts Centre Melbourne’s newest venue. It has a world-class recording studio and is developing an impressive track record in high profile events but what struck me was the good use it makes of low-tech solutions too. Part of this is because the highly qualified and experienced staff start with the individual user, child or adult, and put them at the heart of the experience.

Tanya McKenna and Joanne Rimmer, both registered music therapists, were my hosts for the morning and we talked about music, technology, working with special schools and how to reach out to families but I started by asking them how The Channel can run such a comprehensive program. I wanted to know if Australia was immune to cuts of the kind we have seen in the UK and the USA. They assured me that this wasn’t the case.

The Accessible Music Program had grown steadily since 2007 but in 2013 they faced cuts of up to 50 per cent. McKenna took the brave step of giving up some of her hours. ‘We could have sacrificed a post but we needed two members of staff to maintain the program,’ she said. This proved to be an excellent solution. Now both she and Rimmer are employees of Art Centre Melbourne within the newly created Access and Community Engagement team and can offer training and workshops for schools and families as well as one-day community events.

Early years

Children use music to enhance developmental skills such as language and social communication

Children use music to enhance developmental skills such as language and social communication.

Sound Beginnings is a family-centred sensory program for children aged three to five and their parents. Research shows that that early intervention pays dividends and can help to promote a happier and healthier family environment (Bruder, 2010).

Sound Beginnings runs over six weekly sessions but the work prior to the course is just as important as the sessions themselves. They telephone parents, contact key workers and find out as much as possible about each individual child’s needs and goals in order to maximise benefit.

Groups are small – a maximum of five children – and the work is intensive as they use music to enhance developmental skills such as language and social communication.

Music therapy encourages the development of gradual changes which may affect other aspects of a child’s life. It can give children another channel to explore and express their feelings, be creative and connect with others.

Said McKenna.

A private session could cost A$120 per child but at Sound Beginnings they charge A$180 for a block of six sessions. Some families can access external funding from a charity called Baptcare, or federal government funding specifically for children with an autism diagnosis (Helping Children With Autism). The National Disability Insurance Scheme rolls out in Australia over the next few years which should open up new funding opportunities for people with disability.

Accessible music program for special schools


The emphasis is on building awareness and motivating the individual children to communicate and interact.

Small groups of children from special schools visit Arts Centre Melbourne for five weekly sessions during school terms. The emphasis is on building awareness and motivating the individual children to communicate and interact. McKenna and Rimmer might use a sensory story within the session that is carefully chosen to meet developmental needs and spike interest. A popular choice is Mr. Brown Can Moo! Can You? Dr. Seuss’s Book of Wonderful Noises where the children can use wooden blocks to replicate the tick tock of a clock and scrunch cellophane to imitate the sound of eggs frying in a pan while coconut shells are a fun substitute for horses’ hooves.

Sometimes the music has a profound impact. Milly is seven and attends Dandenong Valley Special Developmental School. She has a physical disability which limits her hand movements and she is very tentative in her walking. She was very engaged in the sessions and walked without support towards the switches and guitar and to get closer to other students when they were playing the Banana Keyboard.

Her class teacher said:

Milly gets very tense, often clasping her hands together in front of her if made to walk by herself. So what she did in the music session was amazing. I have had Milly for 18 months and have never seen her do this before.

Family bonding

Siblings in Sync is a one-day workshop in the school holidays for children with additional needs aged 5 to 10 and their brothers and sisters. Family pairs have to work together to create a musical composition, making decisions about the backing track and choosing instruments. There is a wide range of musical styles from African music to jazz and blues.

The aim is to develop teamwork and to foster mutual respect, which can be a tall order especially as sometimes the siblings are reluctant to forgo a day of their holidays. Again McKenna and Rimmer put in the hours, collecting information through surveys and talking to parents to find out as much as possible about the participants. The children are delighted to find that the session starts with a selection of their favourite songs.

Some of the children attend because of parental pressure and do not necessarily expect to enjoy it but when they see the range of technology and the amazing sound system with wireless mics and a drop-down screen they change their mind. They get a chance to play with apps such as MadPad where they can use their voices to record sound effects while non-verbal children might select a percussion instrument. The visual app provides video capture and playback and children’s images are projected on the large screen while they are ‘jamming’.

Parents appreciate the sessions on many different levels. They like the equipment, especially the Banana Keyboard and the MadPad. One parent commented: ‘My children rarely dance together and it was the first time they really engaged at the same level,’ while another noted, ‘They have been to sibling programs, but I think it was good for them to see other kids helping their special needs sibling and for the acceptance of the whole group towards everyone.’ One mother summed it up with the words: ‘It was nice to know that we could all access something but that my child’s needs were taken care of, sheer relief.’

Accessible music program for communities

I learned that one in five Australians has a disability.

I learned that one in five Australians has a disability.

I learned that one in five Australians has a disability. The Australian Bureau of Statistics has a report outlining all the barriers that prevent people with disabilities from enjoying and participating in arts programs (Cultural Attendance by Persons with a Disability in Arts and Culture in Australia: A Statistical Overview).

People with disabilities have lower rates of participation than the general community [about 60 per cent]as audience, artists and employees,’ comments Access and Community Engagement team manager Wendy O’Neill, and Arts Centre Melbourne is no exception.

As well as the usual ones experienced in other countries, such as cultural barriers or access for those with physical or sensory disabilities, in Australia there is also the fact that people may have to travel vast distances to arts venues. While Arts Centre Melbourne cannot solve all problems they are proactive in helping to attract new audiences. Community disability organisations are invited to visit The Channel in groups for tailored school holiday workshops.

Last year on International Day of People with Disability the Accessible Music Program hosted a pilot performance called AMP it Up! for students from special schools. The music program was diverse with solo and group performances, including choir items, rock bands and dancers. This event will now take place each year as part of the Accessible Music Program to showcase the talents of young people with disabilities who may then be picked to be paid performers at future events.

Relaxed performances

This has proved very popular.

This has proved very popular.

Alongside the music therapy work Arts Centre Melbourne has developed accessible programs for education and for the wider community. In June 2014  their co-production of Hansel & Gretel with Victorian Opera was the first ‘relaxed performance’ specifically designed for children with disability.

It is often hard to take young people with autism and profound disabilities into theatres, cinemas and restaurants because they might be overwhelmed by being in a strange environment and other customers may be put off by their reactions.

In contrast a ‘relaxed performance’ is specifically for children with disabilities such as Down Syndrome, autism spectrum disorder or sensory and communication disorders, their carers and families, including people on the autism spectrum, with sensory and communication disabilities, or people who have experienced trauma. Sensitive to the diverse needs of audience members, lighting and sound levels are adjusted to avoid sensory overload, the atmosphere is calm and there is an acceptance that some members of the audience may need to move around during the performance or to leave quite suddenly so there are designated ‘chill-out’ areas outside the auditorium.

This has proved very popular as O’Neill explains:

We have embarked on a journey that has shifted the “access” conversation from one about wheelchair ramps and access services, to a conversation about participation and leadership. Front of house staff cite relaxed performances as a work highlight and ask to be rostered on. Our evaluation tells us we are reaching an audience who rarely, if ever, came to Arts Centre Melbourne, and who would otherwise not experience the wonder of theatre. It feels like it’s our moment!


As well as percussion instruments Arts Centre Melbourne also uses:

  • The Special Access Kit produced by Soundhouse Music Alliance. This includes programmable software and the Banana Keyboard. It is also used as a switch input device, with eight programmable wireless switches.
  • Ladder Lights, which encourage vocalisation; the more noise you make the higher the lights climb up the ladder.
  • Projector and screen (for sound stories, visual feedback).
  • iPad (for communication tools such as Proloquo2Go, or music apps such as Bloom/MadPad).
  • Wireless microphones.

Arts Centre Melbourne is currently partnering with the Soundhouse Music Alliance and programmer Peter Sych to revitalise the Special Access Kit software to keep it running on newer versions of Windows. This will keep the ever-popular Banana Keyboard in use. New developments include work with Marcel de Bie from The Amber Theatre, looking at new interfaces for creating music and interacting with sound.


About Contributors

Sal McKeown is a freelance journalist and author of several books, most recently Brilliant Ideas for using ICT in the Inclusive Classroom. Prior to this she was a lecturer and in the special needs team at Becta, the UK’s former government agency for technology in education.

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