Helen Brew of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra (RSNO) shares her experience of learning Makaton, a unique language programme that enables communication.
Communication...where are we without it? We are isolated, alone, insular, trapped, frustrated.
My name is Helen and I am a professional musician. My whole career has been about communication. One day I was working with a young person with whom I was unable to do this, and it changed everything.
I have held the position of Associate Principal Flute with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra (RSNO) for over 30 years. I have had the privilege to work with some astonishing conductors and soloists, travelling the world and playing in some of the leading concert halls. I have performed on hundreds of classical recordings and many film scores. I am Professor of Flute at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and have taught at the Royal Northern College of Music, Chetham’s School of Music and am a tutor for National Children’s Orchestra. Through music, I have had the privilege of connecting with thousands of people, but often from afar.
Working in the community alongside my orchestral career has allowed me to have a more immediate and personal connection with individuals. I have worked in school settings from Nursery up to and including Higher Education. I have had the privilege of working with brain injury survivors, visually impaired groups, people on the neurodiverse spectrum, and people living with dementia. We have created some incredible music together, and I consider it a great privilege to share the connection that is music.
What happens when you cannot make that connection?
Before the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic struck, I was working with a delightful four-year-old at the children’s hospice, Robin House, in Balloch. Myself and two of my colleagues were in the music room when a lovely boy and his mum appeared in the doorway. He was reluctant to come into the room. His mum tried to encourage him in, but it was all just a bit too strange for him. Whilst we could talk to him, he couldn’t communicate with us as he had recently had a tracheotomy. His mum communicated with him using signs, but it was clear that he did not want to enter the strange room with strange people who had strange musical instruments.
He was clearly anxious, and the unfamiliarity of the situation caused him to return to the safety of what he knew and understood. This meant not being with us. That was when I thought, ‘How empowering would it have been for him if I could have signed to him and invited him into the room? If I could have communicated with him in a way that enabled him to communicate back?’ Instead, he was frustrated. He was unable to communicate what he felt and what he wanted. Instead, he retreated into himself, and refused to enter the room.
The signing method his mum used to communicate with him is called Makaton. Makaton is a communication system that uses signing and symbols to run alongside spoken words. It is designed to provide functional communication, as well as to develop language and literacy skills through the combined use of signs and symbols with speech. Its use can enable children and adults with learning and/or communication difficulties to interact with others, gain independence and confidence, thus fulfilling their potential. What I learned from my encounter with this young man was that I needed to learn Makaton. The pandemic has given me the time to research, immerse myself in and complete all four levels of training in Makaton. I have since used Makaton in my work with the RSNO, delivering family-friendly concerts assisted by Makaton signing.
On social media I have been following Makaton with Lucinda, an account run by a mother and her daughter with Down's Syndrome which follows their journey of learning Makaton and sharing it with the world. I have been blown away by the beautiful relationship between the two of them, and how the connection between them has strengthened as their communication grows. What struck me most is that this young girl is not only able to express herself better, but has gained the confidence to explore her creativity. She is learning much more than how to communicate – she is learning how to advocate for herself with confidence.
In addition to completing the four levels of Makaton training, I have also attended numerous topic-based sessions, and attend a refresher session every week. At these sessions I meet new people, each of whom is learning a skill that is going to help them make someone’s life just a little bit easier. It is so inspiring to see such a diverse group of people working together for the same purpose. Makaton has brought educators, carers, primary teachers, nursery teachers, parents and grandparents together in service of enabling better communication between the people they support. Neurological research shows that visual aids help in the understanding of the spoken word and its retention. I have seen Makaton used successfully in classrooms and educational environments to the benefit of all pupils, not just those with special education needs.
In my free time, I have also joined a Makaton choir. As a classically trained musician, I have never made time to listen to popular music. I am always the strange person at the party who never knows the songs, let alone the words! Imagine my delight that I can now not only learn popular songs, but learn them quickly as I have a visual aid to help me. Singing is a fantastic medium for Makaton, and a really fun way to start learning!
So, what now for my Makaton journey? The pandemic has allowed me to discover this incredible communication skill, but it also has prevented me, momentarily, from marrying my art form of live music with Makaton users. In the meantime, I have been inspired to find creative ways of sharing Makaton with the world, and to encourage more people to discover its benefits and brilliance. It would be a gift if my story could lead to one person learning Makaton, and helping someone in their life.
For more information on Makaton or to start learning today, visit makaton.org. Please feel free to contact me through Rachel McDermott at Studio 3 (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Associate Principal Flute