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MILKMAID INSTRUMENT MAKING/MUSIC PROJECT for people with Learning Disabilities!

We have designed a set of unique Milkmaid Musical Instruments (MMI) that can be constructed and played by people with learning disabilities to enable them to perform music publicly as part of a band. Each Instrument has 3 strings which is tuned to one note or Chord and will be part of a set all tuned differently. At least 8 instruments will be in a set and played in sequence, a scale of music will be produced.

The instruments are supplied as a simple kit and assembled and personalised by the student. There is an amount of rubbing down with sand paper to make the timber smooth and some gluing together of parts. Strings are attached using guitar machine heads and pegs. The instrument then is be varnished or painted to individual tastes.

We have created an inclusive music program featuring people with learning disabilities and have given them the opportunity to be performers. We’ve developed sound practices for supporting people with learning disabilities to perform publically together as a band and to create their own music. The Tutor pointing at each individual to sound their note, either by strumming or plucking, enables a whole tune to be performed.


Instrument Making

Components for instruments will be supplied as flat packs and presented to students as such for assembly. There will be a front, back and four sides which will be glued together. These will be constructed using jigs and formers. Accessories will include gluing a bridge on to the front (to lift the strings off the front of the instrument) and machine heads (pegs) to attach the strings to. Sound holes will be already cut out of the front panel. The instrument when finished will be varnished or painted to the student’s choice.


All participants will have a chance to succeed: some will prove extremely able; others may not be as coordinated with their hand and eyes but this can be improved through repetitive construction; others may be good at painting and varnishing and some may be good at the fiddly end of the activity such as stringing the instrument.

Health and Safety

It is extremely important to instruct the students in the way of health and safety. We shall regard the constructing of instruments as being in the work place. All will be given a copy of the Milkmaids Health and Safety policy. Although large electrical tools will not be used by the students, screw drivers, wire cutters, clamps, vices, hammers, chisels and sandpaper will be regularly available. Support workers will be guided by the Tutor regarding basic woodworking with special regard to Health and Safety Regulations. The jigs and formers will be constructed by the Support workers before the project begins. COSHH guide lines will be strictly followed (http://www.hse.gov.uk/coshh/basics.htm).

Unpainted Dulcimer

Unpainted Dulcimer

Music Class

Aural, visual and kinaesthetic (AVK) approaches will be fused so that each participant can adopt his or her preferred means of learning. Eg – when learning each piece of music the melody will be played to the group (aural), simply notated with colour coding (visual) and sung by the group (kinaesthetic). http://www.inexel.org/t_expteaching.shtml


Through the AVK approach, all participants will have a chance to shine: some will prove strong singers; others may have an excellent sense of timing or an aptitude to following notation.

When using glockenspiels /untuned percussion, some participants may be able to use two or three notes/perform detailed rhythms, whereas others will be happier being allocated only one note/a simple ostinato rhythm.

Musical Learning

Group singing is essential, and will be at the heart of the group’s learning, especially in the early days. Singing a song helps embed its melody, rhythm and subtle nuances of performance; constitutes active rather than passive musical learning; promotes team spirit; breaks the ice and helps alleviate stress and focus the mind through good breathing technique.

Untuned percussion instruments will be used to enhance performances where there is little rhythmic variety, not to provide passive doubling of a basic beat. The support workers will ensure each participant has the opportunity to try each instrument.


This will be carefully selected from a range of genres, although the main focus will be on folk music in light of the eventual aim of the project. Repertoire will initially consist of slow melodies with simple, repetitive rhythms that participants can quickly master, so as to build confidence and foster a sense of achievement. However, all repertoires will be of musically high quality.

In supporting people with learning disabilities to construct their own specialist musical instruments and support them in public musical performances as part of a folk ensemble we will be able to;

  • empower people with mild to moderate learning disabilities through the construction, mastery and performance of their own musical instruments

  • facilitate authentic, quality musical experience at all times, transcending stereotypes of people with learning difficulties being restricted to basic percussion

  • afford participants the opportunity to work alongside experienced/professional musicians with a view to establishing a performing folk ban promote social interaction through the team-centred nature of the project and the ways in which it is implemented

  • enable young adults to work towards and achieve a recognised Arts Award qualification

  • inspire participants through a personalised, hands-on approach with short-term, attainable goals as well as longer-term aims

  • create something unique and joyful: a celebration of music through collaboration, creativity, rehearsal and performance

Painted Dulcimer

Painted Dulcimer

Tutors Report January - October: 2014:

Milkmaid Instrument Making Sessions

These sessions have been set up to help people with learning difficulties produce usable musical instruments in a caring environment where they can interact with others.The level of dexterity required can be adjusted to suit the ability of each individual and there is always someone on hand to guide and help the clients through the process.The instruments are made from a kit of parts in wood that need to be sanded to make them smooth, glued together and decorated with paint and stick on decals. The clients use no sharp or power tools and because of the danger to eyes an instructor always fits the strings.The final result is an instrument that can then be used, in an open tuning, together with other people in a Music Making Class with the aim of performing in front of an audience.All sessions are run in a relaxed setting with lots of support given, chatting and regular breaks are a large part of the sessions encouraging the clients to interact and talk about their interests, holidays and daily lives.

3 x Case Studies

Client 1

Enjoys making the instruments but having only one hand requires help with some operations, either requiring the wood to be clamped down so that it doesn’t move or having an instructor holding the wood so that he can use his hand to complete the task. He constantly amazes us with his acquired dexterity and is always keen to do jobs if he can. He is very suggestible and has to be asked questions that require his opinion rather than giving him several options.

Client 2
 This is a very shy young lady who picks up group empathy and reacts to the feelings of others around her. She is a happy person whose laughter is infectious and really likes putting he own stamp on the instruments. Her very careful and precise painting of the finished instrument evidences this and her favourite colours of pink and purple usual feature prominently. In the time she has been with us she has come out of her shell and joined in with the group expressing her opinions on many subjects ranging from food preparation, which she loves, to the best places to go on holiday

.Client 3
This young man is very confident and is keen to help other people to work on their instruments when he thinks they are not doing it how he would. However when it is pointed out that everyone works slightly differently he is quite happy to let them get on with it. He finds it difficult to wait for a break in a conversation and will talk across people to express his point or even make an unrelated point. Having done some woodworking before he has customised his instruments by using cocktail sticks for frets and adding some varnish. He is always delighted if asked to play his harmonica and plays it well. His social skills have improved immensely and he’s become a valuable member of the band.


Music Tutors report January - October 2014:

Milkmaid Music Class – October 2014 Report

Project’s intentions, as set out in the initial planning stages (incorporating both musical instrument making and music classes):


  • To empower people with mild to moderate learning difficulties through the construction, mastery and performance of their own musical instruments

  • To facilitate authentic, quality musical experience at all times, transcending stereotypes of people with learning difficulties being restricted to basic percussion

  • To afford participants the opportunity to work alongside experienced/ professional musicians with a view to establishing a performing folk band

  • To promote social interaction through the team-centred nature of the project and the ways in which it is implemented

  • To enable young adults to work towards and achieve a recognised Arts Award qualification

  • To inspire participants through a personalised, hands-on approach with short-term, attainable goals as well as longer-term aims

  • To create something unique and joyful: a celebration of music through collaboration, creativity, rehearsal and performance

The extent to which the music class has met, is meeting or will meet these intentions

The atmosphere during sessions is relaxed yet purposeful, with the sense of collaboration and creativity that had been hoped for. All participants are actively involved in music making, with tangible progress being made in all cases, measurable against the National Curriculum level descriptors (see accompanying document and case study data).

Musical activities are based around the bedrocks of singing, rehearsing and performing, improvising (the beginning of composition) and listening and appraising. Repertoire is varied and drawn from diverse genres and cultures. In recent weeks, we have performed Australian percussion music, folk dances (played on the dulcimers made by the students themselves), and the Doctor Who theme! Students have enjoyed listening to and describing music from different settings (supermarket, church, sporting event, TV advert etc), as well as matching different songs and pieces of music to a selection of films.


We are looking forward to our forthcoming performances, and the students have worked hard to master their instruments, whether untuned percussion, chime bars/hand bells or the dulcimers. We have done a great deal of work on improvisatory music, where students develop their own musical phrase or simple rhythm, with support where required, which then becomes part of a multi-layered group performance. We are especially proud of two such pieces that have evolved organically within the group, and which we feel showcase the individual talents of our students as well as their well-developed sense of ensemble and team work.

As all of our students are above the age of 25, we have not yet had the opportunity to offer the Arts Award qualification, but this remains an option as and when younger students join.

4 x Case studies (names have been changed)


Sally is a sensitive, shy young woman with Down’s syndrome, who has flourished since joining us on the music course. As well as designing and making an entire fleet(!) of meticulously executed and stunningly decorated dulcimers, Sally has a natural sense of rhythm and timing that has been honed during her time with us. Her confidence has soared, and she is now able to take a lead role in group performances. Her skills on the chime bars are now particularly strong, and she plays with excellent technique. Sally has increased her range of dynamics and is now comfortable playing loudly as well as softly, and she strives to do the same with her singing.


Anthony has a genuine love of music and affinity with the folk world. Despite only having the use of one hand, he has nevertheless assembled and decorated several dulcimers, which he plays with great gusto. Anthony approaches all musical activities with enthusiasm, sings in time and in tune, and has developed his untuned percussion skills, often demonstrating to the group the way to play a guiro or tambour. For some months Anthony struggled to play in time and to play quietly, but by linking his playing with his well controlled singing, and with structured support, he has recently made enormous progress in these areas and can now maintain a steady beat and play quietly as well as loudly. His pride in his achievements is immense – as is ours.


For some weeks David was reluctant to join in any musical activity, although he enjoyed the coffee break and social interaction of the group. No amount of coaxing or encouraging would entice him even to hold an instrument. From our chats with David we were soon made aware that his interests included wrestling, and one day one of the team suggested he bounce a beater on a tambour pretending he was ‘bouncing someone out of the ring’. This worked like a charm, and although David still has days when he struggles to engage musically, he will join in to a greater or less extent most weeks. The big successes with David have been the spontaneous moments – deciding as a group to sing ‘Only Fools and Horses’ one week because it was his favourite programme, or playing ‘Spiderman’ on the chime bars because he’d just been to see it at the cinema. According to David’s mother, he has never participated to this extent in any other group or activity. In some ways, he is our biggest success story.


Chris arrived a few months after the course had begun. His difficulties include a tendency to interrupt and to exhibit other mildly inappropriate social behaviour, although during his time with the group these tendencies have markedly diminished. Chris is a very talented musician, and one initial challenge was to ensure he was working at the appropriate level without appearing to ‘push him forward’ or in any way to underplay the attainment of the other students. Several months on Chris is happily integrated into the group and, with sensitively structured personalised learning, is working and progressing at his own pace, as are all the other students.

Finished Dulcimer





Every Monday at Studio 2 at The Apex,

Music Class 10am – 12 30pm

Instrument Making 1 15pm – 3 45pm.

Dates Every Monday except Bank Holidays.