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Listening to ourselves underwater
Blog by composer and
music educator 
Duncan Chapman

Since becoming a trustee of Liquid Listening, I have been keen to find out in a practical way how the experience of Musical Hydrotherapy works with children in special schools. My own work has, in the past, included many of the types of listening and musical activities that the charity also promotes, so I was delighted to be asked to lead a short project in one of the schools where Liquid Listening has been working for a number of years.


Bedelsford School in Kingston Upon Thames is one of the special schools where Musical Hydrotherapy has been pioneered. In the past they have done a great deal of work in the pool and have a fantastically dynamic and enthusiastic swimming teacher, who has been a great advocate for the work.


There were two aims for the project which I led in the autumn of 2022.

1.  To introduce the "Sound Activities" schemes of work, which have been created by SEN music expert Lawrence Bradshaw. The aim of these is to give non-specialist teachers sound and music activities that connect with the pool sessions and are easy to work with in the classroom.

2.  To explore making music with the class that will be used for listening through the underwater speakers in the pool.


The question we were asking was: "Does it make a big difference to the pool experience for the children to recognise themselves in the music that they hear when having pool sessions?


And, if so, how can we develop this as part of what Liquid Listening does in the future?"


What was immediately apparent when I started work, was the enthusiasm for developing sound and listening with the class. We had a fantastic class teacher (Rodrigo) and I was also assisted by improvising musician Simone Strifele.

Starting by listening

We started the sessions off with a group workshop, with the whole class using a variety of instruments borrowed from the music therapy room at the school, combined with simple electronics and recorded sound. Using some of the same starting points as the ones Lawrence created in the "Sound Activities", we explored playing and listening back to what we sounded like. Thinking about how to communicate the idea that we were going to be making music to use in the pool, I also used loops of water sounds, rain, the sea and underwater recordings as the basis for the musical improvisations.


When we listened back to what we made, it was immediately clear that everyone - regardless of what their contribution had been - recognised themselves in the sounds they were hearing.


Between my sessions, the staff used the "Sound Activities" that Lawrence had created to further develop the listening.


Duos and more

Following on from the first session, we decided to work with pairs of children to create improvised pieces. Using a variety of different instruments and sound sources (shells, stones and found materials with different textures), combined with echoes and electronic instruments, we recorded a series of free improvisations, where pairs of children had musical dialogues with each other and us. Recording the musical conversations that start with choosing sounds, then exploring their qualities and textures, is a great way for children to become aware of how they can make music with each other in a free, non-directed way. We always listen back to see how the participants respond to their sounds, and in every case it was clear that there was a big connection and remembering of what had taken place.

Into the pool

Following the sessions in the classroom, I did some simple editing of the recordings so we could play the appropriate sounds when a particular child entered the pool.

The result? Totally magical and wonderful. The children who used speech talked about hearing their own sounds and voices under the water, and they were able to have an intense, relaxed listening experience in a way that would have been very difficult in a noisy classroom.


The swimming teacher talked about how the connection between floating without stress, while hearing your own sounds, was a profound experience for all involved.

From my own perspective, it was extraordinary to experience how the playing of simple improvisations into the underwater speakers contributed to the experience of weightlessness and calm. We mixed the sounds from the pairs with remixed versions created by Joel and myself, so that there was a continuous stream of music.

Into the future

This project built on work previously done at the school and clearly showed that there is a huge potential for making music with young disabled people specifically for underwater listening. We have been starting to think about ways (building on the work the Lawrence has done) in which non-specialist teachers can have the ability to play particular sounds recorded from particular children or groups in the pool, without having to learn how to use complex technical equipment.


What speaks the most to me is the music created by the children. There is a real sense of sonic exploration and a feeling of them having a deep connection to their own music.


Have a listen here to some of their work here ...


Many thanks to Rodrigo, Simone and the staff and students at the school.

Duncan Chapman, July 2023

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