Music program for Canberrans with disabilities receives cash injection

Students from our Mixed Ability Program work on a range of skills in their weekly lessons.
All photos: Jessica Cordwell – Canberra Weekly

Story by JESSICA CORDWELL from Canberra Weekly. Originally published August 29, 2022.

Music for Canberra’s innovative program for adults living with disability has been supported by The Snow Foundation for the past 13 years. From a pool of 171 grant applicants, the Music Abilities Program (MAP) was selected for a further $50,000 from the Foundation to be distributed over a five-year period.

Music For Canberra CEO Shane Dobbin says the funding will go a long way in helping the Mixed Abilities Program, which has 84 students and welcomes adults with intellectual, physical, and mental disabilities.

“That’s a lot of students, that’s a lot of people that are being supported that are able to come and sing and dance and socialise and all these sorts of things,” Dobbin says.

Each of their seven weekly classes is run by two qualified tutors who have experience with music therapy. Throughout the class, they use music as a vehicle to encourage participants to develop skills in coordination, concentration, and social interaction. Dobbin says the tutors are vital for the success of the program and that it takes someone special to establish and maintain meaningful relationships with their students.

“We want to be sure we’ve got a pool of really talented, warm, and empathetic people because that is what you need,” she says.

They are also wanting to expand the program to more regional areas, like Yass. Five students make the trip to Canberra each week to attend classes and Dobbin has been told there are 10 in Yass who would enrol in the class if it was in their town.  

Running for over 20 years, the program not only encourages physical and social skills, it also helps students gain confidence.

“I think what it does is actually gives them that option to be themselves. It is very social and some of them have known each other for years and some of them will choose those same classes at the same time,” Dobbin says.

Students of MAP are encouraged to get involved in activities that encourage movement and social wellbeing.

Although the morning is chilly when CW visits, there is nothing but warmth spilling from the classroom at MAP’s home at Ainslie Arts Centre (formerly Ainslie Primary), as the Monday morning students settle into their seats for the day’s class.

Music tutor Theo, who is also a political science student at ANU, leads the welcome song. Each student is greeted by name and invited to sing ‘hello’ back. When the song finishes, students are asked how they are, what they have been up to since their last meet-up, and if they would like to share anything from their week. During this time, the amount of care and investment in their students from the tutors shines through. Theo asks one of the students if he went to his favourite café and got his jumbo muffin and coffee from a fridge, while Kate says she has a feeling it is someone’s birthday soon, then everyone joins in to sing happy birthday to their classmate.  

Program coordinator Shaw Herron participates in the song; he has been overseeing MAP since the beginning of the term. Herron says while he doesn’t know the complete breakdown of the classes before he took over, they have re-injected new life into the program.

“We kept some of the old stuff and got a bit more new stuff in there as well; various sorts of songs. We do a few Australian classics like Home Among the Gumtrees. I think we are talking about doing Duncanlove to have a beer with Duncan.”

Herron says each lesson has a goal of helping attendees participate in physical movement, activities that use fine and gross motor skills, and allowing them a means of expressing themselves. Having himself and the tutors involved adds to the atmosphere they are creating.

“We try and be enthusiastic, so it rubs off on them and they enjoy it. We want it to be an interesting and exciting thing that they do every week not just something they do,” he says.

Depending on the available time of each session, students are invited to perform for their classmates. Troy has chosen to sing and dance; he and his carer perform a rendition of Bad Boyz, full of attitude and blasting finger guns.

As many of the students require assistance in their day-to-day lives, they bring their carers along to the class. Herron believes it is important to reach the caregivers throughout the session; they are given instruments to play and encouraged to join in with singing and dancing. He says the yoga portion they sometimes have is often a favourite of the carers.

“I think if you are reaching the carers as well that’s kind of an incentive. If they enjoy it, they will hopefully sing the praises of the program. Hopefully, there is something in it for them as well,” Herron says.

MAP is just one of the community-focused programs run by Music For Canberra. They are home to the Canberra Children’s Choir and The Canberra Youth Orchestra, who will both be performing at this year’s Floriade. They also offer music opportunities for anyone who Is interested in learning an instrument or developing their vocal skills. Their students range in age from 18 months to 81 years.

“We are there for the community, we’ve always been there for the community, and I think the Mixed Ability Program sort of shows that,” Dobbin says.