On 29th September 2019, in Athlone, the Creative Ireland funded event, the Le Chéile Project, takes place show-casing a new concept known as Conductology. Multi-award-winning academic Dr. Denise White from Derry, Ireland, has devised this ground-breaking, music-based teaching methodology with Shaun Healy, a student. Although the concept – which relates to orchestral and choral conducting – has universal applications, Denise has spent the last six years employing the music improvisation system within the special needs community.
Denise discusses her career which led to the breakthrough below.
“I grew up with my precious Uncle Dessie. He was fascinated with music. He would come into me at the piano once or twice a week and just stand and wait for me to play some of the music that he loved. I was really intrigued by the way he reacted to me playing the piano. He used to cry a lot, and sing, and didn’t have a note in his head – he would squawk! Music was obviously impacting Dessie, in some way or form.
“I then started volunteering in a place called the Gateway Club.”
Denise took charge of the Gateway Club at the age of 17. The organisation comprised 90 people with various disabilities who met in a social club every Wednesday night.
“We ran karaoke and discos. We were the Northern Ireland disco dancing champions three years running and I was the choreographer! It was a really vibrant, happy place and I knew at this stage that I want to devote my life to and have a career working with people with disabilities. So I worked hard at school and I did my Music A-Levels. I got into St Mary’s teacher training college in Belfast, so I specialised in music and special needs and got a job straight away working in a primary school. My focus was Special Needs and Music within the whole of the primary school.”
Denise is critical of the top-down, didactic teaching method.
“I got fed up because I realised that the methods of teaching were quite narrow-minded and teachers had real tunnel vision. The view was that the children should be just sitting and you’re the authority and I completely disagree with that. I did have control of the class but it was a creative control so from very, very early days I wanted to transform the way children were taught. I secretly built up my own creative curriculum. We taught maths, science, geography and history, everything done through music. Whether it was rap or country, or a whole lot of creative technologies, they were effective. I had teachers coming up to me saying how did you get such-a-student to achieve this and I said ‘Well, instead of having this teacher-like aura, you have to be their friend, and you have to be somebody they can trust. You have to be childlike in your own head.’ A lot of the teachers thought ‘Denise is a bit mad, a wee bit eccentric’ while others felt I might be onto something.
“I played music throughout the whole school day for the children. Depending on if I needed them to take time out and just reflect, it could be classical. Or if I wanted them upbeat, it could be opera or pop. There was one person I taught in primary school whom I received a lovely letter from a couple of years back. I don’t really remember them but she’s a music teacher herself now!
“I got that sick of teachers and sick of the institutionalized way of education that I applied for different jobs and I got a job working in North West Regional College where I was in charge of people with disabilities. Again, I transformed it. I just brought in creative stuff and we did shows. People who were static and safe in their jobs were looking at me going, ‘For God’s sake, why is she bringing extra work for us?’
“I wasn’t really like that though. I just didn’t care, because I was there for the students and we achieved great things. I can’t stand it when a teacher or somebody in authority just gives a tambourine or a triangle to somebody with special needs just to include them, so my thing is, it’s all about the process but also, it’s about a high-quality product.
With a career break after having her second child, Denise wasn’t looking forward to returning to work. She decided she wanted to set up her own college for people with disabilities. Designing her own creative curriculum, she wanted to transform things in the teaching world. With her husband’s blessing, within six months she had set up a charity called Something Special.
“We lasted for 10 years. We achieved amazing things. We had a big student council. But that’s when I started to realise the concept of Conductology. People with disabilities very naturally improvise in many different situations. They improvise within their own heads, improvise whatever scenarios they may find themselves in. Improvisation led to something really extraordinary. I realised that their whole self-esteem, their self-determination, their emotional and social well-being – even their cognition – everything just went up with Conductology. So I got a scholarship to do a PhD. I needed scientific data behind what I already knew. It was a long, long journey but the data revealed that this system that I created with Shaun really works on so many different levels on people with disabilities. We’ve also tried it with people with dementia and younger children and people who have mental health issues. It’s totally universal. ”
The Royal Irish Academy of Music, Ulster University, Trinity College, Cork Institute of Technology, Athlone I.T., and several universities abroad have reviewed and validated Denise’s work, which employed control and intervention groups. Impressive too is the anecdotal evidence seen in the methodology. Denise’s chief conductologist is Shaun Healy.
“Shaun is very nervous,” Denise explains. “You would notice a tremor in his hands when you first meet him. He has very low self-esteem. But that completely disappears whenever he is using Conductology. He is in charge of an orchestra or choir or whatever, and he is standing there, and the nerves just stop. That’s curing him of his tremor and his anxiety. It would give people anxiety to be told that they’re in charge of an orchestra. Not Shaun.”
What is Conductology?
“The word itself is a portmanteau of conduct and ology. Conductology is a universal system containing 18 gestures: hand signals co-created by myself and people with disabilities over the course of four years. We refined, trialled and measured the whole thing. We measured the quality of the music output and we measured the areas of improved learning and skills development and the results have been rewarding.”
The Le Chéile event takes place 29 September in Athlone Institute of Technology’s West Campus main building. RSVP via email to sineadheyenga[at]riam[dot]ie before 23 September.