I first came across Makaton when I was working for Sing Up, a (then) government-funded organisation tasked with improving the quality and quantity of singing in primary schools; I was organising a project in my local area across several Special Needs Schools, to help them incorporate more singing in to their everyday activities. I was really excited to be offered the chance to train as a Makaton tutor in 2011, and from the start was struck by how much potential there was for using Makaton and singing together as a really powerful tool.
My main job is as a freelance arts practitioner; I teach adult community choirs, perform with a band, and curate various projects and events, including a community music festival called Folk Weekend: Oxford. I'm working with The Makaton Charity at the moment to develop training so more tutors can deliver the Singing with Makaton course, and from time to time I also train music professionals who want help with making their own practice more inclusive and accessible, but apart from that I don't get to use a lot of Makaton in my day to day working life.
However, in 2012 I was invited to get involved with the Welcome Songs project, which was putting on a series of performances around the country in places that were significant in the history of the Olympics. I worked on the Aylesbury section of the project (chosen because of the links with the Paralympics), and our performance took place at the lighting of the Paralympic Flame. For the performance, we formed a community choir made up of singers from a variety of backgrounds - including choral singers, novices, and a group from a local learning disability choir. We also worked with three adults with severe Cerebral Palsy who sang using their voice output devices. During the performance I signed all the songs using Makaton, alongside the choir, and a full band!
The experience of doing Welcome Songs opened up some new possibilities for me about ways in which I could incorporate Makaton in to my working life, and earlier this year I launched a pilot project that focused on improving accessibility to music for people who have communication difficulties. In the project I'm going to be using Makaton alongside traditional folk songs, with the aim of making the songs accessible to a wider audience. I'm not under any illusion that by signing the songs, suddenly every Makaton user will have a perfect understanding of what I'm singing, but by incorporating core vocabulary signs that they may recognise I will hopefully be demonstrating that this is not something that excludes them, but something that they can be included in and enjoy.
Singing with Makaton signs is a beautiful and captivating thing to watch, and as much as I want to introduce people to folk, I also think a lot of our regular festival audience (who may be discovering Makaton for the first time) will really enjoy it. I've tested out a few of the songs at various folk events, and the reaction I've had from the audience has been overwhelmingly positive – and if it can get a few more people interested in Makaton that can only be a good thing from the charity's perspective!
I've been working on translating twelve folk songs to be sung with Makaton signing, which I performed with a band and one of my community choirs at a 'relaxed' concert during Folk Weekend in April. Relaxed performances are getting more and more popular, as they allow adults and children with a wide variety of needs to enjoy high quality performances, without having to worry if they need to make noises or move around during the event.
I hope our performance raised awareness of the wider issues of accessibility in music, maybe even encouraging other festivals to take a good look and think about whether this is the sort of thing they should be offering. I'm really hoping to reach out to the wider folk world with this project and show them that it's possible to produce accessible and inclusive performances without compromising the quality or integrity of the music.
Cat is very greatful to the Oxfordshire Community Foundation and the Folk Camps Society for funding the project.