This story first appeared on the Youth Music website – visit their site to read more case studies about the impact music has on young people.
Ben plays drums in Reality Boots, a band of young musicians formed at Skimstone Arts in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. The project has given him a place where he’s supported in dealing with his difficulties – while being recognised as a musician first and foremost.
“I love how drumming is such an explorative instrument,” says Ben. “I find the experience of playing with Reality Boots uplifting because of the songs that I’ve contributed to.”
From a young age, Ben’s loved making music. He’s also had to face the challenge of being labelled as a young person with autism and mental health issues.
Ben’s mum Rosie recalls: “When Ben was born he was a beautiful, placid baby. He hardly cried and seemed fascinated with nesting a set of toy cups and spinning lids rather than playing with conventional baby toys.
“Early on Ben developed a love of music and set up a makeshift drum kit with upturned pots and pans and jars or upturned buckets in grandpa’s garden with grandpa holding a shovel as the cymbal – a little Buddy Rich in the making.”
Ben started his difficult journey through childhood attending the ‘communications class’ at a primary school which had an ‘additionally resourced centre’ attached. “The labelling that Ben hates so much had begun.”
“Ben suffers from huge anxiety levels which are largely as a result of trying to cope on a daily basis to make sense of the world around him,”says Rosie.
Ben also began experiencing depression at a young age. Both conditions worsened as he went through his teenage years, and he had to start taking medication to help calm him.
Ben’s anxiety meant he was unable to go out independently or do many of the things his peers could do. It also made coping with education difficult, even at a college for people with autism.
One thing that helped Ben was his love of the drums. He took lessons, working his way up to Grade 8, and played in a local wind band for nine years.
But Ben’s struggle to cope with his mental health problems continued, and at one point it was suggested that an adult day care centre might be his best option – something neither Ben nor his parents wanted.
Thankfully, a support worker who knew about Ben’s drumming talent pointed him towards Skimstone Arts. And as luck would have it, Ben joined the project at a time when Reality Boots needed a new drummer.
“It was during a very difficult time in my life that I went to Skimstone and I’ve grown in confidence,” said Ben.
Making music at Skimstone Arts has hugely benefitted Ben’s mental health. He’s met other young artists he can talk and listen to, sharing feelings and experiences. And he’s been able to express himself creatively through songwriting and playing in the band.
“Skimstone is great place to come especially when you’re going through a bad patch, because everybody is supportive,” says Ben. “Everyone gets to contribute, everyone is included so that nobody feels left out and everybody has a voice.”
Peter and Claire, the founders of Skimstone Arts, are very experienced working with young people with mental health problems, and Ben describes them as very special.
He has a one-to-one pastoral session and listening time with Peter or Claire once a week, which helps to stop his anxieties building up. Keeping a personal journal to write creatively about his emotions has also helped Ben to feel in control.
Ben’s currently enjoying performing live with Reality Boots. The band took part in Youth Music’s Give a Gig Week fundraising initiative in 2017 and plan to record some new songs soon. Ben also plays with a couple of different jazz bands in Newcastle, and recently completed his Bronze Arts Award qualification.
“I’d like to try experimenting with placing objects on the drums to change the texture. I’m looking at learning some basic theory on piano and learning tuned percussion like vibraphone and marimba. I’d also like to do some creative writing and improve on that.”
“I’ve had my medication reduced since coming to Skimstone. I recently spoke at a regional conference in front of 60 people about what we do at Skimstone Arts and how it’s changed me as a person.”