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A life and career transposed

27 September 2013

In the 1970s, Adrian Snell was the nearest thing in the UK to a Christian music superstar. A new album and a BBC radio broadcast suggest that his music comes from somewhere else these days. He talks to Julie McKee


Adrian Snell now

Adrian Snell now

ADRIAN SNELL is not a man to think small. A big hitter on the Christian music scene since 1975, some of his bestselling albums are nothing if not ambitious - from recording with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra ("The Passion", 1980), and retelling Jewish history ("Alpha and Omega", 1986) to turning an exploration of the Jewish roots of Christianity into a two-album concept work ("City of Peace", 1998).

So it comes as something of a surprise to find that since his last album, "Every Place is Under the Stars", in 2006, he has swapped the spotlight for the decidedly less showy enterprise of music therapy. Why the change of direction?

"I'd been building towards radical change [for] a long time, but hadn't got a clue what that would mean," he says. "Sort of a typical muso, you know - a one-trick pony, as in that's all I'd ever done.

"Something about me and the stage, in its broadest sense - the world I was inhabiting . . . for making music, wasn't enough . . . not to mention all the obvious stuff, like being away from home so much, and all that it takes to sustain that."

It was not until he attended a seminar in Holland for musicians, where one of the lecturers was a music therapist, however, that the idea occurred to him.

"At that time - it was around 1996 or '97 - I'd never heard the words 'music therapy' together, but it . . . all made sense, the way she described how she used music, but within the framework of a trained therapist, and I found myself saying, 'I wonder if is this what the future's about?'"

Fast forward a few years, and Snell had a diploma in music therapy from Bristol University. Within a year of qualifying, in 2002, he was working as a music therapist at three different special schools, which amalgamated in 2007 to be- come Three Ways School, in Bath, where he has been working ever since. In that time, his position has expanded to include becoming the arts-therapy consultant for the whole school.


THERE are 180 young people between the ages of four and 19 at Three Ways - all of whom have a learning disability, although some have a physical disability, too. These can range from moderate to severe. The school offers the national curriculum as a basis, but then adds a range of other activities, such as music therapy, for personal and social growth.

"It's all about enabling the young people I'm working with to feel extremely at peace, comfortable, and safe working with me," he says. "It's a therapeutic space."

Snell's experience at the school has had a transformative effect on his entire approach to music, and even his outlook on life. "A lot of the young people I work with need all the extra-sensory help they can get, because they are not necessarily accessing the world in the way that you or I might."

Snell agrees that this is a sea-change from his previous experience of working with professional musicians. "Quite a few of the young people I work with, if I bring a guitar into the picture, they're not that bothered by the sound of the strings, they want the feeling of the strings as I'm playing them - they like the vibration in their hands. Or they might like [to feel] the back of the guitar up against their head.

"Before I ever trained as a music therapist, I found myself being profoundly drawn into music [from] further east. I started seeking out percussion, wind, and string instruments that belonged to other cultures." When he became a therapist, he found himself "liberated" by this discovery, and that these were helpful in assisting him "to liberate the people I was working with".


THIS process of liberation he takes to Korçë, Albania, where he visits every August, to work in a place he has named House on the Hill, although it is known in Albanian as asil ("asylum").

"There are 47 folk from their early teens to their 80s," he says. "It's really for whoever has been placed there because there is nowhere else to put them." Music therapy is particularly relevant in this context, he says, because it goes beyond words and the language barrier. The trips are supported by the Coverdale Trust, and, after seven years, have afforded him opportunities to work also with street children, the elderly, and in prisons.

By now, Snell says, he has been able to build up a level of trust that underpins all the work he carries out there. "The fundamental rule is respect," he says. "Respecting the folk that you've come to work with or offer something to."

It was at a meeting with the Coverdale Trust about 18 months ago that the idea was raised to record another album. Absorbed by his new vocation, Snell was not initially enthusiastic, but reconsidered after some deliberation.

"Ironically, if I thought about it, I was actually writing all the time some very strong material. When you're working [as a music therapist] you're constantly thinking: 'That sound, that shape, that texture, that way of resonance - could I imagine using that in my work, or with that specific individual?' And, therefore, if the answer is 'Yes', I bring it into the work - and I can't help discovering that there are other ways of incorporating it, say in my composition. . . . there's always that double edge to it.

"So, when I stopped to think, I recognised that I had not far short of a full album's worth of material that I was really proud of."


THE album that emerged, "Fierce Love", was recorded at his music-therapy suite at Three Ways School, and much of it draws on his experience of working there, using some of the same instruments.

"It was the location where all my instruments were, and so many stories belong to that room. Suddenly it was like, OK, now I can see how this album will integrate everything - the music therapist, composer, performer, musician. That turned everything into a year of probably the most enjoyable experience I've had recording in 30-plus years."

He provides an example: "Maybe something emerges out of a [therapy] session that inspires a thought. Let's say, I've got a wind gong at school, and it sounds like the rushing wind, it's an extraordinarily beautiful sound. It's very much used in my music-therapy work, because sounds like that have the effect of often causing people to really focus and concentrate, and often you can go somewhere else that can become quite useful.

"Anyway, this sound in its own right is so evocative that it became the opening of the second song on the album "Firefly and the Dazzling Moon". So I'll be working with a sound, and I'll be thinking: 'That would be a lovely canvas upon which to build that piece of music.' But it will always start with the person in the room."

He talks about a song called "Breath". "I work with one young man who has profound and complex needs, and is completely dependent on others. I have to work very hard to interpret whether any sounds he makes, or facial movements, are intentional. But there is one thing that is constant, and that is his breathing.

"So, often my start point with him is his breath - that's something I can manage. I can go right up to his ears, and just breathe with him, and he might feel my breath on his skin, or he might realise I'm actually matching his breath . . . Then I can build from that point maybe into something more musical."


IN CONTRAST to his earlier, heady days as a star on the Christian circuit, backed by Christian labels, Snell is releasing this album himself. What has not changed, however, is the deep sense of faith that informs his work.

"Without in any way wanting to romanticise, I've never felt closer to God as I do in this work," he says. "There are several reasons: one is because I'm working in an environment that is so about the present moment, and so not about social conforming. It's very real, very raw. It can be very sore.

"And that's where I think God meets us - in our vulnerability; and especially when we have no choice but to be dependent on other people. A lot of the people I work with have no option.

"And, alongside that, I want this album in part to trigger this discussion - what I hope it will do to those who listen to this who do have faith, or are church members, is present a very significant challenge, which is: Why are our churches not as represented by people with special needs and mental-health issues as every other section of society?

"There is a huge population out there, not just of people with special needs of all sorts, but their families, their carers, professionals around them - millions of people are caught up in that.

"And I'd even go so far as to say that a lot of the young people I work with would very easily . . . make the transition into faith, because they're coming from a place of feeling loved. They are of equal value to everybody else, and it's my job to let them know that."


SNELL would like to see more emphasis in church services on using all the senses. "Think back to the moments in the services you remember. Isn't it 90 per cent of the time that something has been illustrated through something involving the other senses - something dramatic, a moment of humour, a time when you moved from your seat? You weren't just sitting there receiving through your ears. We all learn more effectively that way, but our special-needs folk have to learn that way. I guarantee it would be of massive benefit to everybody."

This approach will be reflected in the album launch event, and also a special service broadcast from Three Ways School by BBC Radio 4 for its programme Sunday Worship on 6 October. The music will be from Fierce Love, adapted for pupils from the school to join in and sing, includ- ing a newly formed school choir.

Future performance dates, he says, will be limited to "key dates in key places. . . It's not about ex-tensive touring, it's about events that follow something of the way we hope to launch this album - a little bit more interactive, with video clips. In venues where it's appropriate, I'd like to position some players in places other than the stage; where possible, I'd like that to be people with special needs. . . Hopefully, if you contrast Adrian the performer from 2000 or before, what you'd see now is a composer-artist-music therapist on stage."

Asked about any return to the stage in a more full-time sense, Snell is keen to "disrupt my music-therapy work as little as possible".

"Fierce Love" is released on 28 September, and BBC Radio 4's Sunday Worship from Three Ways School is broadcast at 8.10 a.m on 6 Octo- ber. For more details, visit www.facebook.com/AdrianSnellMusic.

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