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Features | Spring 2016

Creating Safe Musical Spaces

Teaching and Performing for Integrated Audiences

It is likely we have all noticed that the range of behaviors exhibited by children in our classes and performances has changed over the years. As of March 2014, the rate of autism in the United States school population is thought to be 1 in 68 children (Autism Society 2015). My son is on the autism spectrum. When he was born in 1995, autism was still considered a rare disorder, occurring only in about 1 in 3,300 children. In 2000, the figures were 1 in 150 children; in 2008, 1 in 88 children; in 2012, 1 in 50 (current figures correct that number to 1 in 68 children as listed above) (Blumberg et al 2013). In addition to a virtual explosion in the rates of autism, as of 2011, approximately 11% of the American children ages four to seven (6.4 million children) have been diagnosed with attention deficit disorder/attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADD/ADHD). The percentage of children with an ADHD diagnosis has increased over recent decades, from 7.8% in 2003 to 9.5% in 2007 and 11.0% in 2011 (Visser et al 2015).

There is a lot of controversy over what is causing the rise of ADHD and autism. A very heated debate rages, with those who believe that environmental causes and exposure to toxins is causing the rise on one end, and those that believe there actually is no rise, just better diagnosis now than in the past on the other end. Exploring the actual causes of these phenomena is outside the scope of this article, but we, as the people working directly with children, are the ones who must incorporate practices that will accommodate this new reality.

I am both a performer and a teacher. In every one of my public performances, I scan the audience to see who might find certain activities challenging. There is a particular look that I recognize: children who may not feel comfortable making eye contact, who obsess about details of a song, who are distressed by certain rhythms, who are upset by the silliness or illogic of a story, who can’t sit still, who flap their hands or heads in time to my guitar strum, who are fearful of things that are of no consequence to most, including random noises. I’m cognizant, too, of children who howl when asked to participate in a round because the contradicting melodies cause them psychic pain, or attack my guitar while I am playing because they love guitars, or who tear puppets out of my hands because they truly believe that they can take whatever they want. The list goes on and on, but I know that these behaviors are not necessarily the result of bad parenting or spoiled children; they occur most often because the child is wired differently.

I teach music in five large preschools and at a private elementary school that prides itself on providing a safe space for all types of learners. Every grade in the elementary school has one to three children on the special needs spectrum. Every preschool class has one to two children who are clearly wired very differently. Of my seventeen private instrumental students, two are diagnosed with pervasive developmental disorder (PDD), an umbrella term currently used by pediatricians to encompass the various forms of autism.

As musicians and teachers, we literally need to think on our toes, figuring out who are the people in front of us, what they need, and what will help them gain the most from the musical experience we strive to share with them.

So how do we embrace neurologically diverse audiences and classrooms? I often come home from a day of teaching or performing with more questions in my head than answers. Every teacher has to figure out how to diversify lessons in a manner that will communicate respectfully to the entire class, and children’s performers likewise need to be prepared for audience members who may have unexpected responses to a variety of stimuli. It is an ongoing challenge. I have spent my performing and teaching career attempting to provide the “perfect” musical experience for whoever is in the audience or classroom, “perfect” being defined, by me, as an experience that can touch and engage the soul of everyone present. Perhaps a tall order, but one that I believe is doable.

Out of necessity, I have gained a lot of experience in identifying and encompassing individuals with unique neurological needs over my thirty-year career. I began teaching music in Israel in 1984 and immediately noticed that each of my students excelled at something different. Teaching music the way I had been taught—in a linear, cognitive fashion—was not reaching all of them. Though young and new to teaching, I was observant enough to know that I needed to implement something different. My first discovery was the Suzuki system, which teaches children to play an instrument by ear, therefore allowing my first student—identified with severe dyslexia ten years after I first taught her—to play beautiful piano music and not be held back by an inability to follow the written notes. Neither she, her mother, nor myself knew that dyslexia was the issue, but I did know that she couldn’t learn note reading the way her sister did.

My next discovery was on a visit to the United States, when I stumbled across In Their Own Way, a book by Thomas Armstrong. It was definitely put into my hands by the “book gods” (do you all have them in your life as well?) because it was my first exposure to Harvard professor Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, and immediately informed my teaching from that point on. Briefly, Howard Gardner originally identified seven styles of learning, or “intelligences,” in his 1983 book, Frames of Mind: visual-spatial, bodily kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal, linguistic, and logical-mathematical. Naturalistic, existential, and moral learning styles were added later. My takeaway: Every lesson can be taught in a way that reaches out to multiple learning styles.

Experienced teachers quickly observe what teaching methods reach their students, and can modify and adapt their teaching styles. Obviously, a song can be taught by singing it. This reaches aural learners; giving out an illustrated lyric sheet or notation reaches visual learners; teaching with a movement game reaches kinesthetic learners. Identifying the rhythms in a song reaches the mathematical learners; asking the audience to reflect on the meaning of the song reaches intrapersonal learners; and asking the class to discuss the meaning of the song reaches interpersonal learners. And a song, simply by being a song, reaches musical learners.

Even with all of that diversity in teaching methods, I have found over the years that children in my classes who have autism most often benefit from more specific interaction: some of them would simply sit and dream if I didn’t reach out to them. Others, like my son, who has autism, ADHD, and sensory processing disorder, need specific support to maintain body control in movement and games so they don’t get physically overstimulated. Many of these children are very sensitive to sound, and certain sounds in music class actually cause them pain, in which case headphones help. Making verbal instructions short but clear is helpful to everyone, but crucial to children with aural processing challenges.

We all know that each child is a unique packet of personality, and there aren’t any guidelines for best practices that can be plunked down as recipes that will work in every situation. With so much neurodiversity and diverging needs, creating safe group experiences is challenging. As musicians and teachers, we literally need to think on our toes, figuring out who are the people in front of us, what they need, and what will help them gain the most from the musical experience we strive to share with them. Michael Riera, PhD, suggests that when faced with socially challenging behavior, we as adults can remind ourselves to “H.A.L.T.” before we act: Is the child “too Hungry, too Angry, too Lonely, or too Tired” to engage in the activity that we are attempting to share with them (Riera 2004)? I truly believe that every behavior has a reason, and every individual has an optimal means of engaging with the world. As the adult in the situation, I believe I have the responsibility to help the child find their way back to comfortable behavior. I have found that incorporating Gardner’s premise of multiple intelligences into every performance and classroom has helped me be more successful in reaching the children (and adults!) in front of me in whatever context I find myself in.

In that vein, I turned a story written by George Reavis, “The Animal School”, into a song that I share with both children and adults. When he wrote this fable in the 1940s, Reavis was assistant superintendent of the Cincinnati Public Schools system.

Everybody’s Good at Something
by Joanie Calem
© 2013, Joanie Calem

Back in the day, when critters went to school,
They learned to run and climb and fly and swim in the pool.
Everyone was good at one or two things,
But there was no one that was good at everything.

Duck was good at swimming, and could sort of fly,
But she just couldn’t run, though she really tried.
Instead of letting her swim, and do what she does best
They made her work on running and she failed every test!

Eagle was best at flying up high,
But he just couldn’t climb, though he really tried.
He got punished when he flew to the treetop.
They called him “cheater” and made him stop!

Rabbit was great at running and she won every race.
But she was forced to go swimming and she couldn’t even place.
In fact it was so bad she kind of broke down,
And after that she couldn’t even hop across the town.

Squirrel could climb and run real well
But flying was harder, he just couldn’t excel.
If he started in the tree, he could kind of fly down,
But they made him try starting from the ground.

The prairie dogs’ parents complained to the school
Lessons didn’t include digging or tunnel tools.
So they went and found a teacher on their own.
Badger was glad to teach the pups at home.

Now it’s the end of the year; everyone feels bad
’Cause they spent all their time trying to do what they can’t.
It’s true it’s good to learn new things,
But we need to realize no one’s good at everything!
We gotta remember no one’s good at everything!
And it’s just fine that no one’s good at everything.

Many CMN members chart similar waters combining teaching and/or performing, and therefore come across the same populations that I see in my world. I would love to hear your thoughts and what has worked in your world. In the fall issue of PIO! I will have the pleasure of presenting Part 2 of this article, highlighting the work of CMN members Andrea Green and Frank Hernandez. Stay tuned!