Q: What made you get involved with special-needs kids?
I have a child with special needs so I became comfortable with that population, and I realized these kids are just like anyone else. They love music. All the special-needs kids that I know love music just as much as other kids. It doesn’t matter what kind of music – all kinds. You can get them to move to music, speak to music, play on drums, dance, sing, etc.
My mother was a piano teacher and worked with blind and visually-impaired kids, and she still does. She’s one of the few who can still convert music to Braille.
Even though I grew up around her students, I wasn’t comfortable with them. She’d ask me to play my violin for them. I would but I felt awkward. I didn’t know how to work with her students, but now I can do it, because of being around my son and his friends and classmates so much.
Q: When did you realize that music was a good way to reach kids with special needs?
From the very beginning, my son heard me practicing. I would play music all the time, I would sing to him – anything to stimulate his brain. We did massage; they played music during his therapy sessions – physical therapy, occupational therapy.
Someone suggested the Tomatis system for my son. It’s a way to stimulate a certain area of the brain, for kids with speech deficits, autism, and ADD. They start with a Mozart violin concerto because it has high frequencies, which stimulate the brain better. They filter out certain frequencies and then add the mother’s voice. I had to read into a microphone. As time goes on, they reduce frequencies in the Mozart until the only thing that’s left is a high-pitched scratch.
When the kids start listening to the Mozart, they listen using headphones, while they are playing with blocks and balls, etc. A lot of the kids scream because they hate it. The sessions last for an hour at a time.
My son had one session a day, 15 days in a row, and each day more frequencies were filtered out. By the 15th day he was just hearing the high-frequency scratch. After 3 months, he was treated for 8 more days; then he had another 3 month break, followed by 8 more days of treatment.
In my son’s case, it stimulated his speech centers. He was hardly speaking at all when we started, but after an hour of this therapy, he would use full sentences with new vocabulary, and he would retain all of it.
It was unbelievable. It didn’t help his attention-deficit problem, but for his speech, it was miraculous.
Q: Did you have any special training for what you do? A college class?
No, I have an MM in violin performance. Today many schools offer 5-year programs in music therapy. Music therapy is not just for children – there are geriatric programs as well.
Q: Do you use sign language to communicate when you’re working with special-needs children?
Up to age 9, I used signing for my son. I don’t sign very well, so I don’t rely on it. I can sometimes figure out what kids are signing to me, but they often have interpreters – [lack of signing] shouldn’t stop someone.
The ratio of kids to adults is low in a classroom setting – for 10 kids there should be at least 4 adults, so you’d have lots of support. You’d never be sent alone into a classroom with 10 special-needs kids.
Q: What sort of things do you look for when you first meet a group of special-needs kids? Are you waiting for them to make the first move, or do you do that? What sort of cues from them do you try to pick up on?
Before I go I would ask about the level of disability, so I’ll be age-appropriate. Most people don’t realize that in a class of mentally-challenged people, you have to appeal to them at their age. If they are mentally 4, but are 15 years old, appeal to their chronological age.
Ask what they’ve been exposed to, what sort of behaviors to expect.
I always take an instrument for them to touch and play. If they are visually- or hearing-impaired, they want to feel the violin. You have to appeal to all their senses: touch, sound, texture, smell, all the senses.
I let them touch and play the violin. I might have to put their hand on the bow, adjust it under their chin, help them play it. You need a really crummy instrument that you don’t mind getting scratched and dented.
I wouldn’t go without an instrument for them to touch and play on. I have a 1/10th-sized violin for little kids to touch. If it’s a bigger crowd (I find out first), I might take a partner; with two instruments you can divide up into smaller groups.
I pick music that I think will appeal – shorter selections, variety of styles, fun things that involve the audience. (“Pop Goes the Weasel” is a favorite and easy to play. You can let the child pluck a string when you get to “pop” in the song.)
Once I played for really little kids and I was frantic, so I had a list of songs appropriate for them. I told them, “When I play this song, all the girls stand up. When I play this song, all the boys stand up.” They have to learn names of body parts, so I try to reinforce that. You have to teach every concept, because they don’t absorb them as babies. They don’t naturally absorb things that you and I would take for granted.
I might play Orange Blossom Special, wearing a cowboy hat, blowing a train whistle, and yelling “Yee-Hah!” They love it – they might clap, they respond really well. They will yell “Yee-Hah” with me.
I never work with balloons – that would be too much to deal with. I want kids to learn about the violin. Sometimes they touch it to feel the vibrations while I’m playing. I tell them where bow hair comes from, they see that the violin has four strings, that we move our fingers to change pitches – the same sorts of things that any group of kids would want to know about.
Q: Can you tell us about a particularly rewarding experience you’ve had?
In DC: I once played for a tiny 6-year-old, still the size of a toddler. She couldn’t move any muscles, had no expression in her face, and was propped in a chair. I put the violin under her chin, put a bow in her hand, and helped her move the bow across the strings. She smiled, and the teachers couldn’t believe it – she’d never smiled before.
Another time, I think it was in Tennessee, I worked with a teenager, who was maybe 18. We went to the school for the blind, and there was a special section for kids who were both deaf and blind. Someone was finger spelling into his hand to explain what was happening the whole time we were there. I had someone bring him to the front of the room when we finished our presentation. I gave him the violin, let him touch the violin and the bow. I put it under his chin, put the bow in his hand, and he started scraping away. He put his ear on the top of the violin – and he wouldn’t give it back. He was smiling – I let him go on for about 15 minutes. I had to take it out of his hands when it was time to leave.
Q: What kind of music do kids respond best to?
Little kids like tunes from Sesame Street, and nursery rhymes.
I sometimes get in trouble with teens, as I’m not up on the latest hit songs. They want to hear their favorite song, which I’ve probably never heard of. When I don’t know the “hits,” I play classical music. I need to increase my repertoire of pop songs!
My favorite classical pieces to play? Something like a peppy Baroque movement, perhaps from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. A lot of people have heard the Brahms lullaby, so I might play that.
My son loves to conduct by the hour – he doesn’t get bored with it. His favorite piece is Puccini’s Tosca, but after it’s over he might play Raffi or one of the “Wee Sing” albums, or Christmas music (even in the summer), and then he might listen to Berg’s Wozzeck.
Q: Do you have any advice for young professionals who might want to try doing the same sort of work that you do?
Get comfortable dealing with people who have special needs – spend lots of time with them. We’re uncomfortable around them, they aren’t. Go and observe a class of special-needs kids and see how the teachers work with them. Once you feel comfortable, then you can try it. Wear bright colors. Smile a lot. Be very friendly, be forward – initiate contact. Don’t wait for them to shake your hand (they might not know that’s what they’re “supposed” to do).
I don’t really have any special training. It’s like playing for any other group of people. Selections should be short and entertaining. You can expect the kids to ask questions and answer questions.
Q: What kind of things might make a newcomer uncomfortable?
Drooling. Some can’t control their motions (bodies). They might ask questions that you can’t answer (e.g., “When do we go to recess?”). In that case, I would appeal to the teacher to keep them on task, or I’d change the subject.
Assume that there will be unexpected behaviors and inappropriate comments – or you might get NO reaction. In that case, I would tell a joke, comment on their clothes, the weather – try to get them to react.
They are taking you in, but might not know how to react. They often have slower reactions than we are used to, so you have to slow yourself down and wait for them to take more time to process things.
Often special-needs kids are impaired in an obvious way, but they frequently have other disabilities as well. (Once I asked a girl to hold the violin, but I soon discovered she wasn’t able to twist her wrist to hold it – so I held the violin for her and she used the bow. We played together.)
Q: Have any of your colleagues learned from your expertise?
One time I took Vern Summers and Jim Deighan (violinist and violist, respectively), and we did a trio concert. We told the kids, “At the end of our program, you can come up and we’ll let you play an instrument.”
One young man raised his hand to ask a question, but when we called on him, he was making exaggerated “bowing” gestures, as though he were playing on an imaginary violin. He didn’t say anything, just mimed bowing. I guessed that he wanted to play, so I asked him if he wanted to play one of our instruments. I had guessed right.
Until I interpreted for the young man, my colleagues thought he was showing bad behavior, but it was simply that he couldn’t ask. He loved playing, by the way.
My colleagues didn’t know that you have to not only pick up cues, but also interpret them.
Later, after we’d been working together a long time, Vern and I played for a group that included a Down’s syndrome man, wearing a London Fog raincoat. As we were leaving, the man in the raincoat turned up his collar, looking mischievous. Vern looked at him, and asked, “Are you James Bond?” And the man said, “Bond, James Bond.”
Vern is comfortable now because he’s watched me so much. He has a great time now. We played at a school for deaf kids, and Vern left two violins for the kids at the school.
For more information about the Tomatis system, visit the following websites: