Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A brief discussion of music as an educational tool.

Ward, David. “Aesthetic Education, Therapy, and Children with Special Needs.” In Music Therapy and Music Education for the Handicapped, edited by Rosalie Rebollo Pratt, 112-124. St. Louis: MMB Music, Inc., 1993.


This article begins by discussing the sensory development of very young children. The author, David Ward, writes about the very early synthesis of sensations, such as ear/eye coordination (seen in children as young as 2-3 weeks old) and hand/eye coordination (seen in children as young as 6-7 months old). He then goes on to describe perception, where a human mind registers and makes sense of sensations, versus conception, where a human makes inferences, judgments, and assumptions (cognitive “leaps”) based on previous experiences and knowledge. The concept is described as the beginning of abstract, symbolic thought, and can be seen in infants as young as 18 months.

The author then goes on to describe “aesthetic knowledge,” mostly discussing the idea of representation in the arts (for example, painting, mime, music, story). This mental process is not dependent on IQ, and so is a very good tool for teaching, and reaching, children with severe learning disabilities. Also, Ward describes the possibility of “transcendent” thought through representation in the arts, such as an arrangement of lines “becoming” a face, or a piece of music sounding “sad.”

As far as educating children, Ward then goes on to describe some different ways to reach out to children with learning disabilities by utilizing the arts. He talks about how many special needs children have sensory weaknesses, but how many art forms draw on more than one sense at a time and so can be used in working with the children. For example, a piece of music can sound “bright,” or “appear” to rise and fall, combining aural with visual senses, and thus can be used to help children who have trouble with the aural aspects of cognition. Another good example is using music notation, gesture, and/or mime to reach out to hearing-impaired children. When working in this way, the children are encouraged to make objective and subjective judgments, which have no “right” or “wrong,” and can be used to build self-confidence.

Ward then provides some specific examples of this philosophy in use, such as improvisation work with children who suffer from cerebral palsy and have difficulty with coordination, so much so that they cannot coordinate music notation with music production. The improvisations provide an outlet for the children, and allow them to participate in a musical “community,” while making sounds that are never wrong, and simultaneously helping them to understand musical structure (such as AB, question and answer, or ABACA, rondo form). The musical form is used as a way to give structure to the improvisation.

Using art forms such as music, special needs children can learn valuable lessons through imitation, creation, and representation. And music is so structured that it naturally lends itself as a useful medium for children who need extra structure in their education. Also, as discussed, educating through the arts provides many opportunities for different approaches (using visual metaphors to represent sounds, etc.), thus helping an educator reach out to children with certain sensory weaknesses and strengths.

The end goal of all this work is to help children coordinate their senses (synthesis of the senses), and develop the means for abstract and transcendent thought through use of art forms such as music.

My Response:

Recently, I’ve been reading about the Orff music instruction method, which involves a lot of low-stress improvisations to help children develop a “spoken” musical language before delving into the written musical language. Reading about some of the exercises that Ward describes, such as music improvisation, and the “elemental” parts of music (dynamics, form, consonance/dissonance, articulations, etc.), I would think that the Orff method would be a good way to reach out to children with disabilities. The medium of music as detailed by Orff provides a clearly-defined structure, but one in which there is much room for creativity and spontaneity. And Orff uses a lot of pentatonic scales for improvisation, as there are few dissonances in these scales. I think that a lot of children who have difficulty with music production (such as children who have trouble singing due to a lack of language production skills) would benefit immensely from being allowed to use pitched percussion instruments in a creative setting, especially one where there are no “right” and “wrong” sounds.

I am currently volunteering at an elementary school in Toronto, and I work with a music teacher who teaches a special needs class made up of severely disabled children. The children respond amazingly to music; I have witnessed this myself. The teacher sings and dances, getting the children to sing and dance along, and I can see how the music helps their physical coordination. Further, when I get to work with the children, I often end up clapping with them while the teacher sings and plays the guitar. I have noticed that a lot of children who don’t participate in the singing love the clapping, and feel as if they are a part of the music-making simply through this bodily percussion motion. I’ve seen the delight in the faces of these children as they come to understand the rhythmic fundamentals of the music that once was so foreign to them. So this is a great example of using different approaches to the same musical instruction, and also a great example of how one medium can help educate in a whole different area (i.e. the musical instruction used to help physical coordination).

Finally, I am teaching a recorder class to a learning-disabled class of grade 4-6 students. I find that using metaphors in combination with music can actually help the children to understand the music. For example, when we play a “piece,” getting the children to add a title, and words, to go along with the notes helps them to understand musical phrasing. I think that music naturally lends itself to other art forms, such as poetry, and being able to utilize this while teaching music can help instruction in other areas.

What I am trying to say is that music is an amazing social phenomenon (in the words of Dr. Lee Bartel, a “functional social phenomenon”) as well as a great teaching tool. Music can bolster the atmosphere of community and togetherness in a classroom, and can greatly improve the self-confidence of participants, if taught correctly. I hope that more teachers come to realize this, and that the cuts in funding to the arts in schools and in society will stop. Schools need music, and need music instructors who understand the principles of music, so that every student can participate in the arts, and learn abstract thought through representation.


Vasana said...

This sounds like a very engaging article. Undoubtedly, music education is very valuable for all children, particularly those with handicaps. I think the observation that music can help children to make objective and subjective judgments is very important. I think this idea applies to any student. Education is becoming increasingly specialized, depending on ones area of study, people develop thought processes that are either objective or subjective, rather than learning to think in both ways.
I really like the idea of studying music in conjunction with other arts to help students with sensory weaknesses. This enables students with special needs to experience music in a way that is accessible and tangible to them. Although it is a very broad topic, I wish there were more classes that combined Music and visual arts, not just for special needs students. I think as musicians we would benefit from learning more about color and texture in visual arts, it would give us a different perspective. I think that all arts subjects are intensely interrelated and should be studied together.
I have always been amazed by the amount of metaphors we use to learn music. I think it is so interesting that one metaphor will give a student a “light bulb moment” whereas the same example will not work for a different student. I think it is important for teachers to have a large stockpile of methods for explaining ideas to students, since their comprehension depends a lot on their perception which is unique to every student.

Leonid said...

I have recently commented on a fascinating book by Steven Mithen “The Singing Neanderthals” where the author attempts to explicate why humans so compelled to make and listen to music. It appears that one of the main reasons behind people willingness to engage in a variety of music-making activities (including listening), is the sense of community, cooperation and mutual support it creates. Interestingly, when I ask my students (especially younger ones) why they like playing in the band many of them mention “good feeling” and “friendship”. Mithen explains that from the evolutionary perspective, music serves as a means of facilitating collaboration, which is crucial for survival. He argues that music-making is a cheap and easy form of interaction that can demonstrate a readiness to cooperate. It creates a feeling of we-ness and diminishes feeling of self. In a variety of complex social situations when the question of trust and reliance is concerned music appears to be a solution. It induces cognitive coordination, as a certain emotional state is shared by the contributors.
In Israel, we volunteered at the schools and kindergartens for kids with a variety of mental disabilities. I remember one occasion when upon arrival we saw the children who while engaging themselves in various tasks and activities did not seem to notice one another. They occupied the same room, but existed there in absolute separation. However, as soon as we started playing, they stopped their activities, gathered around us, and began clapping, singing and dancing together. This was amazing evidence of music’s great potential to create a sense of unity.