I think most of us can agree that music affects us. That it can change our mood, make us feel stronger, fill us with joy or sadness. Our hands and feet start tapping, and some of us end up doing a little dance at the bus stop. Music offers a way of communication which taps directly into our emotions and, it seems, into our brain. There is no lack of interesting studies on the correlations between music and learning, and personally, I find the neuroscientific investigations into this field (such as this, to give but one example) particularly exciting. And as a parent of a child with severe difficulties in communication, I love seeing examples of how music can make a massive difference, for example how a stuttering child can speak fluently while listening to music, or how someone who is otherwise non-verbal (meaning they have no or extremely limited ability to speak) can sing. Here’s one example, also including an interview with the boy’s dad: Martin Finn On Irishtv.
So how does this apply to me and Penguin? Well, he doesn’t really sing, as such. But we do sing together: We have a repertoar of songs that he clearly likes, and what we do is that we sit down together, I’ll start singing a song, and then I’ll go quiet and wait for him to fill in the next word. It may not seem like much, but it’s been truly amazing to discover how many songs he knows inside his head, bearing in mind that this is someone who doesn’t use words to communicate. Yet he’s learnt the lyrics of an impressive amount of songs, mostly by watching them on video MANY times!
Po got lost…
I first discovered this quite a few years ago, when I was trying to get Penguin to tell me the names of the Teletubbies. When he was little, he had been trying to say those names, and I clearly remember him pointing at the small, red Teletubby and saying her name, “Po”. But around the age of two, Penguin regressed, and lost the words he had developed so far in life. About three years later, we were working intensively with him, trying to build up more of a connection and establish some interplay and communication. I had been pointing at pictures of the Teletubbies, saying their names and hoping Penguin would repeat them or fill in the missing name if I missed one out. It wasn’t really working and I was getting increasingly frustrated (“Come on, you could name this Teletubby when you were a tiny toddler, why not now?”). Then I decided to sing the Teletubbies theme tune, in which they’re all named: “Tinky-Winky, Dipsy, Laa-Laa, …” I pointed at them one by one, while singing their names, but when it came to the last one, I went silent, pointed at the little red character, and waited. And to my great delight, Penguin completed the set with a short but oh so sweet “Po”.
With a baa-baa here and a baa-baa there
Later, we went on to use “Old MacDonald” for practicing the names and sounds of animals, and it was clear how singing the words and sounds came much easier to our boy than “just” saying them. We’ve also used a simple farm yard puzzle, with me singing beginning of the song, and then Penguin chosing which animal to sing about next, by pointing to it on the jigsaw puzzle. That level of interaction was a huge leap forward when we first started doing it, and the singing has been absolutely key in this!
Like a lot of kids, Penguin loves watching videos, and he has his favourites that he can watch over and over again. It’s often these favourites that we build on to create learning activities which are fun and meaningful to him, and the songs that we sing are usually (though not always) ones that he’s been watching, repeatedly. However, songs aren’t the only kind of auditory information that Penguin has gathered from his videos. I’ve also discovered that there are certain parts of dialogues that fascintates him, and we can interact around those in similar ways to the songs: I’ll start by saying a phrase which I know he’ll recognise, and then stop and wait for him to fill in the next word (or rather the first syllable of the next word, so far). Building on dialogue based around favourite films and characters is something I’d encourage everyone to try. It’s great fun, and for more inspiration along the same lines, check out how Owen Suskind and his family developed playful interaction and communication around a passion for Disney animations, in this article.
Follow that rythm
Rythm is another aspect of music which can be used for learning and interacting in many different ways. This post is getting rather long now, so I’ll limit myself to one example for now: A few years ago, Penguin had a wonderful one-on-one assistant who was also a musician and music teacher. She brought in various ways of working with music, particularly rythm, into the intensive training program we were doing with Penguin. One thing we were working on was being able to say a syllable only once, rather than repeating it. Penguin would happily say “ma-ma”, “la-la”, “ba-ba” etc, but found it very difficult to not repeat a sound more than once. This also applied to movement: Copying us when stamping or feet repeatedly was perfectly possible, but stamping just once seemed pretty much impossible. Penguins aid came up with a music based exercise for this: She would sing simple tune, and at the end of each phrase (a short, wordless “la-la-la-la-la-la-la”), she and Penguin would clap their hands together, just once, in rythm with the song. It worked very well, and that kind of “simple”, shared activity, where the brain developes almost automatically while you’re both enjoying something together, is just brilliant. I wish we could have had more years together with that teacher, she was amazing with Penguin. But I try to build on what I picked up from her, and there are also some great sites online for those of us wishing to do a bit of DIY music therapy at home. One source I can happily suggest is Ryan Judd’s YouTube channel for The Rythm Tree.
If you too are excited by the power of music, you may like to follow our facebook page, where I’ll be sharing articles, videos and other post that I come across, on this subject and others relating to learning with a difference. I’ll also be writing more about musical activities that we do in future blog posts. So stay, eh-hm, tuned (pardon the pun) 😉