May 11, 2017

How a child with autism changed my career path…(and me)

Hi there musicians!  It has been super busy in these parts lately, complete with a molar-teething two year old (read: no one in the house got a solid night’s sleep), a runaway dog (she is now home safe and sound), and launching our website (a project that Mike and I have put our hearts and souls into for three years).

Now that things have settled down a bit, I have had a chance to reflect on the launch of the website and to dig back in to the why of what we do, and so many thoughts and ideas swirl through my head.  First, I land here:

Participating in music is part of what makes us human. 

And then, I land here:

EVERY child is a musicians and deserves the opportunity to have the very best musical experiences – to enrich their lives, to ignite their passions, to bring them joy, to unlock their full cognitive potential.

A particular student with autism showed me this in his own special and wonderful way.  He challenged me, humbled me, and helped me to better understand how music lives in the hearts of children.

John came into my music classroom with his aide, and was very reluctant to join his peers in our singing greeting.  And no wonder!  It was loud and unstructured, with twenty or so third graders spread around the room in no logical order.  I didn’t know how to encourage John without bringing attention to him and potentially embarrassing him.  So, I kept teaching and relied on his aide to encourage him to participate when he felt comfortable.

Things went on this way for quite a while with John.  He and his aide would come to the music room, but he rarely participated without tremendous encouragement from his aide, and even then, I was worried that he wasn’t enjoying it.  Music should bring JOY to a child, not stress or worry or anxiety about doing everything perfectly.  For a child, music should bring nothing but goodness…joy, fun, humor, creativity, and sparks of light and excitement.  I was not seeing any of these in John and it upset me.  Here I was, a seasoned music educator, and I was pretty sure that my class was bringing stress into the life of a child.

One day, I started our unit on the instruments of the orchestra.  I began by playing recordings of various styles of music to prime my students’ ears for listening to the varying voices and timbres of the different instrument families.  As I played each piece, I glanced around the room, reading the looks on my students’ faces, and there was John with a look on his face that I had never seen in my classroom.  He was happy.  No, delighted!  His body was relaxed, his eyes were closed, and he had the sweetest smile on his face. His aide was noticing his behavior as well, and she and I exchanged looks of, “Oh my gosh! Look at John! This is awesome!”.

The peacefulness of John’s enjoyment lasted throughout the entire lesson. He felt every note, every rhythm, every musical phrase, and when his class left, I felt like I was floating.  We had found something that he loved – something that reached him – a place where we connected.  It was a big win.

In the next lesson, I started putting up pictures and playing solo excerpts of various instruments, trying to get a handle on how much my students already knew.  To my astonishment, John knew EVERY SINGLE INSTRUMENT, by both sound and picture.  I was blown away.  I would put up a picture of an instrument, and he would shout, “Clarinet!”  I would play an excerpt, and he would shout, “French horn!”  I was exhilarated to have finally found something in the music room that brought him joy.  He instantly became a leader in the class.  Unfortunately, it didn’t last.

The moment came for the students to stand up, move, warm up their voices, and sing.  I lost John in the crowd.  He hung his head, he reached for the hand of his aide, and he retreated to the back of the classroom.  I led the vocal warm-ups for the class. trying to focus, but my heart was screaming, “No!  I lost him!  What happened?!  What did I do wrong?!”.

I couldn’t answer that question right away, but after some time, and after many more class sessions with John, the answer became clear and it has since affected every decision I make as an educator, as a musician, and as a parent.

John was a musician, but my classroom was not the ideal place for him to participate.  Every child is a musician, but sometimes, not in the way teachers expect them to be.  Every child is a musician, but the music classroom is sometimes not the place for every child.

Every child is a musician and they deserve the very best musical experiences, because participating in music is part of what makes us human.

So…fast forward a few years, and because of what I learned from John, I am on a mission to ensure that every child has access to the very best foundations in musical education and the very best musical experiences…regardless of how they learn, regardless of their demographic information, regardless of their skin color or nationality, regardless of their parents’ income, regardless of what is written in their IEP record.  I want to build an online platform to which every child can have access. A platform that gives children the freedom to find what they love about music and to go deep – to take ownership of their own learning – and to find joy, satisfaction, and pride in their musical learning experience.

I will save all of the facts, figures, and statistics on the importance of early music learning for a later post (yep, it’s coming), but for now, let’s just sit together in the knowledge that early music learning is incredibly important in a child’s well-being and overall development and it should not be reserved for a lucky few, or even for those children that demonstrate musicianship in the traditional ways. Every child is a musician and every child deserves the very best.

And I want to give them that.

Thank you for being here and thank you for being a musical light in the life of a child.

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