10 Ways Playing Music Is Therapeutic For Special Needs Children
Where words fail, music speaks.” - Hans Christian Anderson
The quote above speaks to the power that music has in the lives of many. Dozens of new studies on the developing brain show dramatic lifelong breakthroughs and improvements in language, math, spatial skills, memory and more by learning to play an instrument.Type your paragraph here.
Mihran Kalaydjian Piano
Power Poses for Piano Practice
Five Takeaways from Amy Cuddy’s Presence
That neighbor walking past my house with his dog: did he hear snatches of my music through the window, and is that a smirk on his face? When the world is bursting with a surplus of gifted concert pianists, it’s ridiculous for an ordinary person like me to stumble through music requiring grace, gymnastics, and dexterity. I ought to be spending my time on mature pursuits such as paying bills or drawing up the grocery list rather than pursuing this unrealistic dream I’ve harbored since childhood. Quite simply, I don’t deserve to enjoy the piano.
If any of these voices sound familiar—after a decade of studying the piano as an adult, and one who has a slowly degenerating hearing loss, I’ve heard them all in my head—then you will soar from an orientation called presence. That’s Presence with a capital P, which is “approaching your biggest challenges without dread, executing them without anxiety, and leaving them without regret.” And it turns out that the key to presence is does not originate from meditation, affirmations, or other disciplines of the mind. Rather, presence emanates from our bodies.
Of course, presence applies beautifully to a concert pianist’s Olympian challenge of a 10-city tour. Yet presence also matters for the daily, dogged commitment to practice. To sight-read, practice repetitive scales, master tricky rhythms like three against two, and ease into a rapid trill, we must occupy the piano bench with presence, as defined by world-renowned researcher, professor, and presenter Amy Cuddy.
Cuddy, a Harvard Business School professor, suffered a debilitating brain injury during college, so severe that her doctors did not expect her to graduate. She nonetheless burst into our national consciousness with her TED talk on power poses, which has since become one of the most viewed TED talks of all time. Her thesis is simple: that simply by standing like Wonder Woman or Superman, feet apart, shoulders back and down, gaze straight out at the world, and hands either at your waist or thrust towards the sky, our bodies send powerful messages to our brains of confidence, competency, and calm.
And it’s important to emphasize that by power, Cuddy doesn’t mean controlling other people or aggrandizing resources. Rather, the intent of the power pose is to nudge yourself toward “becoming a bolder, more authentic, more effective version of yourself.” The objective is “power to, not power over.”
“Are you…?” fans ask Cuddy in airports, assuming a power pose. And yet Cuddy’s research has much more depth than what she could fit into 20 minutes on the TED stage. Her book, Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges, delves into how our posture, stance, and physical mien affects our ability to pursue our dreams and passions.
Presence eschews the glitzy, seductive tone of many self-help books—as a researcher, Cuddy has written a sociological piece, carefully spelling out the studies that back her conclusions—yet I recommend the book for anyone who wants fuel for pursuing their passions, on the bench and elsewhere. I read the book with a pen and underlined key conclusions, which I plan to periodically review in the years to come. To whet your appetite, here are five takeaways I gleaned from the book that can enhance your piano practice.
1. Do a power pose every day.
The power pose is the foundation of Cuddy’s theory of presence. She recommends that you adopt the pose before big challenges, such as a stressful meeting, creatively using private spaces such as a bathroom stall! Power posers may stand like Wonder Woman, hands on hips, or with both arms lifted towards the sky. One aspect of the power pose that I didn’t remember at first is to hold the pose for a full two minutes. And you don’t have to limit its practice to these recommendations. Recently during my piano lesson, when I was struggling to execute a demonically difficult trill in the bass while playing rapid triplets with my right hand, I felt inspired to imagine myself standing in a power pose, as though I’d just cleared the finish line in a marathon. I was startled when I proceeded to execute the passage flawlessly. Now I imagine myself in power poses occasionally during my practice.
2. Sit up straight on the piano bench.
I’ve struggled with my hunched shoulders and caving chest for years. Sometimes when I sit at the piano bench, I chant the following reminders: shoulders back and down, abdomen down and in, chest free and open. I try to remember to check my posture periodically throughout my practice. Your posture is important because of the provocative idea, and this is really the premise of Presence, “that bodily experiences cause emotions, not the other way around.” How you sit at the piano bench strongly influences the feelings you will experience with your music. Good posture at the piano permits us to be open and expansive, a frame of mind which enables us to take time for ourselves for practice or play for others. These generous acts are what Cuddy means by power, in the best sense of the word.
3. Breathe slowly and with intention.
“Understanding that you can control your breathing is a first step in understanding how you can control your anxiety—that you have the tools to do it yourself.” This quote in Presence is from Emma Seppälä, who has done work with veterans (and whom GRAND PIANO PASSION™ has published on the importance of play). When you breathe deeply, your chest naturally expands. Before tackling a difficult passage in your music, stop for a moment, inhale deeply through your nose to the count of six, then exhale deeply, again through your nose, through a count of six. Repeat a couple of more times. I have to confess that when I first learned to breathe this way in hot yoga, I felt as though I was going to suffocate. I was used to more shallow breaths. Yet once you get in the habit of breathing to calm your body’s rhythms, you will feel cleansed of anxiety and interested in working through that challenging section of your music.
4. Take time to make decisions.
Should I start with scales or sight-reading or jump right into practice? Which piece to work on? Should I play from the beginning or where I left off the day before? How to allocate precious practice time can be a stressful decision. And powerless feelings that there will never be enough time induce a phenomenon called goal neglect, which is failing to remain focused on a goal that matters to you. “Slowing down is a power move,” counsels Cuddy. Take the time you need at the beginning of your practice to determine how you want to spend the time you have. Amateur concert pianist Ricker Choi, for example, uses the first part of his practice reviewing yesterday’s newly learned material.
5. Imagine yourself practicing when you’re away from the piano.
I’ve written on the benefits of practicing the piano in your mind, away from the keyboard. Cuddy succinctly explains why this strategy is effective: “going over a sequence of movements in the mind increases one’s ability to enact them in the real world; the same regions of the brain that become active while executing particular actions…also respond when imagining those same actions.” When you find yourself stuck in traffic or waiting for a subway car on a crowded platform, imagine yourself playing a difficult trill or play through one of your pieces in its entirety in your mind.
One of the formative experiences in Cuddy’s life was the years she spent dancing ballet. Her love of dance surfaces throughout Presence, such as when she describes an “Alvin Ailey dancer expressing liberation and freedom.” Ballet provided a route to her discoveries. For those of us who love to play the piano, the connection, between the lessons of Presence and our personal ballets on the keyboard, seems particularly accessible.
Try power poses, good posture, deep breathing, intentional decision making, and imaginative practice. It’s through presence that we can realize our deepest dreams at the piano, and in our lives.
Caring for a special needs child can be a challenge for parents, teachers, and caretakers. But the rewards can far outweigh those challenges. We are always looking for ways to enrich our children's lives, which in return enriches our own. Music can help accomplish this and lead to a truly rewarding experience for the entire family.
While an active approach as in playing an instrument can provide the most benefits, passively just listening to music can help as well.
You may have tried to find a music teacher for your son or daughter only to find that most music schools refuse to teach those with certain special needs, such as autism, Down Syndrome and vision impairments. This is sad, and naturally this leaves you frustrated and your child feeling left out.
But if that's the case, there are still many solutions out there.
By definition, music therapy is an interpersonal process in which a qualified therapist uses music and all of its facets - physical, emotional, mental, social, aesthetic, and spiritual - to help clients to improve or maintain their health. In some instances, the client's needs are addressed directly through music; in others they are addressed through the relationships that develop between the client and therapist.
Private piano lessons or software learning methods for example are not by definition music therapy, but the benefits ARE therapeutic. Therefore, we can consider this a form of personal music therapy. Either way, if your special needs child isn't showing positive effects by engaging in a music learning program, you may wish to contact a professional. The benefits derived from either choose can be life-changing and no child should be left behind!
Music Lights Up the Brain
The right hemisphere of the brain is activated when you hear melodies with a variety of pitch and timbre. It also “lights up” when people play music by ear.
The Left hemisphere of the brain “Lights Up” when you learn to read music, understand key signature and notation, and follow the sequence of notes. Significantly, the brain is activated in the same area that is involved in analytical and mathematical thinking. So you can simultaneously stimulate the right and left hemispheres of the brain by playing an instrument or by singing.
That's all pretty cool science, but how does this “lighting up” benefit our children?
The most compelling evidence supporting the clinical benefits of music therapy lies in these 10 examples.
We've all experienced bouts of bad behavior with our children – kicking, screaming, etc. Music is mood-enhancing, and children with disabilities often benefit greatly from upbeat, rhythmic music that they can sing or play an instrument with.
Music helps stimulate senses, focus attention, and redirect self-stimulating behaviors toward socially appropriate behavior. In addition, forms of music therapy show shown increased compliance by children.
2. The Calming Ability of Music
Anxiety is one of the biggest challenges facing individuals on the autism spectrum. When children with special needs listen to classical music, it provides a positive and relaxing experience. Remarkably, classical music can also reduce stress and ease frustrations. Furthermore, it can reduce muscle tension and slow down the heart rate. When these changes occur, the mind is more open to learning and also to communicating with others.
One study at the Baltimore St Agnes Health Care by Raymond Bahr, MD showed that when doctors played classical music for their heart patients, it had the same impact as a 10 mg dose of Valium!
The implications of this study for those with special needs are clear. When children with autism, cerebral palsy, ADD, ADHD, and mental retardation are able to relax and calm down, dramatic changes in their behavior become possible.
Music is tremendously helpful with stress-relief and anxiety reduction, and can be used with relaxation techniques.
3. Self Expression
Music promotes self-expression and emotional response. Children need opportunities for self-expression and creativeness. They require a “release” for their energies and inner thoughts. It is better that these necessary releases be obtained through music than other, often harmful, means. Possibilities for self-expression and creativeness through the playing of an instrument are endless.
4. Emotional Response
Playing instruments can stimulate senses and provide emotional fulfillment. It can also be used in a small structured group setting to build interpersonal relationships. For example, songs can be divided into separate parts that necessitate the participation of each individual to successfully bring the song to completion. Many children will feel more comfortable opening up about their feelings when they are exposed to music.
5. Social Interaction
A study by 2009 Kim, Wigram, & Gold found that children with autism showed more emotional expression and social engagement during music therapy sessions than in play sessions without music. These children also responded to the therapist’s requests more frequently during music therapy than in play sessions without music.
Individuals with autism show equal or superior abilities in pitch processing, labeling of emotions in music, and musical preference when compared to typically developing peers.
Additionally, a skilled therapist can use music with children to increase their social interaction and improve social skills. Passing and sharing instruments, music and movement games, gathering around a central instrument, learning to listen and singing of greetings are just a few of the ways music therapy sessions can increase interaction.
6. Communication and Language Skills
Music improves two-way communication: Music can help build social skills and encourage peer interaction and conversation.
Children who are musically trained are better at observing pitch changes in speech and have a better vocabulary and reading ability than children who did not receive music training.
Learning and mastering a musical instrument improves the way the brain breaks down and understands human language, making music students more apt to pick up a second language.
Music lessons may not only teach your kid how to carry a tune—they may also boost his or her I.Q. Children who study a musical instrument are more likely to excel in all of their studies, work better in teams, have enhanced critical thinking skills, stay in school, and pursue further education.
Many autistic children have already been shown to be highly intelligent, while other mentally challenged children struggle with low I.Q.
A study explored the impact of a music enrichment program on evaluative test scores in mentally retarded children. Twenty children were given the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test and evaluated for the Trainable Mentally Retarded (TMR) Performance Profile, both pretest and post-test. Between the two tests, 10 of the children were assigned to attend 36 forty-minute music sessions, 2 each week for 18 weeks. The other 10 children had little music involvement in the classroom, if any. The study revealed a significant increase in test scores for basic knowledge, communication, and social behavior in both groups.
Students of all ages—that includes adults— generally find that music helps them focus more clearly on the task at hand and puts them in a better mood for learning g. Music learning is a creative output. Children learn to memorize songs, or parts of songs in a manner that keeps the brain stimulated, and through repetition, thus improving memory skills.
A recent study by found that compared to age and IQ-matched typically developing children, participants with autism demonstrated elevated pitch discrimination ability as well as superior long-term memory for melody.
The children with autism spectrum disorders demonstrated elevated pitch discrimination ability in the single-tone and melodic context as well as superior long-term memory for melody. Pitch memory correlated positively with scores on measures of nonverbal fluid reasoning ability.
9. Self-confidence / Self-esteem
Children with special needs often run into difficulty with self-esteem when they begin to realize that they are different from their peers. Sometimes this comes in the form of bullying whereby the child is told he or she essentially does not belong to the group and is not wanted. Sometimes this comes from the child him or herself identifying how different he or she is, and the child starts to isolate him or herself from the group out of fear of not belonging. Both of these scenarios create the feeling of unworthiness and thus hinder self-esteem.
Music is a wonderful way to address the many needs of children because music is nonjudgmental. There is no right or wrong, it just is what it is. Listening to different types of music nurtures self-esteem and encourages creativity, self-confidence, and curiosity.
10 Motor Skills
Many children with special needs have challenges with their fine motor skills. Therefore, it is important to incorporate fine motor skills activities for special needs children in their daily routine. Playing an instrument helps teach a child muscle coordination, rhythm, cause and effect, and improves fine and gross motor skills.
In our golden years, we may not be able to jog around the park, but we can still sing or play an instrument. Music is a gift you can give your child that will not only help now, but will last a lifetime.Type your paragraph here.