One of my first experiences using music therapy with kids was with an elementary class of children between the ages of 10 and 13. The primary diagnosis was Autism Spectrum Disorder, and the majority of the kids were nonverbal.
I was a little overwhelmed, as this was my first time working consistently with children with autism, and I wasn’t too sure about how effective I would be. One day I brought out a djembe (African drum) and mallet. I wanted to see if I could use the instruments to communicate with the kids. I went to each child individually, placed the drum in front of them, and handed them the mallet. Then I would mimic what they played on the drum on my guitar. If they play loud and fast, I played loud and fast. If they played short, jerky sounds, I did, too. We created musical conversations.
There was one boy in the class with whom I hadn’t been able to really connect in any way. He was 12 years old, nonverbal, and appeared to be uninterested in any music interventions that my co-therapist or I brought to class. When it was his turn to play, I sat down in front of him. He was turned half away from me. I set the drum in front of him just as I did with the other kids. I handed him the mallet and he immediately began hitting the drum in a fast, steady rhythm. He hit the drum 4 times and then paused. In that pause I imitated him on the guitar: four fast strums, matching his rhythm and volume.
As I was playing, a look of unbelieving comprehension dawned on his face and he looked sharply up at me. His eyes locked into mine, staring fiercely. I felt rather than heard him questioning, ‘Did you just hear me?’ The rest of the room melted away; we were the only two people in the space. He didn’t blink, but lifted his hand that held the mallet and, without blinking or looking away, he played the drum again, four more times; he was talking to me through the drums. Again, I imitated him. When I was done he set the mallet down and turned his head away. The force that was surrounding us disappeared and the rest of the class came back into focus.
I didn’t have another chance to work with this young man in the same capacity. I had hoped to work with him some more; see if we could connect again, but sadly that wasn’t to be. I was only scheduled to be at the school for a short amount of time.
But it was a very special moment for me. And it showed me in a new way how powerful music therapy can be.
And this is exactly the kind of experience that parents can and should be having at home with their own kids. There was no outstanding musical talent needed. I could have imitated this boy’s playing on a drum, if I didn’t know how to play the guitar. It doesn’t have to be hard, or intimidating. It can be simple, and fun. This is what The Music Initiative is all about. Learning how to create those interactions, and feeling, if only for a moment, the intense connection like the kind that I had with that young man, with your own loved one(s).
I will never forget how I felt in that moment…