Everyone knows about the personal benefits of music lessons, whether they are the scientific benefits or the less tangible "personal wholeness" benefits. From cognitive, social and developmental benefits to improvements in self-esteem, self-expression and cultural literacy-each parent or caregiver has a particular goal in mind behind the decision to enrol a child in music lessons.
Recognizing this, the Chilliwack Academy of Music strives to find programs suitable to everyone in the community, including those with special needs.
While many instructors have had the experience, challenge, and opportunity to teach such students, academy instructor Marlene Carr has been making this her particular specialty. By exemplifying "flexibility, an open heart, and not saying no to any situation," the German-born voice and piano teacher discovered something inside her that people with special needs respond to.
"They feel they are in a safe place, they trust me, they open up and they are willing to put their own effort in," Carr says.
Though it has not been easy, through creativity Carr has found a way around any obstacle. Here are a few of her success stories: When one girl would not sing in public, Carr formed a group around her that served as a back-up band and made her student the star. In another case, she would rope in passers-by in the hallways of the academy to listen to the student sing so the student could get used to performing in front of strangers. When a learning disorder prevented a student from remembering notes on the piano, Carr found that a simple sticker on one key allowed learning to progress.
These simple techniques are not very different from strategies music teachers may use for teaching any student. Carr agrees that there is a sense in which special needs are basically a magnification of the needs of typical people. As a result, the stakes are higher and the results are even more powerful. Steady progress, increased concentration and a newfound ability to express oneself are just some of the rewards for the student's efforts.
"They are incredibly proud of what they can do," Carr says. "More so than those who don't have special needs. It's very heart-warming for me."
Carr's successes are based on grass-roots experimentation, but her experiences are confirmed through scientific study.
"Music communicates emotion without the need for words, and it can create a feeling of companionship and camaraderie between folks making music together," explains Zoe Dennison, head of the University of the Fraser Valley psychology department.
When it comes to special needs, "use of music with children with autism is rapidly growing. Music can engage such children better than some other approaches." Though Dennison is quick to point out that music lessons are not always the same as music-making (the latter is the one whose benefits have been researched), as an academy music student herself she notes that the willingness of teachers to be moved and amazed by the abilities of their students is a defining characteristic of great music teaching.
"Experience building is more important than skill building," she says, regarding reaping the cognitive benefits extolled by advocates of music education.
"The more trust, the more the child learns. The better the teacher and child know each other, then that relationship grows and that's the best foundation for learning," Carr adds.
Marlene Carr teaches voice and piano as well as Kindermusik classes at the Chilliwack Academy of Music, and is accepting new students. She holds a master's degree in voice from the National University of Freiburg.
© Copyright 2013