Do you have a favourite song? One that takes you back to a favourite place, or evokes a strong feeling? Maybe when studying, you made up a song to remember key information. There are many children’s songs to help us learn colours of the rainbow, days of the week, and other things we need to know for daily life.
There is a reason music can bring out such a strong response in us – listening to music activates wide networks in our brain, including areas responsible for motor actions, emotions and creativity. Studies have found that music lights up our whole brain!
What is Music Therapy?
Many children who have visual impairments, including CVI, respond well to music. Using musical experiences, a music therapist can assist children in reaching goals including communication, social, motor, cognitive, coping, and academic skills. Working alongside other therapists, music therapists can be key in providing a positive learning environment (Faby, 2016).
CVI Scotland published a fantastic case study on music therapy, particularly in relation to physical exercises and communication tasks, which you can read here.
Luka’s musical story – a Mum’s perspective
From a very young age, I realised Luka responded hugely to music. We relaxed to music, meditated, danced, and many of our firsts (including first steps) were closely linked to particular songs we had made up.
To harness this passion, we began music therapy with Luka late last year. Already a star performer in at our local Mini Maestros class, we decided a one-on-one therapy session would help Luka reach his goals in a fun way.
Sarah, our music therapist, begins our music class each week with a welcome song on guitar, followed by fine motor activities (playing instruments, and placing castanet frogs into a drum pond), as well as singing songs to encourage a range of sounds and taking turns.
Initially a little shy, Luka has recently begun to find his voice. He is confident in exploring how instruments work, anticipating timing to bang on the drum, and humming many tunes that we can recognise.
By far the biggest achievement to date through Luka’s music therapy has been achieving his first word in context. We encouraged Luka to practice saying “more” when he wanted more music, rather than his initial response, which was to cry. After weeks of practice, Luka has learnt to ask for “more” music, food and toys, with increasing consistency. Interestingly, he first mastered this outside his music class, which I’m told is quite common, as children spend time concentrating during the session, and are then comfortable to keep practicing in their own time.
Rather than speaking, Luka always sings the word “more”. I’ve heard of other children with CVI who first learnt to communicate by singing their thoughts, only later learning to speak. If so, I look forward to living the next few years in my very own musical as Luka begins to learn (and sing) new words!
A Music Therapist’s Perspective
Music has many positive aspects that puts a music therapist in a rather fortunate position. It’s enjoyable, motivating and familiar, which makes music therapy an ideal context for challenging kids because they feel safe and they’re having fun, often not realising just how hard they’re actually working!
Despite being curious and clearly drawn to the music, Luka was initially apprehensive of the new instruments and sounds I brought into his space. It was a new wave of sensory exposure and he seemed unsure how to respond. Luka would use crying as a way to communicate (i.e. to indicate he wanted me to sing a favourite song) but by pausing the music each time Luka began to grizzle, he quickly learned that when he was calm and engaged, something good would happen…the music would continue.
This then enabled him to maintain focus for longer periods and become more interactive in shared music making. The music wasn’t just happening around Luka, he was an important part of the experience. He has explored many instruments (castanets, bells, maracas etc.), exercising his fine motor skills, but it quickly became clear that Luka’s favourite was the big drum! By engaging Luka in a short drumming activity, he became highly motivated to have it repeated.
Initially he would gesture or tap the drum to indicate he wanted me to do it again. By prompting for the word ‘more’ and providing positive reinforcement each time he made an attempt (i.e. vocalising or pressing his lips together), Luka was eventually able to clearly & verbally request ‘more.’ He worked really hard for this and the reward was high because not only was he then able to communicate his desire for ‘more’ across a variety of contexts, he also received lots of praise from everyone close to him.
Luka is now really starting to find his voice and it’s wonderful to observe. By leaving space at the end of musical phrases (i.e. Twinkle, Twinkle, Little ______ ) and providing Luka with lots of opportunities to use his voice, explore his own sounds and hear them repeated back to him, he is becoming increasingly more self-aware and confident. Music is one place where a vision impairment will not hold you back and Luka is a great example of this.
I can't underestimate how much music therapy has given to Luka already, in such a short time. Seeing Luka's joy in learning, ability to communicate and participate, and his pride in mastering a new skill through music is beautiful to watch.
Like most children with additional needs, Luka has many therapists and other medical appointments and activities, so it is understandable that for children with CVI, music therapy is not always one of the most common therapies received (Faby, 2016).
For us, music therapy is a fantastic way to work across all of Luka’s goals while having fun. We look forward to each session and we hope to see more developments over time, which we will continue to share with you through our blog.
Thank you to Sarah Punch who generously contributed and allowed me to share Luka's musical story so far.