Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Music Brought My Children Back to Me

When a parent has a child with a disability, communication is a wall that is often difficult to overcome. For over 15 years, Karen Kowalski, an instructor at Rutgers University's Occupational Therapy Assistant Program and a classical pianist, has been teaching children with a variety of disabilities — autism, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome — to play the piano.

And she saw something miraculous: Her students began to improve their verbal and motor skills and progress in other areas of their lives. Suddenly, they could connect with the world in ways they hadn't been able to before.

I had a chance to interview her to learn more.

When did you first notice the power of music?

I have been involved in music since I began taking piano lessons at age four so I have always been intimately involved in understanding the positive effects of listening as well as creating music but that pertained more to the typical population of individuals.

I first began to notice the positive effect of music on physical, emotional, spiritual and intellectual domains when I was in school studying to become an occupational therapist.  I received a phone call at Somerville School of Music, where I was and continue to teach piano, asking if I would be able to teach piano to a teenager with attention deficit disorder, developmental delays and tourette’s syndrome.  This girl and her family were told by the high school music teacher that taking piano lessons would be a “waste of time and money since she will never be able to learn music.” Through my experience teaching this girl for ten years, I learned about how music can provide an outlet for limitations in communication, reduced ability to socialize with peers and reduction in engagement within leisure time activities. I learned that people of all levels and abilities might have strong intrinsic motivation to study and perform music.  The most important quality that an individual requires is that intrinsic level of motivation which can lead the person to overcome obstacles in communication, socialization as well as physical abilities.

The story of the Brown siblings is amazing - have you noticed success with other children with disabilities?
Absolutely!  The most important component for any individual (typical or atypically developing) to succeed within creative arts in my observation is intrinsic motivation to excel in that area. Individuals are usually able to adapt to physical, intellectual, social or emotional circumstances that they may have either by themselves or with the support of friends, family or instructors if they have this intrinsic motivation. Conversely, I have found that typically developing piano students for example who are encouraged to study music by their family members but do not have intrinsic motivation to learn and excel do not demonstrate satisfying effects of music as those with typical OR atypical development who DO have this want and desire to study music.

Considering that information, I have certainly had success with many other individuals (children and adults) who have had the following conditions: Down Syndrome, cerebral palsy, attention deficit disorder, muscular dystrophy, unilateral amputation. It is important to note that the word “success” is relative to the goals of the actual individual.  Justin and Serena’s success is a success in the typical manner as Justin is now studying piano performance at Westminster Choir College and performing on a regular basis.  Serena continues to excel in piano performance at school and within the community.  There are some students who will not excel in these traditional areas, however, may be able to feel successful by playing piano at home to entertain family, friends and self but may need more adaptation of music.  For example, I have an adult student who has Down Syndrome who is only able to read a few notes on the musical staff so I need to write in the notes for this student. This student will probably not be able to read music as efficiently as Justin and Serena, however is able to play music as a form of personal leisure time activity and thoroughly enjoys engaging in musical activities within lessons and in the community. Within the community, she and I have played duets for church reflections.  These pieces of music are very basic, but still a powerful method for this student to develop self-esteem.

How can parents harness the potential positive effects of music?
Parents, family and friends are very important in order to support the student in whatever creative arts expression that he/she would like to pursue.  Again, this is true for typical and atypically developing individuals.  I can remember when I was early in my musical study period as a child, my parents and grandmother would sit and actively listen to me play piano. They also requested that I play for visitors for dinner parties and other social events they may have at our house.

The Brown family is a model example of this.  They surround Justin and Serena with continual emotional support through active listening to their music and feedback (even though both are not musicians themselves) and also through physical support by coordinating the connection between their music and the community for example, playing at their local church or encouraging the younger child to let the music teacher at school know about their musical studies and possibly play for the music class or other events within the school. Not only have the student practice music but immerse them in music by listening to music within the home and also providing opportunities to observe music performance within the community. 

Karen Z. Kowalski, MPH, OTR
Academic Fieldwork Coordinator/Instructor
Department of Psychiatric Rehabilitation and Counseling Professions
Occupational Therapy Assistant Program 
School of Health Related Professions
Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey
1776 Raritan Road
Scotch Plains, NJ 07076
Phone: 908.889.2525
Fax: 908.889.2701

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