I have the privilege of supervising music therapy students from two local colleges as they accrue fieldwork hours. It is such a rewarding thing to help develop the skills needed to be a music therapist, and it always reignites my own personal love for my work! One Student Music Therapist (SMT) who worked with me developed a very special relationship with one of my clients in particular. Their personalities and senses of humor lined up so closely, and there was always giggling to be heard in the music therapy room when these two were together in a session.
This particular client is 8 years old with a diagnosis of autism and is incredibly musically inclined. He loves instruments, singing, and listening to music. He remembers melodies, keys, and rhythms with ease, and once I started playing my greeting song in a different key than normal and he noticed! He said, “Ms. Katy, that’s not right, it’s supposed to sound like this…” and started singing the song in a higher key. He has such an impressive innate musical intuition. My SMT at the time caught on to this, and began creating music therapy interventions that not only focused on the client’s non-musical goals, but also worked to develop this client’s musical skills.
Some primary goals (non-musical) for this client include impulse control, attention span, sequencing, social skills, and body/spatial awareness. My SMT decided to craft his original interventions around these goals while also teaching the concept of dynamics, which is the scale of volume a musician uses to play or sing. First, he taught this client the terms associated with the different dynamic levels – from softest to loudest, pianissimo, piano, mezzo piano, mezzo forte, forte, and fortissimo. The SMT then applied the knowledge of the dynamics terms to a sequencing game we frequently play on the piano; I or my SMT will play a simple note pattern on the piano and then prompt the client to repeat it back as identically as possible, imitating not only the notes but also the speed (tempo) and volume (dynamics). After a few of these patterns, we would engage in a client-led improvisation. The client would state whether the “song” would be fast or slow, loud or soft, “crazy or calm”. The client played toward the middle of the keyboard while my SMT and I bookended on the higher and lower ranges. This really helped to solidify what each dynamic level sounded like for this client.
To work on the client’s body/spatial awareness at its simplest form, I have been playing variations of “Head, Shoulders, Knees & Toes” with this client for months. We sing the original first, then rewrite the lyrics with different body parts to make it more challenging (my clients gets SUPER creative with this!). Similar to this game, my SMT created a new game to continue teaching dynamics. He paired both an instrument and a body position to each dynamic level:
Rubbing hands/palms together
Squat down, hands as close to the floor as possible
Squat down, shake chime ball close to feet/ankles
Shake at hip level
Small hand drum
Tap drum at belly level
Pair of egg shakers
Shake eggs at chest level
Pair of hand clappers
Clap hand clappers as high above the head as possible
The combination of where in relation to the body the client played each instrument and the natural volume of the instrument itself was effective in teaching the levels of dynamics! By the end of the SMT’s time at Valotta Music Therapy, this client had become so comfortable and confident in identifying and playing the dynamic levels, even using the official Italian terms! We were so impressed that we made the client a certificate to honor the accomplishment, calling it the SMT’s “School of Dynamics”.
Following all of this success with learning dynamics, our adaptive music lesson teacher, Ms. Emily has started teaching this client piano lessons! It’s so exciting for me to see my clients grow and learn, both new musical skills and their non-musical goals! I am one proud music therapist. Read below to hear an update from Emily about this client’s progress on the piano (for confidentiality, we will call this client Joe):
“’Joe’ has been having so much fun during his piano lessons. He loves Michael Jackson, and plays piano along to his favorite songs. Sometimes we play piano together, other times I play guitar while he plays piano. He creates his own music too and we improvise together. ‘Joe’ loves having a quick dance break to learn some Michael Jackson moves! Last week we tried the moonwalk. We are excited to play some more together!”