Learning in harmony

Music therapy at Perkins teaches life lessons through song.

On a Zoom splitscreen, a man plays guitar, another claps and a young girl smiles.

“Where words leave off, music begins.” This quote from German poet Heinrich Heine is personified at Perkins, where students learn by banging drums, strumming guitars, and belting out their favorite songs. Here, they build skills and confidence through the universal language of melody, harmony, and rhythm.

Perkins employs four board-certified music therapists within the Early Learning Center, Lower School and Secondary Programs: Michael Bertolami, Jill Buchanan, Lisa Martino, and Justin Nickell. They visit with students up to three times per week.

Students hone crucial skills during their sessions, says Buchanan. For example, a ball-passing game set to music teaches concepts such as sharing and social awareness. Standing at a piano or guitar, pressing keys or strumming strings, builds finger strength, so helpful in Braille. Grasping a drum mallet can help when holding utensils. Dancing to a favorite song, then stopping when it stops, refines impulse control.

Music adds a meaningful dimension to those important lessons, which can be abstract.

“It engages more of the brain,” says Buchanan, as students receive information verbally, aurally, and through touch.

Activities are tailored to needs and age ranges, but one thing is constant: All music is shared live—each therapist plays multiple instruments—as opposed to on recordings. This allows therapists to change tempo, volume, and instruments to customize the experience based on a student’s mood. In this safe space, Buchanan says, students feel confident enough to contribute. Therapists consider music a great equalizer. What might be hard to express in conversation becomes easier in the rhythmic give and take of music.

“Our sessions provide a less threatening time to use language. You may have an issue with a child in your class, but then you come into a music session for a drum circle and an instrument jam. In those activities, it’s a dialogue, a musical conversation that you learn to integrate yourself into. Just as you can’t walk into a room and just start talking, you can’t just start playing over everyone, either,” she explains. Students learn to negotiate, contribute, and share.

Speaking of give and take, COVID-19 has required students and music therapists to be flexible as they connect virtually. Happily, they’ve succeeded. Music therapists now collaborate on songs using the GarageBand digital studio application, which they share with kids at home. The recordings, up-tempo and catchy, highlight sensory experiences and moods. Tunes like “My Happy Song” and “It’s OK to Feel Sad” make emotions accessible and showcase familiar voices and harmonies; a photo slideshow of therapists helps kids who have some vision recognize who’s singing.

Meanwhile, every Monday, the Perkins community unites to “wakeup the week with music,” the time when kids kick off the week by dancing and shouting-out to friends. A silver lining: Buchanan says that the virtual concerts have helped to draw out shy students from the comfort of home.

“Hopefully, they’ll remember the safe experience and be able to translate it and share their voices in our schoolhouse,” she says.

Of course, there’s no substitute for in-person learning. Buchanan recalls children who couldn’t bear weight on their feet, so motivated by the sound of a piano that they stood for 30 minutes just to play alongside her.

“They wanted to push the keys so badly,” she says. “It’s heartwarming. Outside the music room, it felt like too much work. Inside the music room, it wasn’t work at all.”

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