Students at Perkins School for the Blind work with a dedicated team that supports them in a variety of ways. In this “What I do” blog post, music therapist Kiera Thompson discusses how playing drums and singing songs can help students – even those who don’t have hearing – improve their social, cognitive and motor skills. This story was compiled and edited by Karen Shih.
I see it daily – students expressing themselves through music in ways that they weren’t able to before. In music therapy, we use music to work toward non-musical goals. You may be playing the piano, but you aren’t learning how to read music or play an instrument in a specific way. Rather, you’re using music to strengthen social skills, communicative skills, cognitive skills, gross and fine motor skills and more.
When you’re involved in music making, and especially when actively singing, there are more neurons firing in your brain. You might see these moments where a student may just be sitting there, unengaged, and then all of a sudden it looks like a light’s turned on. Maybe they move their arm to the beat or use their voice in an expressive way. Students can participate in music therapy in these small ways, while simultaneously working towards larger gains and long-term success.
I realized I wanted to use music for healing purposes as my performance career was just beginning. I started playing the piano at age 4, studying the clarinet at age 8, picked up the guitar when I was 16, and have been singing my entire life. As a musician, I had tunnel vision – I was focused on performance. However, in preparation for the Geneva International Music Competition, I developed tendonitis in my right hand, and later changed course.
Three years ago, I began working in the Infant-Toddler Program as a student music therapist and mental health counselor. One of our many goals is to help our students socialize and communicate more. At that age, it may be something as simple as turning their head towards the music. Others might play a drum, sing along or learn to recognize friends and take turns. We want to foster an environment where they get to know each other and are comfortable in what to expect.
In the Deafblind Program, where I began in January, I also work with students one-on-one in music therapy. We focus on more individualized goals and often collaborate with Speech/Language, Physical and Occupational Therapy. People ask, “What are you doing over there? They can’t hear the music!” I always bring up vibration. Students who don’t have hearing may gravitate towards the drums or guitar because they can feel the vibrations through their hands and bodies.
After music therapy sessions, students are often more vocal and expressive. They may, for example, go from a scrunched up fetal position to where they’re sitting up straight for the first time the entire day. They’re then more likely to play and engage in activities and socialize with friends.
I’m proud of all my students. It might look like fun and games, but I’m asking them to work really hard.