Music-ed-ophilia

Thanks to a bevy of recent substitute jobs filled with planning periods, I was able to plow through Oliver Sacks’ Musicophilia in about a week. I plan on doing a more in-depth review of the book in the near future, but there were a few ideas that sprang to mind from reading the book that wouldn’t really fit nicely into any review.

The whole premise of Musicophilia is an exploration of the various ways that music can affect the brain. We cover tone deafness, perfect pitch, musical hallucinations, innate musical talent…the whole spectrum. But the meat of the book discusses how music can positively impact those with special needs—Parkinson’s patients, low-functioning autistic people, Alzheimer’s patients, Tourrette’s sufferers, et al. A great deal of his research could be applied toward improving the education system in our country.

Sacks is probably most famous for his work with patients at Beth Abraham Hospital in the 1960s. During this time, he worked with patients who had fallen victim to an outbreak of encephalitis lethargica in the 1920s. These patients were virtually unable to respond to any outside stimulus on their own as the disease had robbed them of both motion and speech. Sacks found that he could ‘awaken’ these patients by administering doses of L-Dopa, a discovery chronicled in the film Awakenings.

Research on these patients also showed that music was a stimulus that would create a response. In patients exhibiting Parkinsonism, music could help patients regain fluid movement for a time. Agitated patients could be calmed by music, and frozen patients could respond to the stimulus in some manner. In short, Dr. Sacks’ research showed that music could enact not only superficial changes in a person, but neurological changes as well, however brief.

How does this apply to our education system? Look at special education classrooms. I’ve taught in a few special ed classrooms this past year, and I always bring something musical with me, be it my iPod or my trombone. In my limited observations, the music I’ve shared with these kids has had a positive effect in the classroom, and the research in Dr. Sacks’ book would no doubt back this up.

I distinctly remember a two-day assignment in an emotionally impaired (EI) classroom. After I introduced myself to the kids, I told them that I was a music teacher. One of the students lit up and ran over to one of the computers in the room and fired up GarageBand, eager to show me some of the music he had created. Music was something that helped him focus and improved his social interactions as well.

Over the course of the two days, I also learned that this young man was a talented percussionist. Whenever it looked like he was starting to get agitated, he asked if he could pull out his drum and play for a few minutes. Again, it definitely helped him with focus and social skills.

At the end of my assignment, this particular student had a rough day in one of his “regular” classes, and came back to the EI room in full meltdown mode. We gave him a fairly wide berth, but also decided to put on some music in the background to see if it would help calm things down. It did; not immediately, but quicker than normal according to the aides.

That little anecdote is just my roundabout way of suggesting a change in the structure of our special ed programs. Would it be that far-fetched to make music therapy a regular part of special ed classes? Think of the impact that one or two 30-minute sessions each week could have on special needs students at any given school. A district hiring a music therapist to rotate between a few buildings each week is not that radical of an idea, and if money is an issue, there would be grants available.

There’s plenty of research available that shows the positive effects that such a move could have on special needs students. Music has the power to calm, to focus and to stimulate. It can positively affect students in the same classroom, who have different needs, at the same time. Is there anything else in our teaching arsenal that can offer this without some serious differentiation? Just a thought, but this seems like it would be a very worthwhile experiment.

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