by Ritu Gopal
Part One: On being a music therapist for children with autism
Ritu Gopal worked at a music therapy centre for children with autism after graduating with a Master of Arts in Development from Azim Premji University in 2014. Having spent close to a year in this eclectic setting, which she describes as a perspective-broadening period, she talks about the possibilities of using music beyond the prescriptive therapeutic lens to make existing educational initiatives more open to the larger transformative potential of music and the arts.
How I began teaching violin
My experiences as an educator began as a violin teacher in 2009. I began teaching at the age of 17 in Hyderabad, a decision that was inspired by several factors. To provide a short personal background, my formal education in music began through Western Classical violin and Hindustani vocal music at the age of 7. In addition to many music tutors, my sister played a major role in encouraging me to play duets, Beethoven sonatas, Bach partitas, reading up on music theory and history, while attending every possible concert in the city. I also grew up on Pink Floyd, Carnatic Chills, Mozart, jazz and Indian radio stations. In 2004, at the age of 12, I received a Grade 8 certification in violin, but at the same time missed out on accessing advanced violin lessons in my hometown. From my early to mid-teen years, I spent a lot of time trying to teach myself with resources that were locally available and through participation in music ensembles. A desire to absorb more knowledge and go beyond the limitations of my context took me on a journey to Mumbai where I studied with a well-known and incredibly inspirational teacher who, in addition to shaping my technique and musicality, inspired me to teach. This, she believed, would give me intellectual and financial support towards the long-term goal of being a performer-educator where my personal artistic expression could build on wider community goals.
In 2011, I joined the India National Youth Orchestra and Chorus. I was also an active member of the National Service Scheme (NSS) and was particularly moved during a rural camp near Hyderabad. I took up an M.A. in Development Studies and before I knew it, found myself in an eclectic setting called ‘music therapy’ at a centre for children with autism.
Entering a music therapy setting
Sampoorna Music Therapy Centre for children on the autism spectrum was a one-of-a-kind initiative in Bangalore, India, and project of the non-governmental organisation Kilikili, which creates public parks for children with disabilities. It was started in 2013 by parents who saw that their child, diagnosed with autism, had a distinct affinity towards Carnatic music. Sampoorna was unique in how much it differed from most other initiatives for children with disabilities since it viewed music as a transformative path to communication and self-expression. Music therapy was part of the larger educational programme that each family had designed for their children, and was used to develop speech, behaviour, social interaction skills, and nurture an interest in music. In addition to Sampoorna, the children also attended speech and occupation therapies, and alternative or mainstream schools. The music therapy model challenged the largely prescriptive outlook of most other set-ups in India, and was known for celebrating diversity and accepting neurodiversity for children in the age bracket of 4-15 years.
What began as inviting children to listen to live Carnatic music and sing along soon turned into a place for formal intervention through music. Sampoorna directly impacted over fifty children and their families. Eclectic and sensitive, the organisation embraced all forms of music and believed in the inclusion of people of all abilities through participatory practices, thereby creating a unique model for the application of musical techniques and forms. The centre was professionally motivated by music therapist and concert pianist Dorita Berger’s work Music Therapy, Sensory Integration and the Autistic Child, and the Nordoff-Robbins approach of ‘artistic creativity’, ‘aesthetic sensitivity’ and ‘scientific thoroughness’ developed by Dr. Paul Nordoff and Dr. Clive Robbins.
This organisation was a lot of firsts for me. I had no prior practical or theoretical background on music therapy or autism. However, I did have an orientation towards discourses of disability and inclusion through earlier university coursework, and an eagerness to be acquainted with intricacies of the field due to personal experiences through family stories and social work. After a short training workshop and a motivating dialogue with the founders, I began working with seven children on the autism spectrum, and as the word spectrum suggests, every child had to be met with an individualised approach that addressed their likes and interests. It was my first time at an NGO, my first full-time job, but the most challenging first was learning to communicate effectively, often without words, and being willing to learn experientially. In 2015, when I had joined this space, there were no Indian-based courses to qualify as a music therapist aside from a few short-term programmes. My initiation was through a two-day workshop upon a professor’s recommendation in the final semester of my master’s degree. The workshop was by Aurelio from Svaram: Musical Instruments and Research, Auroville, Tamil Nadu, the emphasis being on awareness and compassion. The elegance of the workshop lay in the manner of conveying an understanding of autism and music therapy through activities using musical objects. It comprised of sharing what music means to each of us, engaging in various vocal and instrumental exploration activities that unearthed musical tones, and being in a space of awareness. We explored sound in its most raw form and experimented with communication beyond speech. A few weeks after, I was invited to perform an evening of instrumental music for the inaugural monthly concert of Dhwani, a concert series for children with special needs and their families to listen to live music and thus began a year-long journey. There is a different beauty to entering a profession without pre-conceived expectations of how your days are going to unfurl, and what your role is going to entail when you do not have a formal qualification in the area. Apart from reading extensively after my first few sessions with the children, I observed my senior colleagues and interacted with parents of children attending the sessions. I also reflected upon my musical upbringing and became aware of aspects from how I was taught. This helped be become reflexive and receptive as an educator.
Sound blips to full sentences: Of experiments, techniques and breakthroughs
In music instruction, the child learns to sing, to play an instrument or to write a piece of music, while absorbing art and developing musical interests in a specific genre. Music therapy is different since the goal is to break barriers to self-expression and communication. This centre aimed to address cognitive, social, emotional, fine and gross motor skills along with the overarching goal of providing each child with a safe and sensitive space for self-expression. Music backgrounds as therapists included Carnatic, Hindustani and Western music, all of which the children were exposed to for the organic identification of their specific interests. The role of the therapist was to give space for the child to describe individuality verbally or non-verbally, and to understand the family’s expectations that were largely dictated by socio-cultural and educational contexts. After a few weeks or months, it would become easier for the therapist to identify collaboratively what it was that the child best responded to. Some children took to rhythm, some to melody, and some to trying out the many instruments in the music room.
When I stepped into the music therapy room, it did not matter that I had played the violin for nearly two decades. I had to adapt and improvise, because it was not my musical ability around which the session revolved but that of the child. It was about channeling an inner creativity to develop a connection with the child, and that was the fundamental philosophy of the space. I used my voice, songs, room walls, the floor, various surfaces, percussion, the keyboard and eye contact among some other techniques to capture the attention of the child. One of the greatest initial hurdles in working with a child with autism is to make and elicit eye contact.
The process was captivating, challenging, and changed every moment till I identified patterns in my strategy of working with children, and in those of my colleagues. The centre blended structured activity with spur-of-the-moment innovation in the 45-minute long individual and group sessions. These were aimed at five broad goals: ‘connectedness’ (a bond formed between the child and therapist in the educational setting); ‘communication’; ‘breaking behavioural patterns’; ‘social skills’; and ‘developing musicality: musical instruction & music as self-expression’. We used our singing voices, speech sounds, visual cards, percussion instruments like the djembe and ocean drum, a deep vibration gong, xylophones, metallophones, and several other hand-crafted musical instruments made my a small community in Pondicherry. Genre was never a barrier, and all forms of Indian and Western music with plenty of indescribable musical sounds pervaded the sessions and made it exciting each time to hear a child’s response to it. The children would begin to make musical sounds at the entrance of the centre and were very responsive when a therapist responded with the same time, maybe a note added, and that is how the bond was musically taken forward.
Observations over time revealed positive behavioural changes, reduced anxiety and increased calmness. Children were also able to better articulate their needs and those who were non-verbal began to vocalise through simple sounds, words and short phrases. It was in these everyday, sudden and unpredictable moments that we as therapists would see that we had made breakthroughs, little ones that went a long way in a child’s learning curve. What would start as an almost inaudible humming sound during a session would soon turn into singing. These were often interspersed with movement, games and dance. Vocalisation was specifically enabled through the technique of fill-ins in songs that children were acquainted with. For example, the child would over time, complete songs and musical sentences, showing through action that they were indeed receptive to music and needed their time and space to respond. Within the paradigm of Indian music, the therapist would select a pentatonic or five-note scale, singing an unfamiliar musical phrase repetitively and rhythmically in a crescendo. Based on the child’s response, the therapist would attempt a decrescendo, slowing down the tempo, and singing the phrase in an arrhythmic pattern. Breaking a usual musical pattern was hence another technique to earn a response from an otherwise differently communicating child. An 11-year-old girl attending music therapy sessions for a duration of one and a half years, having joined at the age of 10 years, made her own words to a well known children’s song, using the names of family and friends in the lyrics. This is not only musically exciting for her, but also an accurate representation of her comprehension of the people in her life, her relationship with them, and her happiness of putting those lyrics to music. The music enabled children to relate to their immediate environment and a lot of parents would take back these seemingly simple techniques back home and use them in the daily routine.
Extending music therapy to regular settings
In spite of barriers in sustaining its growth as an expressive arts therapy initiative, the work of the centre leaves plenty for structured educational analysis towards building more such emancipatory and inclusive learning avenues in the country. Some of the many challenges faced by art-based initiatives stem from a lack of funding for small scale, novel spaces whose experimental work in creative arts therapy actually holds the potential to be scaled up with time. The financial aspect aside, the current design of examination-oriented music education, in both Indian and Western traditions, excludes children across socio-economic and cultural backgrounds. Increasingly though, various schools are adapting to the needs of their students in the attempt to break barriers. There is tremendous scope to include more student voices to play a role in how they feel music is impacting their lives, which would in turn inform pedagogy, syllabi and curriculum. Social outreach to ensure that performances and workshops reach smaller schools and initiatives can democratize the availability of quality teaching and mentorship in the arts.
A question that I have been grappling with is of why we often associate children with disabilities only to music therapy, when it is in fact possible to include them in music education and performance, outside of charity-oriented models of disability. Art forms are fluid and by nature show scope for improvisation and thematic variation. The possibilities of extending musical exposure to music education at large, be it through vocal/instrumental instruction, public performance or composition, show that by offering a wider range for an individual to choose form, art becomes more accessible and in the manner desired by that person. It helps an individual better relate to the art form and makes art less of a one-way teacher-learner transaction. It helps the student be the decider in what they would like their learning outcomes to be. It gives voice from an independent perspective and acknowledges the decision-making rights of a student. Essentially, this piece advocates for – providing infrastructural and pedagogic access through curriculum design for people irrespective of disabilities; observing how changing the standard format of a music lesson according to individual student interests and abilities can lead to discoveries that inform the future of music education practice. Music is multi-sensory, stimulating, and all-pervasive, and the possibilities of truly allowing these qualities to unfurl can make for a very exciting setting.
In part two, I will be discussing how music therapy and education can together work in making learning opportunities accessible.Sampoorna on YouTube
Part 2 and 3 of the series will be published shortly. It discusses stories from the music therapy centre, with insights on making regular music classrooms inclusive, genre no barrier.