Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Guest Post: The Magic of Singing

This one goes out to music educators, all my special needs peeps , and anyone who has ever loved a child. Sharing, with permission from the author, the editorial from the March issue of Choral Director, by Mike Lawson.

The Magic of Singing 

In early 1996, my daughter Kelly was just over two years old. She had met normal milestones for development, but they slowed down, exhibiting some tell-tale signs of autism, something I knew almost nothing about. Staring off in space, no longer en­gaging in play, stimming behaviors, but most worrying, she had simply stopped speaking. She cried, and she cried a lot. Bedtime were hours long ordeals figuring out how to get her settled in and start sleeping. Music, and only certain music, seemed to calm her, quiet her, and settle her from standing at the side of her crib and wailing, to sitting down, then lying down. But it lasted as long as the song. I played music for her on a CD player "boombox" that I put in her room. I had a rather extensive collection of music, so I tried everything I could think of. Lullabies were a no go. Pink Floyd worked a little, with their long, ethereal songs and dramatic dynamics. But still, her peace, and mine, were limited to the length of the piece.

One day, I put in a Koko Taylor CD, and the Queen of the Blues seemed to please her, but it was one song that instantly quieted her, sent her bouncing up and down in that crib-side-standing-toddler-bouncing-dance. The song was "Wang Dang Doodle;" a Willie Dixon song, that Koko made her own. Clocking in at just under five minutes, she would start screaming as soon as it ended. I noticed a button called "repeat" on the front of the player. I had never used it before, assuming it replayed the whole CD. To my delight, and Kelly's, it re-played "Wang Dang Doodle" over and over and over again. And so, our bedtime routine began. I put her in her crib, she cried, I hit play and repeat, and the soulful, jumping sounds of the Chicago blues stylings of Koko Taylor gave Kelly her rest. That song played "all night long," and when we would get her in the morning, it was still playing. It was that way for a year or so.

Still, Kelly wasn't talking. She was getting down, and boogying, and ultimately, sleeping, but she still wasn't speaking. I was happy with sleeping for the moment. Af­ter receiving a diagnosis of PDD-NOS (meaning pervasive developmental delay, not otherwise specified), Kelly began an early intervention program for toddlers. There she received occupational therapy, speech therapy, and the myriad of other interven­tions designed to mitigate the effects of autism on a young child. Her teacher, a big jovial man with a lot of experience, tried a song with her by Barbara Milne, a name I only recently learned, called "Letter Sounds" (aka, "The Apple Apple" song) from her album, "Sounds Like Fun." As though casting some kind of phonetic spell over Kelly, she responded to it the way she did to sleeping to "Wang Dang Doodle." She wanted to listen to it over and over, and within a month, she was singing it. After over a year of not uttering a word, she was singing. Soon, she was speaking simple sentences.

And now, at 25-years-old, she says things I often wish she would not. The magical gift of Koko Taylor's singing gave Kelly (and the rest of my family) the gift of sleep. The enchanting gift of Barbara Milne's music gave Kelly the gift of speech and singing. Kelly identifies as a singer. She entered multiple talent shows in high school and other places, wants to sing with me at home while I accompany her, or when my band rehearses in our home.

Koko surely had no idea when she recorded that song that this could happen. Autism was not on Barbara's radar when she recorded her album of songs for her own child. And somebody, perhaps one of your vocal students may make some of this magic themselves for another delayed child. In the day-to-day grind of leading a choral program, allow these anecdotes to inspire you on your most difficult days. We can't see our future, but we can imagine what magic could happen from the power of music and something one of your students may conjure up in the future.

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