Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Up, Up, and Away! Music Activities With a Parachute.

Small parachutes are a fun and unique way to complement music activities. Parachutes are common in P.E. classes, but I enjoy using them for my clients in the special education setting to target a variety of learning objectives. Unlike the huge one pictured here which can be used for large groups, I suggest using an 8' - 10' parachute in small group activities. Parachutes that are smaller than this do not catch as much air nor achieve the same effect of suspension in the air and subsequent slow, floating down.

When to use a parachute:

1. Gross motor movement.

-Children who are in wheelchairs benefit greatly from using a parachute because it is easy for them to participate with a group in a movement activity that does not require lower extremity motor skills. There are also many applications for students to practice grasping and raising their arms up in the air. (Make sure that the parachute has handles or loops attached to it to facilitate the activity.) I like the song, "Reach Up High," by the group Parachute Express for this activity.

-Children can participate in dancing with or without wheelchairs by taking turns running in and out from under the parachute and dancing underneath before it drops down. The students in wheelchairs can be pushed in and out or allowed to dance as the parachute goes up and down over the top of them. Popular music is the best choice for this activity. Currently, Hannah Montana and the Jonas Brothers are favorites in the classes I go to.

2. Academic/Social skill development.

-I like to use a very light blow up ball about 10" in diameter for these activities. (Nerf balls seem to be too heavy and bouncy.) Most of the parachutes come with different colored sections so take turns calling out colors on the parachute and see if you can move the ball to the requested color. There is a fun song by Aaron Carter called, "Bounce," that works well for this activity.

-Another option for using a ball is to see if the students can roll the ball on the parachute to one of their peers. This requires that they work together and also that they recognize their peers. Try this activity at the beginning of the school year when there are new students in the class.

3. Relaxation.

-The parachute provides refreshing bursts of air as it is thrown up high and floats back down. The key to successfully gaining this effect is that the group must stretch up high to place the parachute and then slowly allow it to return to the ground.

-Stretching and breathing are important components to relaxation. The motion of the parachute up and down are good physical cues to help students breathe in and out slowly in preparation for music assisted relaxation. One good song to use for this is Enya's song, "Watermark." This song repeats a series of up and down melodic lines that evoke the feeling of raising and lowering the parachute.

The Role of Music:

1. Lyric instruction. Songs that sing about reaching up or going "high" or "low" are perfect for the parachute activities. There are also songs that talk about fast and slow or moving left or right. Songs about colors such as Hap Palmer's, "All the Colors of the Rainbow," can be used as a way to discuss colors and to guide the bouncing ball around the parachute.

2. Setting the mood. Songs are a powerful way to set the mood for the activity. Relaxing music will evoke slow motions up and down, while fast music with a lively beat is good for trying to keep a ball bouncing on the parachute without letting it fall off.

3. Melodic cues. Music like Enya's, "Watermark," guides the participants in moving up and down like the melody. Other motions such as swaying or spinning may also be tied to the melodic line.

Jump in the fun -- and don't forget your parachute!

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Relax! How to Use Music and Relaxation to Help Your Students With Disabilities.

I have had the opportunity to lead several music assisted relaxation groups in public school special education classrooms. These groups have included a range of ages and types of disabilities including Down Syndrome, autism, mental retardation and Cerebral Palsy. One of the key points I like to emphasize with my clients and their instructors is that learning to relax can become a conditioned response. This means that relaxing can be practiced so that it is more effective and useful in the future.

Generally the clients that I work with in the special education classrooms do not have typical life stressors that would induce anxiety and require relaxation, but there are other reasons that relaxation can be an important tool for them and their teachers. I have found that many of the special education students are easily overwhelmed with environmental stimuli in their daily environment. Most teachers recognize this situation and have created quiet areas of their room that have been somewhat sectioned off and made comfortable for students to experience some quiet time without so much of the distractions of the classroom.

In other situations, students sometimes become agitated or emotionally upset without apparent cause. When this happens, it has been helpful to have a familiar music relaxation or music listening strategy already in place as part of the behavior intervention plan. In addition, the students may also benefit from social interaction, gross motor movement, stretching and opportunities to become peer models or leaders as they participate in small group relaxation activities.

I have used various music assisted relaxation activities with school-age students. There is not a specific protocol that must be followed, but rather some general suggestions and ideas to reference as you implement relaxation activities into your classroom:

1. Music choice - Music for relaxation should be chosen according to several criteria. The most important quality of the music is a slow tempo with a predictable underlying rhythmic pulse. I recommend a tempo of about 60 - 80 beats per minute. Music without lyrics is recommended, but there may be some singing if it does not distract too much attention from the experience. The melody should be pleasant and part of traditional music and not atonal or experimental. Try to use songs that do not have sudden changes in tempo, dynamics or unexpected starts or stops. The melody should also stay in the mid-range and not sound extremely low or high. There are some very good songs by Enya, Kevin Kern and Daniel Kobialka that I have used in my groups.

2. Facilitator - The person doing the relaxation facilitating, either a teacher or student, should use a calm, steady voice. Practice speaking slowly and clearly, pausing often to listen to the music. The music should be loud enough to mask unwanted environmental sounds, but not so loud that the facilitator has to speak any louder than he or she would in a normal conversation. The facilitator should sit in a chair and demonstrate the breathing or stretching movements.

3. Breathing - Breathing is the foundation for these relaxation groups. Start out the group with several deep cleansing breaths by breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth. Continue the relaxation by practicing some deep breathing in and out using slow eight or ten count intervals. Breathing can be verbally reinforced by describing the "revitalizing," "fresh," "relaxing," air going in and the "discomfort," "anxiety," and "stress," leaving the body. After a few minutes of breathing, the facilitator should encourage the group to get more comfortable in their chairs, close their eyes if desired, and breathe normally. Breathing should fall into a steady, relaxed rhythm.

4. Stretching - I encourage breathing and "stretching" as the main components of the relaxation sessions for these groups with students who have disabilities. Simple gross motor movements demonstrated by the facilitator provide "concrete" actions for the group to follow. I usually do shoulder rolls forward and backward, reaching for the ceiling and the floor and slowly tilting the head from side to side and forward as the basic movements. Other stretches can be done by reaching forward or sweeping the arms up and down as if doing very slow jumping jacks. Combine some breathing in and out on selected motions for added effect.

5. Imagery - For groups that do not have people with disabilities it is very effective to use some kind of imagery to facilitate the relaxation. Suggestions include imagining a warm light that slowly warms and relaxes each part of the body or being guided to a restful place in nature where comforting sounds and worry free relaxation can take place. Most of my clients in special education do not respond well to abstract imaginations and descriptions, but music that has environmental sounds or large pictures with client preferred settings may be possible applications after a relaxation routine is familiar and established.

The relaxation experience should begin and end with similar breathing and gross motor movements. Between these times the facilitator is free to try different stretches or breathing as they wish. This allows for leadership and choice-making opportunities for the students. Picture cards that illustrate the gross motor movements can be made so that students can make a choice between pictures and then present their choice to the group. The facilitator may also pass out supportive instruments such as an ocean drum to add to the atmosphere of the experience. An 6'-10' parachute shared by the group is a wonderful way to practice slow breathing and movements!

The relaxation session should last about 5-10 minutes depending on the attention span of the participants. If this group relaxation is practiced on a regular basis, you will notice that the students will tone down their activity simply in anticipation of the experience and even more when the music begins playing. Teachers will find that just by playing the music that they regularly use for relaxation they may be able to aid a student who is upset or agitated and help them regain some self-control. The relaxation protocol may also be helpful to use on days when an unplanned change of the school schedule has disrupted the regular routine and the students are unusually off-task.

There are many applications for the use of music assisted relaxation activity in relation to objectives in a student's Individual Education Plan. Following directions, making choices, gross motor movement, counting skills, focus of attention, gesturing and verbalizing are all specific objectives that can be tracked for progress during music facilitated group relaxation.

Now...take a deep breath....exhale.....

(For teachers after a long day, take a look at this article: Instructions For Self-Guided Relaxation

Friday, February 15, 2008

Bigger is Better! The Unique Powers of Drums, Guitars, Rainsticks and Other Large Musical Instruments In Therapy.

This week I made the observation that one of my clients responds more significantly to large instruments. He seems to prefer a large gathering drum, the guitar and a Q-chord placed in his lap. He is not the only client that enjoys these instruments, but it prompted me to detail the specific qualities that large instruments have that make them so powerful for some clients. Teachers and parents can benefit from understanding the qualities that make these instruments unique. Here are three ways large instruments can sometimes be so effective:

1. They are cool! Many large instruments are visually attractive. My large gathering drums and African drums have tropical patterns and colors that are appealing to children. The larger ocean drums come with colorful fish panoramas and provide focus of attention on the moving beads inside. There also seems to be something fun about getting to play the biggest instrument out of a group when given a choice.

2. Accessibility. Large instruments offer height and large playing surfaces that are often easier for children to approach. They do not require children to hold on to them in order to make a musical sound. This is especially true for children who do not have fine motor skills and have difficulty holding on to small shakers or handles. A large drum head, for example, is a perfect place for these children to play without worrying about hand strength and grasping. I also love that a Tubano drum is just the right height for younger children to stand next to and play. When they get older, the Tubano is easily played from a sitting position and can stand up straight on the floor - no tilting necessary! The Q-chord is the king of accessibility since it can sit on a tray table for wheelchair access or on a lap. The strum-plate on the Q-chord is also very easy to manipulate and does not require fine motor skill to activate.

3. Vibration. Large acoustic instruments provide much more in the way of sensory feedback. The gathering drum provides wonderfully low and rich vibrations. The drum can be placed on the floor or shared between two people on their laps so that the vibrations can permeate through the legs. The guitar is similar, but also provides the melodic elements so that the vibrations change with the high and low pitch. Many of my clients who are sensory defensive will reach out and strum the guitar as one of the few objects they seek out in their environment.

There are many other kinds of large instruments that can be effective during music activities when working with children who have disabilities. Pianos and keyboards are not as easily transported, but they offer all three aspects in that they are very unique, accessible and full of aural and tactile stimuli. I have also used large rain-sticks. For the best effect, try to find a rain-stick that sounds for as long as possible.

Sometimes it just makes sense to use a BIG instrument!

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Lessons About Music From a Spin Class

This certainly seems like a strange title, but my bike class has provided some very good examples about how music works! I signed up for a bicycle spin class last year and usually attend 2-3 times per week, so I have been able to experience 3-4 different class teachers. Each of the teachers has their own way of leading the class, including how they utilize the music to facilitate the ride. The three different methods illustrate how elements of music affect our behavior.

Lesson 1: One of the teachers uses music mainly for the beat. She usually chooses songs with a very strong and consistent bass beat that is easy to hear over the noise of the bikes. The music sets the pace by helping the riders pedal on the beat. The teacher has songs with different tempos depending on whether the ride is simulating going up a hill or staying on a flat road. Sometimes the songs do not work well because they are too fast or too slow, but the teacher is usually good about taking those songs out of the mix if they do not work out. As riders, we do not appreciate the songs with tempos that are difficult to keep up with or are so slow that you lose the momentum in pedaling. Music for the TEMPO and BEAT are key!

Lesson 2: A second teacher mainly uses music to set the mood. She is not asking for pedaling on the beat, but instead focuses on the riders setting their own cadences within certain parameters. The music is generally fast or slow depending on the type of riding she is encouraging, but the riders set their own pace using the resistance dial to determine the level of exertion. The music for these classes does not always have a strong beat, but is usually upbeat and lively. This teacher often describes outdoor imagery and encourages the riders to visualize riding a bike outdoors either in a race or for pleasure depending on the song. The music lyrics and style usually coincide with the imagery she is describing. Music for MOOD is king here!

Lesson 3: Another teacher often uses music with motivational lyrics. This teacher combines useful tempos with music that is encouraging through its style and words. The teacher often echoes the lyric lines to emphasize the song's message. Sometimes some of the riders chime in with the words if it is one of their preferred songs. LYRICS are a powerful way to use music effectively!

There have been some classes when I did not appreciate the selections and styles of music. These biking sessions did not feel like I had a good workout and I often found my mind wandering during the class. There are also some classes where I will not attend simply because I know the teachers do not play music that I enjoy or do not use the music effectively during the class. The music is so essential to helping the riders make it through the exercise regime. I often find myself thinking that I can do it if I can just make it to the end of the song!

A good selection of music also helps the riders begin biking at a moderate level and then slowly increase the intensity of the ride somewhere in the middle of the class time. The music can then be used to gradually slow down the class in tempo and intensity as the class comes to a close. Slower and quieter songs are helpful during the cool-down and stretching to help heart rates return to normal. This idea transfers very well to a regular setting when music may be helpful in facilitating relaxation or rest at the end of a long work day.

I think it is instructive to understand the elements of music and how they work in influencing our lives and behavior. When we understand how music makes sense in different situations, we can begin using it more effectively to enhance our own lives and the lives of others.

I'm off to spin!...

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