Monday, December 1, 2008

Blindness, Rex and Music Make Sense

This is an incredible story with many angles to explore about how music makes sense! This is one of the longer videos highlighting Rex's savant capabilities, but I like this particular clip because it gives a sense of where Rex started leading up to his current pursuits. There are shorter videos on youtube if you can't watch this one.

As a music therapist, I am generally trying to help people achieve non-musical goals through the use of specially designed music activities. Rex and the people around him have also been using this method, just without the music therapy label. I noticed several examples as I was watching his story:

1. Will music activities help Rex transfer some of his amazing fine motor skills to non-music tasks and settings? Rex has incredible dexterity in his fingers to play the piano like he does, but he still has difficulty strapping on Velcro shoes. He was also shown having trouble identifying basic shapes. I did not see his teachers trying to use music to help him learn shapes or strap on some shoes, but I think there is potential for his motor skill dexterity on the piano to be transferred to other tasks. This would be a good goal for music as therapy.

2. Will music help Rex to learn emotion? Rex's teacher was astute in realizing that like many savants, Rex can technically imitate, but he leaves out nuances in style, dynamics and tempo that help to convey emotion. I think his teacher is doing a great thing helping Rex to learn how to convey emotion musically; and hopefully Rex will transfer his learning to new pieces of music as he learns them.

3. Music is helping Rex with socialization. Autism is often characterized by a lack of awareness or inept handling of social protocols. In Rex's case, his participation in duets and group music ensembles is providing the perfect setting for learning how to interact with peers musically as well as socially. In the group music settings, he is practicing turn-taking skills, harmonizing, call and response patterns, aural balance and all kinds of other musical attributes that make for a successful ensemble. All of these skills can be transferred to social interaction in a non-musical setting. The contact with peers provides Rex with the opportunity to build friendships and carry on multi-part conversations.

4. Music helps Rex to overcome sensory defensiveness. The video mentioned that Rex has a history of tactile defensiveness for certain textures or objects. His interest in the piano has reportedly helped him overcome his aversion to touching certain things. I have found that many children with autism or visual impairments will often touch musical instruments despite their tactile defensiveness. The key is to find an instrument that the student likes and encourage exploration and music-making with that instrument. I like to use the guitar, an African shekere, the ocean drum, cabasa and piano as instruments to help push past the sensory defensiveness.

Read more about Rex:

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