The following post is another installment in our Dash of Dad special needs parenting series by Bob Williams, father of three children including Kyle, a special needs teenager. When he’s not parenting his three kids, you can find him creating sweet treats at the Dillsboro Chocolate Factory in North Carolina.
Music. Music is the sound of the soul and human spirit put to math and rhythm. I would say it is uniquely human, but every animal that can sing does. Frogs, crickets, and birds all come together in nature’s symphony of wonderful sounds and songs, with birds being perhaps the choir of sky and trees. I love music, and it has been an integral part of my life during my grand times and low times.
Back in 1976, my dad came home one day with a brand new Ford LTD station wagon. It was metallic blue and clear coat finished the long body of metal and glass. Inside, it had comfy velour cloth seats. Gone were the pleather seats, you know–fancy vinyl, of the AMC Ambassador wagon that our legs would stick to in the Florida heat.
My dad took that bad boy wagon down to Sears at the nearly new Altamonte Mall and had the auto center install the future of car audio, a Jensen 8 Track tape deck with Jensen 6 x 9 coaxial speakers, in the rear sides in the way back seat of the wagon.
That car took on us a nearly 3 week adventure from Florida to Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island and parts in between. It was 1976, and we made stops in Philly and took in places like Valley Forge and Independence Hall and took in an air show at the Willow Grove Naval Air Station. This was I think the first or second year the Blue Angels started flying the A-4 Skyhawk because of the recent energy crunch. They were flying the massive gas hog F-4 Phantom, but I digress.
Anyway, we had five, count them, five 8 track tapes with us for this summertime adventure. The tapes were Neil Diamond’s 12 Greatest Hits, Queen’s Night at the Opera, Gary Wright’s Dream Weaver, The Sweet’s Ballroom Blitz, and John Denver’s record with Rocky Mountain High and Calypso.
I have three of the five on my iPod, and every time one of those songs pops up, the memories of that trip and growing up come flooding back to me. Memories of my five other brothers and sisters and my parents, especially my recently departed mother.
That is the power of song which can take us in a second from the here and now back to 1976. One of my few regrets has been never taking the time to master playing music. My kids play, and it is a joy to hear them. I just never have taken the time to learn.
When we started having kids, I made sure I exposed them to music from infancy. When Kyle was born and after the brain damage, we were not even sure Kyle could hear. Meningitis often causes lasting hearing loss to deafness in kids who get it. None the less, I had a CD player in his nursery. We would play music, and he would fall asleep to Mozart every night.
See, I read in my FSU alumni magazine that FSU did a study of kids from 1 to 4 years of age where they played various types of music over the course of 4 years, and they found that the kids who listened to Mozart in particular had increased brain wave activity in the areas of the brain which process math and science. They verified this with PEP scans of these kids’ brains.
Never the less, we played music for all of our kids. They heard it in our cars and in the home. Kyle was truly soothed by music. While the results of the hearing tests at Shands Hospital were often inconclusive as to what if anything young Kyle could hear at 3 or 4 months, we knew he could hear something because music played before bedtime or nap time or whatever would often calm him.
So we kept playing Mozart every night before bed on the CD player. Over time, it became clear that while the meningitis took most of his sight, it did leave his hearing intact. Slowly some words would come like “dad” and so forth, but not many. And that was okay, yet frustrating.
But music, music seemed to always get his attention. His favorite toy is the Fisher Price school bus made in like 2001. It has a repertoire of the “Wheels on the Bus” song. Kyle loves this toy, and to this day, as I write this now, Kyle is playing with the
bus and humming along with the tune. It is very cool if you ask me.
Kyle loves music so much he gets mad at me when he is in the car and I want to listen to talk radio. He starts off in low and says, “music” and sometimes says, “music please,” and if I ignore him, he gives this emphatic sort of excited request for music to be played in the car. Ultimately he wins.
Kyle got an iPod touch for Christmas this year. I really wanted the 160 gig iPod classic, but alas, Apple in its infinite wisdom decided to no longer make it. So we settled for the 32 gig. As a side note, I have a goal to legally own over 5,000 songs in my iTunes library. I have the 160 gig classic, and I really wanted Kyle to have it too. For the record I am up to 3,600 songs from almost 190 artists.
The ipod is sort of like the cutting edge 8 track tape deck. As most know, we can now find the exact song we want on the iPod and even have it repeat if needed. Kyle wakes up every day wanting to take a shower, and in our bathroom, we have our iPod hooked up to a set of speakers. We put it on random and away we shower.
About 4 years ago, I noticed Kyle humming along and he would “sing” the words he knew. Sometimes it is right on time and other times it is delayed by a second or two. Either way he enjoys the music. One of my friends gave me some cool 80s remixed songs on CD, and it has that song, “What I like about you, you treat me right…la la la, hey it is what I like about you….” I don’t know the artist, but it was one of the first songs Kyle would sing along with in the shower.
Then I noticed Kyle really getting into “Fat Bottomed Girls” by Queen. He loves this song, and part of me wonders if it is because he is a raging teenage boy and they are singing about a particular part of a lady’s anatomy or if it is the beat. Maybe it is both. Either way, he enjoys it and sings with it, and the words he knows he sings.
He also loves “My City of Ruin” and “Land of Hope and Dreams” by Bruce Springsteen. In the song “My City of Ruin,” Bruce sings, “Come on Rise Up, Come on Rise up, Come on Rise up,” and Kyle sings along saying, “Come on, come on, come on.” He knows the first few notes to Jimmy Buffet’s “Grape Fruit Juicy Fruit,” and when he hears those notes, he starts saying the word suit. He loves the water, and his favorite suit is the one for the water and the boat coat.
Perhaps his favorite song of late is by the Royal Guardsmen, an English band from the late 1960s, which are yet another wanna-be Beatles kind of band, and they have the “Snoopy vs. the Red Baron” song. The beat of that song Kyle just loves. He is now asking for the songs by the words he knows, and he is so excited when we find them on the iPod and play them.
Skipping around on my brain’s iPod of sorts, I have two more music stories to share. When we were living in central Florida, Kyle was attending an elementary school which had an IB or international baccalaureate program. They had a talented music teacher who would teach the classics to the really smart kids. They had a 4th grade violin group who learned Mozart and Bach and maybe Charlie Daniels too, I don’t know.
Kyle, as I pointed out here, loves music. It is the one class perhaps besides PE in which the boy would engage adults as a little kid. One day I was walking in the hall and stopped to talk to the music teacher. She was older, maybe in her 50s, and very proper. She was professional and nice, but distant.
I said to her, “Mrs. Smith (her name is changed to protect her identity), Mrs. Smith, I noticed my son sitting in the back of your class enjoying the music, and I wonder. Do you directly engage him?” She said she really did not have time. I said to her, “Sad, because out of all the teachers here at this school, you, ma’am, have the greatest ability to reach my son. I appreciate you taking time for the really smart kids by teaching them violin, but my son is moved by music.” She did not know what to say.
She started to walk away, and I stopped her again. I said, “Did you know Kyle falls asleep every night to Mozart? Did you know he loves Mozart? Maybe you could consider developing a music education program for kids like Kyle. Maybe you could take your gift and reach all the students, not just the elite students.” She was speechless.
It was in that moment that I started thinking about moving to North Carolina. I realized she really wanted little to do with the special ed kids, and I realized maybe she was afraid, maybe she was a snob, or maybe she just wrote those kids off like so many other adults tend to do.
I want to contrast this story with another one from Cullowhee Valley School and Mrs. Johnson, a Stetson music ed grad at that. Cullowhee Valley School is the school for the special ed kids K-8 for our rural county. They have this 3rd Grade Wizard of Oz play they do. It involves ALL 3rd graders, including the special ed kids. Mrs. Johnson embraced my son. She saw what music did for him, and I saw a light in her eye when my son was in her class. She is one of the best people and teachers I have ever met.
When Kyle was in 3rd grade, he was still battling sensory issues with clothes. He rarely sat still and did not often follow directions in class. He would pay attention but not always do what the teachers asked. Either he just did not want to do or could not do it.
So Kyle was in the 3rd Grade Wizard of Oz and they had this butterfly wizard dance as part of the play. They dressed my son up like a dwarf looking wizard. He was wearing silky pants (major sensory issues), a weird silky shirt (more sensory issues), and top hat (super sensory issues). They had Kyle seated, and before him were the percussion chimes.
His role in the play was to play the chimes in a melodic way. They gave him a chime mallet or stick or whatever it is called, and he held it in his right hand. I went to the practice during the day and heard the chimes during the butterfly dance, but because of where I was seated, I could not see him. I just thought the scene was pretty cool.
That night I went to the full play, and when his scene came up, I had my camera and a great seat. That was when I started to cry. Mrs. Johnson had my son seated in front of chimes wearing clothes he hated and a hat to boot, and he started his chime playing when he was supposed to and played them well through the entire scene and stopped appropriately. I was stunned. To Mrs. Johnson’s credit, Kyle’s assistant, Grace, did a lot of the work too. I was immensely proud of my son, and while others did not notice his role as I did, I can assure you it was every bit as much work for Kyle to do what he did as it was for the little girl playing Dorothy to memorize her lines. Music, my friends, made this happen for Kyle.
If you have a special needs kid or the Not Diagnosed With Anything (NDWA) kids, I cannot emphasize enough how important music is to our species regardless of ability. If you are reading this and are a new parent of a special needs kid, get an iPod or similar device, maybe even an 8 track tape player for that matter, and play Mozart to your babies.
Get your kids involved in music in school and after school, in church or wherever. I am willing to bet your child could be reached by music in ways few other things could reach him/her. It has touched Kyle in ways I never imagined; fat bottomed girls make the rocking world go round….