Wavemakers bring music programs to children with disabilities

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Nicole Turner can’t lift a fork to her mouth. Yet thanks to an innovative program that brings adapted music to Ontario children with disabilities, the 15-year-old is a drummer in the band Train Wreck.

A recent performance at the University of Western Ontario had the aura of a rock concert: Nicole’s image was projected close up on a big screen while she and two other teens belted out tunes like Boulevard of Broken Dreams and Sweet Home, Alabama.

It didn’t matter that Nicole and her peers had minimal use of their hands and one player didn’t speak. Two band members triggered bass and snare drums with head switches on their wheelchairs, while a third plucked guitar strings, her attendant pressing down the frets.

“For children with disabilities, often the attention is on them because they can’t do something, but this time the attention was on them because they could,” says Janal Bechthold, music therapist at Bloorview Kids Rehab (formerly Bloorview MacMillan Children’s Centre) in Toronto. “For the first time, people were listening to them and hearing them.”

Bechthold and Roger Knox, a music researcher at Bloorview, are partnering with children’s treatment centres across Ontario to launch programs that open the world of music to children unable to play conventional instruments.

As part of Ontario Wavemakers – a program funded by the Ontario Trillium Foundation and Bloorview MacMillan Children’s Foundation – Bechthold and Knox helped nine treatment centres purchase adapted equipment, then provided training, curriculum resources and ongoing support so they could offer music programs to about 200 Ontario children.

The technologies include Midimate – an interface that gives children the ability to control a keyboard with switches (this is how Nicole played her drum) – and a virtual instrument children play by waving their hands over coloured balls on a screen, each sounding a different note. Both were developed at the Bloorview Research Institute.

Children receiving services at the participating treatment centres – from Thunder Bay to London – had never had the opportunity to play music before. “We couldn’t have offered this program on our own,” says Jeanie Hicks, principal of the Ottawa Children’s Treatment Centre School. “The training is key, as is the awareness of adapted music. We wouldn’t have known (about it) or followed up without the support of Bloorview.”

Ontario doesn’t fund adapted music equipment, so it’s not available on an organized basis across the province, Knox explains. The one-time Wavemakers grant from Trillium gives treatment centres a unique opportunity to build the capacity to run their own programs. “As a provincial resource, we wanted to share the technology and music expertise we’ve developed here at Bloorview.”

In about half of the programs, a music therapist was involved, while at some centres occupational therapists or therapeutic recreation specialists took a lead role. In most cases, 10 sessions were offered to groups of about five children who ranged in age from preschoolers to teens. In one case, children with and without disabilities participated.

At Thames Valley Children’s Centre in London, Ont. – where Nicole receives services – a unique partnership with a local music academy was struck: the academy provides a music instructor to lead the sessions and support the development of their spin-off band, the Train Wreck.

“I dreamed of being a drummer but I never thought it was possible,” Nicole says. When performing, “I feel a sense of accomplishment and an adrenaline rush. It’s also helped me gain more control in my movement.”

“Staff tell us they’re seeing abilities in the kids that they never saw before,” Knox says. “The kids are listening to the music and responding to it. Many of them may not have had the opportunity to develop their social skills, but now they’re participating in a group where they each need to chip in and work closely together. Even though they have little movement, they’re able to make the big gestures of music and that opens up a whole new realm of experience.”

At the Ottawa Children’s Treatment Centre School, where a program was offered to children aged four to seven, “We were surprised at how some students responded,” Hicks says. “It was evident that they were anticipating their role and waiting to hit the (switch), and this was not a behaviour we would have predicted.”

For children with motor and communication disabilities, adapted music provides a powerful creative outlet, says Cathy Kelly, manager of recreation at Grandview Children’s Centre in Oshawa, Ont. “For the kids who are non-verbal, this allows them a method to make sound independently,” Kelly says. “It’s an opportunity to creatively express themselves and socialize with other kids. The smiles on their faces say it all.”

Bechthold says next steps are to expand Wavemakers into regular schools where children with disabilities are integrated, as well as group homes and other organizations working with adults with disabilities.