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Highlighting the Person through Musical Performance

Giving a person with special needs the chance to perform for their community has many positive benefits for performer and audience. For some, communication on the best of days can be a huge obstacle. For the community layman who does not understand neurological or developmental disabilities, the condition itself can be a partition between people.

In 2005 I witnessed a young man who received weekly music therapy for 10 years begin a new direction for music in his life, preparations for a performance at a local coffee house. Over the following weeks he worked with his music therapist on the song he had written, microphone handling, as well as platform mechanics ( to stand and make infrequent eye contact with his audience to keep the audience engaged). After a few practice performances with two or three family members to validate his accomplishments he said he felt ready to reveal all he had become.

With his brown hair newly cut and donning a tranquil blue sweater., he was standing tall, albeit with slightly turned in shoulders as he went to the stage where he took his microphone from his therapist. Giving a simple nod to the guitar player, a cue he had learned that would let his band know he was ready to begin, he turned towards the audience and held the microphone just under his chin. The instruments began to play. You could hear a soft whisper through the microphone it counted 1 – 2 –3 – 4 – 1- 2- 3- and then a deep breathe. He launched into the first words “Love is a burning thing, it makes a fiery ring,” His low voice resonated with every note sung on pitch. Near the end he repeated the final chorus a second time, and gave a wee smile to his music therapist who then smiled back as he sang the last line of the song – “ring of fire, the ring of fire.” The small and mighty audience were already on their feet clapping. His grandma who had raised him sat in silence along the side bench in the coffee house. She had tears coming down the side of her face and a reflective smile. She knew that this moment had taken years to reach. To the audience the magic happened in 2 minutes and 40 seconds, to his grandma an entire childhood of preparation passed before her eyes.

In another time and place (Saskatchewan, Canada) a similar opportunity for persons with disabilities to reach their performance dreams has been underway for some time under the talented direction of Raymond Marcotte. At 15, Raymond led the student council where he had opportunity to interact with the student and general community at large on a regular basis. While researching local charities for his school to support, he came across research papers indicating that music could aid autistic children.

As an accomplished musician with experience teaching music to underprivileged children, Raymond set out to translate his passion for music and knowledge into a program for autistic young people. “I wanted to teach those who wouldn’t normally have a chance to learn and enjoy music.”

Raymond approached Saskatoon’s Autism Services with his idea – to create a volunteer-based music instruction program for children aged 3 to 18. The Music Sensory Awakening Program now in its third year and has revealed some remarkable results. Each May, the program’s students perform musical pieces to an audience of several hundred at an annual benefit concert. Both musical and behavioural accomplishments are highlighted to the surprise and delight of their families and friends.

Providing a person with disabilities the chance to perform contributes to the self – esteem of the performer. The barriers that many diseases and disorders seem to present to our general community are melted away in music’s soothing and familiar messages. Music is a force we all recognize and can relate to. I have witnessed performers who could not speak, communicate in the language of music, reaching far into the audience and sharing a piece of themselves – for some for the very first time.
Music highlights the possible. Music highlights the potential. Music highlights the person.

The process of learning and teaching is not easy. Coming up with each person’s unique cues for best outcomes takes patience and often many weeks of trial and error. The final performance requires much courage on everyone’s part. The end result – priceless.