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Sunday, September 4, 2011

The power of music to soothe the troubled child

If you've read my profile, you'll know that I was originally a school music teacher.  I've always done heaps of singing, finger plays, rhythmic chants and body percussion with the children, but lately I've been bringing my guitar in to work.  It's a leap of faith to do that; for a musician, putting their musical instrument in the reach of very small children is like baring their heart in a room full of knives. There's always a risk that something will go very wrong.

So there have to be some pretty strict boundaries when the guitar comes out, and when 'Talon'  and some of his peers are around, adherence to rules is rather random. That's putting it politely. Yes, it was a risk to open the guitar case in that particular company. But I did it, over a few highly structured group times.

The first time, that guitar went back it its case pretty quickly, because it simply caused too much excitement and impulse control was at a premium.  I find that the guitar is actually good for making me set firm boundaries- I can be a bit of a pushover at times- because I really couldn't bear it to be broken.  It was a great tool for teaching the children self-control, because they really wanted to see it and hear it and touch it... but if they didn't sit and wait their turn, it got put away at once.

There's a lesson there for me, too: don't be a pushover! It's not good for the kids!

Eventually we got to the point where the room leader asked me if I'd play guitar in the yard as an interest-based activity. Well, that freaked me a bit. It's one thing to allow your beloved instrument to be in the presence of seated children, but a yard full of screaming, running kids- many of whom have serious behaviour issues?

But I did it. And this is where the magic starts.

You do remember Talon, I'm sure- if not, click the link in the second paragraph and have a read about him.  When I walked out into the yard with my 'best mate' since I was 14 years old clutched in rather sweaty, nervous hands, Talon and two of his troubled peers- let's call them 'Theo' and 'Mitch'- were chasing each other around the yard screaming at the tops of their voices, knocking other kids out of their way, with various teachers trying vainly to calm them down. Every time someone tried to slow Talon to a walk, he'd start to melt down, punching or kicking the teacher and running away. Theo and Mitch just avoided the teachers, laughing at them over their shoulders.

I sat down in a corner of the yard with my beloved 40-year-old guitar, out of the direct path of the chase, and started to strum. 


Talon was the first to stop running. Something about the rules I'd set in the classroom must have registered, because he walked over, sat down in front of me and said quietly 'Can I have a go?' 

So I fingered some chords and let him strum.  As he let his fingers glide over the strings, I saw all the tension, hyperactivity and anger leave him and a deep focus descend in its place.  It was really quite a remarkable change.

After a while I showed him a few tricks, sliding my finger up and down a string while he plucked it.  He asked me what the tuning pegs did and was desperate to touch them, so I held my breath and let him change the tuning; what the heck, I could always retune the guitar.  He fiddled around with loosening and tightening the strings for some minutes before letting me 'fix' it.

He was being so good and gentle that I suggested we use a piece of bark chip as a plectrum, warning him to be careful not to drop it in the sound hole.  This gave him a whole new range of edgier sounds and more volume, and he experimented with every string in turn. I noticed that he was strumming with perfect regular rhythm.  Who would have thought he had such control? Once he did drop the 'plectrum' in the hole, and immediately looked horrified and panic-stricken; we talked about how to get it out, did so, and then he spent some time searching the ground for that exact piece of bark again.  No drama.

By this time a small crowd was gathering, with Talon's teachers taking pictures of this new phenomenon (Talon quiet, still and focused on an activity?!). His wild-eyed peers joined us even before the calmer children came over. The guitar had the same magical effect on them; suddenly they were seated, listening, waiting for a turn.  Peace descended on the yard.

Finally I let go of my hold on the guitar and placed it in his lap, just fingering the odd E or A chord for him. To my amazement, he said 'Now I'm going to sing a song', and promptly started to improvise some words and music- completely in tune, matching the chords I was fingering.

Now, THAT was a magic moment. Who knows what's lurking inside a child, waiting to be unfolded? Sometimes I honestly think I'm put in a certain place at a certain time just to wave a magic wand over a certain child, who needs exactly what I can offer.

I'd thought that it would be difficult to get Talon to give up the guitar so others could have a turn, and so it proved- but with quiet, gentle insistence on fair play, I won the day without any physical outbursts.  It caused him pain- you could see it on his face- but he controlled himself.  Mind you, he couldn't resist 'instructing' every new child who touched the guitar about the rules; Talon as teacher? Wonderful!

Mitch was next in line, a child with suspected ADHD who simply can't sit still- but sit still he did, for long enough to strum some chords with a rapturous grin on his face.  Sixty seconds of focus is a huge achievement for that boy.

Then came Theo- you can read more about Theo's behavioural issues here- who showed a deeply scientific interest in how the sounds were made and changed; we had an extended conversation about vibrations and string tension, complete with demonstrations.  He was much more interested in the 'how' than the musical side of things, but boy, was he interested!  Next week I think we'll try making guitars with rubber bands and boxes- he'll like that.

And lastly I handed the guitar over to 'Gabby'.  Gabby also has some severe impulse control issues, probably largely as a result of a childhood blighted by a violent tug-of-war for her custody.  She played with such gentleness that I was deeply touched; like Talon, she started to sing as she played, perfectly in tune. When her turn was over she walked off peacefully, only to return a little later with a piece of paper covered with treble clefs and notes that she'd drawn.

(No, I did NOT teach her how to do that.)

'Look, I wrote some music for you,' she said, smiling.

These were the four most troubled children in that playground.  They all invited themselves over, waited quietly for their turn and then unfolded abilities or interests that ranged from the surprising (Mitch sat still!?!) to the illuminating (Theo is a scientist!) to the astonishing musical promise of Talon and Gabby.  (I'm still trying to work out how Gabby taught herself to write musical symbols.)

Yes, it was worth risking my guitar.  What an amazing demonstration of the wonderful discoveries lying inside troubled children, if you can only find the right key to unlock the box.

What next?  Well, I think I might invest in a child-sized guitar, if I can find one that makes a beautiful sound...


  1. I was very moved by your post. Each child has something inside waiting to be discovered...and you discovered quite a few things in these kids. I often try to connect with each child - to find that "thing" that he's interested in that we can share in some way. And this post makes me want to try that much harder. Thank you.

  2. I knew you'd 'get it' at once, Scott. Your children are lucky to have you around.

  3. Aunt Annie,
    Sometimes its is hard to put our treasures out there for children with the possibility of being destroyed. I appreciate it that you did and are an example for the rest of us. Thank you!


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