Music is Essential

As I have embarked on the journey of learning to “teach through the arts” I have begun to understand the concept that art is essential to human beings and not just a peripheral activity as I once thought.  An example of this concept was present during the Music Workshop class.  The example was simply the teacher.  Emma Zevik was able to share her enthusiasm for the arts, especially music and poetry but more importantly she conveyed that music was essential to her very being and contributed to her life by making living worthwhile.  I am beginning to connect with the understanding that art pulls together the skills we teach in schools and gives the skills meaning, a place in relation to the world at large and in the personal lives of our students. 

            Charles Fowler states, “The subject matter of the arts is as broad as life itself, and therefore the arts easily relate to aspects of almost everything else that is taught.  But the arts are generally not conveyers of information.  Dance and music do not add to our information overload.  Their purpose is not to convey data but to supply insight and wisdom, in a word meaning.  Their power is that they can move us.  They serve as connectors that give understanding a human dimension… Each of the arts functions as a communication system that has allowed people through the ages to articulate observations, interpretations, and possibilities.”   (Fowler, 1996).

            Music as a tool to teach through the arts allows for many classroom possibilities.   “The music of the Eastern European Jews in the 1800’s didn’t simply enhance life at that time; it embodied life.  The songs reflect the hardships, the passion, and the events of the time.  On their own, the songs could easily be a history text-a rich one at that.”  (Goldberg, 1997).   In my “classroom” I see children (ages 3 to 21) who experience a variety of physical disabilities and mobility limitations; many of the students are in self-contained classrooms.  I find it challenging but rewarding to find ways to integrate their gross motor IEP goals with what they are studying in their classroom.  Using Merryl Goldberg’s example (cited above) of using songs to study the history of Eastern European Jews in the 1800’s, I might connect it to a gross motor group activity by having the students create a movement piece that portrays one of the songs.  One song might mention marching, or trudging, or climbing stairs to get from place to place, if so we could do that in our therapy session.  We could talk about the prejudices against Jews at the time and explore what our group members may have experienced in terms of their mobility differences, and how they relate to their more able-bodied grade level peers.

            In his article, Art for Brain’s Sake, Robert Sylvester deals directly with the issues I face in justifying the use of music as a means to achieve improvement in gross and fine motor goals for my IEP based students.  He asserts: “Because our visual, auditory, and motor systems are essential to cognition, it’s probable that the arts emerged to help develop and maintain them” (Sylvester, 1998, p.31).  He goes on to say “Evidence from the brain sciences and evolutionary psychology increasingly suggests the arts (along with such functions as language and math) play an important role in brain development and maintenance…. The arts are highly integrative involving many elements of human life.  Let us focus on two key elements: (1) The heightened motor skills we call performance and (2) the heightened appreciation of our sensory-motor capabilities that we call aesthetics… Because we humans are mobile throughout life, we need an intelligent cognitive system that can transform sensory input and imagination into appropriate motor output.” (Sylvester, 1998, p.32).

            In exploring how I might integrate music into my gross motor group for the lesson plan required in this assignment, I became interested in the phenomenon of entrainment.  In his book Music as a Way of Knowing, Nick Page discusses this phenomenon in relation to rhythm.  He states,  “Entrainment, quite simply, is the tendency for one pulse to imitate another pulse.” (Page, 1995).   He goes on to say  “It is possible to use musical activities as simple as clapping or marching to create powerful learning environments where an entire class becomes “in sync” with itself.  Students may become unified in the rhythm, able to learn at an accelerated pace.” (Page, 1995).  The following section of this paper shows the lesson plans developed to explore this concept, and an evaluation of how the lesson went. The last section will be a reflection of the experiences I have had with music as a teaching vehicle, and where it might lead me.










Lesson Plan 1: Gross Motor Group Music Activity------Rhythm sticks


Target class: Special Education Level 2

                     Self contained classroom- Grade 1

                     Group of 4 students

Objective: Improve bilateral and upper-limb coordination through music, increase social          awareness and interaction between students

Materials needed: One pair Rhythm sticks per each student

Classroom setup: Open space for a circle

Procedure: 1) Have students stand in a circle with rhythm sticks

2) Demonstrate how to properly hold rhythm sticks, assist if needed in placing hands correctly

3) Discuss with students how each person’s name has a rhythm

4) Demonstrate a name rhythm using a rhythm stick (my own name)

5) Ask students to try to find a rhythm that fits their name

6) Go around the circle and have each child demonstrate the rhythm of his\her name with assistance as needed.

7) Go around the circle with each child performing their rhythm, followed by the group imitating their rhythm.





Response to lesson Plan 1

Overall I felt this lesson went well, however the children in this group are young and still quite impulsive.   The next time I use this lesson plan I will not pass out the rhythm sticks until after the demonstration part of the lesson as the students had a harder time concentrating on the discussion because they were excited about having the sticks.   Several students had difficulty hitting the sticks together and needed hand over hand assistance to approximate and strike the sticks.  They were able to initiate the rhythm they wanted however.  Several students had difficulty initially in holding the rhythm sticks with a proper grasp, but were able to do so after being given 1:1 assist.  The students were able to imitate each other’s rhythms for the most part.

 I could show progress toward IEP goals with this lesson if the students demonstrate that they can hold the rhythm sick properly without initial assistance.  I could also observe improvement of movement (and timing) when the rhythm sticks are being struck.  To adjust the level of difficulty for students I could have them sit vs. stand to decrease the effort used for standing balance.  I could progress the lesson by having a “response chain”, this would start by having one child tap the rhythm of another child’s name, the second child then taps the rhythm of a third child’s name, i.e. Jane taps out Debbie who then taps out Daniel, etc.  This would be a difficult project for the group targeted for this lesson plan, but it would not be impossible for them if we work on it until the end of the school year.  It would also be very appropriate for the group I will discuss in lesson plan 2, as they are slightly older and have more skills.

Lesson Plan 2: Gross Motor Group Music Activity--- Hopscotch patterning

Target class: Special Education -level 2

                      Self contained class grades 2 & 3

                     Group of four students

Objective: Improve motor planning skills through music, improve jumping and hopping.

Materials needed: Rubber “dots” or footprints to denote pattern on floor

Classroom setup: Open space for pattern on floor

Procedure:     1.  Place a simple hopscotch pattern on the floor using rubber dots or footprints.  Have students observe the hopscotch pattern while the instructor discusses how the pattern would sound if it were clapped out. 

2.      In the pattern where the child is expected to land on two feet, both hands would ‘slap” on knees, in the pattern where the child would land on one foot hands would clap together.                                 

3.      The teacher demonstrates the rhythm while the students are observing then the students join the clapping activity. 

4.      The students then line up at the end of the pattern on the floor.

5.      Each student claps out the rhythm and then jumps/hops the pattern before going to the end of the line.

6.      This is done several times by each child before the pattern is changed on the floor and the process is repeated with a new rhythm. 




Response to Lesson Plan 2:

 This was a hugely successful lesson plan; the students loved it and found it challenging but attainable.  It was easy to evaluate the learning because it was easy to observe that they could better prepare their bodies (motor plan) for a hop or a jump after they used the clapping rhythm pattern.  After three or four times of performing the sequence they could perform without mistakes, which they could not do no their first attempt.  This lesson also assists in visual motor tracking, which many of these students have difficulty with.  To make the lesson harder, you can make the pattern on the floor more physically challenging (place three jumps in a row rather than a jump- hop-jump sequence).  You could also get more complex (and physically difficult) by spacing the pattern further apart or closer together instead of equal distances.  This would require more complex timing in the rhythm pattern and judging distance in the jumping.

            In the lessons I planned using music it was apparent that the concept of entrainment has merit as it relates to physical therapy provided in the school setting.  I felt the students were better able to perform the motor tasks they were attempting when they had a rhythm to help sustain them.  I felt the groups were better able to focus and stayed engaged longer than they have with past activities

I have not used music as a part of my treatment strategies in the past because I have felt awkward and insecure about my own musical talents.  Leading my students in the song, “The Hokey Pokey” (which I did for this class) was my first venture ever singing with students and I was surprised but delighted when the response was positive not negative.  I will not be as fearful the next time I use songs to facilitate a group movement activity.

            As part of my new musical frontier plan I will be actively listening for and collecting music that will be useful in individual as well as group treatments.  Many children move quickly and impulsively while attempting gross motor tasks because they don’t have the strength and tone in their muscle groups to allow for a regulated, controlled movement.  A slow, controlled, midrange movement is much more difficult than a fast all or nothing contraction.  I will begin to use music to help pace the movements, slower for many, faster for some.   I see students who have poor bilateral integration and coordination skills, which need to learn to move at a faster pace.  I think music will help these children increase their speed as I increase the tempo of the music I play over the course of a year while I work on their IEP objectives.

            I would like to find music that has an obvious beat/rhythm that could be used in the background as entrainment during group activities.  I think it would encourage the skill of working as a group, keeping the whole group together on a consistent pace. On a different note, I also see students for fine motor tasks.  I will now integrate music into those treatments too. I can use the above concepts to help slow down or speed up the speed or writing and cutting. 

 Ideas for making musical instruments came out of this class that will apply to my fine motor students.  They are students who have difficulty with visual perception or using their hands well.  The tasks related to building instruments, from ripping tissue for decorating the instruments to pounding nails or tying knots, are the types of activities these children need to work on to integrate their motor skills.  It would be wonderful to coordinate an activity of making an instrument with the social studies curriculum the student may be studying.  Every culture uses instruments, and when I attended the concert by Maya Soleil I was struck by the diversity of music, sounds, and rhythms produced by this multicultural group and their instruments.  Music related to the culture being studied could be used for the purpose of entrainment at the same time. 

            As I have a very meager library of music myself, while I am accumulating a larger library I am planning to approach the music specialists at the schools I serve, to tap into their resources if possible.  In reflecting upon how I have worked in the past, and how I would change to include music more, I realize I have been somewhat isolated.   As a “transient teacher” in six schools, I run quickly into a building, do my treatments or groups, and move to the next location.  I could benefit greatly by collaborating more with the music specialists.  This is especially true in the schools where I have a larger caseload and I spend more time.  There is an opportunity to make more of a connection with the specialists in those buildings and I believe my students would benefit from that.

            Lastly, in reflecting on the learning that I have done in this course, I am struck again by the concept of what I am trying to integrate into my practice or “classroom”.  It is that music (and all the arts) gives meaning to the individual lesson or skill that I am trying to impart.  As Charles Fowler states “The arts invite students to be active participants in their world rather than mere observers of it… The arts require students to apply standards to their own work, to be self critical, and to be able to self-correct… Through the arts, students learn that they can make their own unexceptional beings extraordinary and uncommon.” (Fowler, 1996).  The arts require no less of teachers and therapists.

About the Author – Gwen Arp is a physical therapist that recently completed her Masters Degree in Education through Lesley University