Kerry Fenster talks about music and his program Songs About Us
Music is the ultimate entity in any context. It’s a universal language, like math, or love – understood, beloved, treasured, played, performed, and enjoyed across every piece of this world. People in love have “their song”, armies have battle music, movies have scores, and so on. It’s also used in an informally medicinal capacity, like playing soft music to help one sleep. Since its formal development in the 1950s, music therapy has made great strides in showing how and what music can do as a formal, therapeutic modality. Most fascinating, is the effect music can have as a medium for teaching social and developmental skills to children with autism.
Music can be a teacher, a carrier of information. Millions of children learn the alphabet as it is commonly sung to the tune of ‘Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star’. Music can also help teach children about things that would be expected in a real world, social setting, like a classroom. For example, a song about staying clean and washing your hands could benefit a child whom routinely forgets to do so. For older children with social deficits, listening to, writing, or playing music with others, such as in a band or orchestra, can teach invaluable social skills about being part of a team and self-confidence.
Autistic children have difficulties with direct social engagement, so group musical activities provide extraordinary opportunities for engaging in predictable and comfortable interactions with social partners. While children with autism acquire social communication skills through music and begin to apply them independently, music can be eliminated gradually, and then children might be able to use these acquired skills without any facilitation by music. Musical activities naturally create a lively and happy environment that encourages the child to establish a relationship with others, who are also engaged in the music process, and thus perceive others’ emotions better. During musical performances, a child is encouraged to react to the music and to examine and find musical, verbal and nonverbal methods of listening to others for establishing social communication.
Group musical environments provide opportunities for learning social skills such as imitation, turn taking, social reciprocity, joint attention, shared affect, and empathy. Synchronous movements during rhythmic actions or music making, as well as unison singing, creates a state of social cooperation, shared purposes, and a sense of togetherness which eventually brings a social connection between individuals.
Music is abundant with communication factors. During some music therapy sessions, an autistic child has to communicate with the therapist, peers, him/herself, instruments, and the music, and combination of the above communication set can help to decrease or eliminate communication and social skills’ impairments of these children.
Enjoyment of musical activities can be known as another reason for the effectiveness of music for children with autism, and its reason might be their enhanced musical perception and having no impairment in processing musical feeling. Despite the difficulties in recognizing emotions conveyed through speech, children with autism can recognize affective signals which are conveyed through music.
For children with significant impairments in their basic innate skills in communication, musical interaction provides a context and instrument for reciprocal interaction and development that considerably ameliorates the lack of sharing and turn-taking in play, as well as repetitive, rigid and somehow unchangeable patterns, and the need for sameness. In addition, music is predictable, structured and success-oriented. These characteristics bring a sense of security, encouraging the individual to take risks and be more spontaneous in their interactions with others.
Songs About Us
I wrote the album Songs About Us while working at The Help Group – a school for autism in Los Angeles, and with private clients. I’ve always used music either for fun, to teach, or communicate with my students. I was inspired to write a series of songs based on social skills concepts that were relevant and commonly needing attention – concepts like personal space and hygiene. I recorded a three-song demo at a small studio in Long Beach, CA and titled it The Autism Album.
Richie Gallo, a seasoned music executive, heard of my project through a mutual friend. We met to discuss the project and soon after, the Muzic School Record label was born. We then set about the task of recording the songs anew, and adding a few more. Songs About Us was recorded in Hollywood, CA in May and June of 2015.
Reception for the record has been positive! The CD won both the NAAPA and Parent’s Choice Award for 2016. It’s been in steady rotation on satellite station Radio Disney, Jr., and received terrestrial radio airplay in New Jersey, Connecticut, Tennessee, and New Mexico. I’ve performed at Autism Speaks walks in Houston (Minute Maid Park), San Diego, Palm Springs, and Angels Stadium of Anaheim. My song “Quiet Hands” was selected as a semi-finalist in the 2016 International Songwriting Competition (ISC). Locally, in the greater Los Angeles area, I’ve played at several Know Me Network events in Compton’s Kelly Park, events for L.A. Parent Magazine, concerts at The Help Group-West and other schools, and several Barnes & Nobles. Most recently, I was interviewed on the ‘Straight From the Streets Radio’ webcast in Culver City, as well as the ‘Let’s Talk Autism’ webcast in Woodland Hills.
All of this – the music, my clients, the songs, and Muzic School Records – has been like a dream. All I’ve ever wanted is to make music that both adults and children alike will enjoy, and that I can be proud of. I cannot overstate my gratitude to everyone involved for being a part of this project and making it a reality. I move forward with an emboldened belief in aspirations coming to fruition.
Readers may also like Stephen Shore’s The Importance of Art and Music for People on the Autism Spectrum.