This article appears in the print edition of the Irish Times 23rd June
Learning to communicate with music
Sound workshops at St Declan's special school in Ballsbridge
help students to learn communication skills, writes SYLVIA THOMPSON .
INITIALLY IT sounds like a din, a cacophony of different sounds that don't
make sense. But, then gradually you begin to hear a musical conversation
- a drum beat in response to another, a whistle calling someone's attention
almost like one bird calling out to another and the longer you listen,
the more you hear.
I'm sitting in on one of Slavek Kwi's sound workshops in
St Declan's School, Ballsbridge, Dublin. The Czech-born sound artist works
with all 48 children in this special school, taking each class for half
an hour a week.
The children have mild emotional and/or behavioural difficulties and their
weekly encounter with musical instruments in this free style environment
gives them a chance to express themselves and communicate with each other
outside of verbal language.
It's a confidence building exercise that has to be seen to be believed.
"I'm not teaching them anything. In fact, it's the opposite. I'm
creating a space where they can explore," explains Kwi, whose gentle
manner and passion about sound is palpable. "It's all about their
awareness of themselves and the other children. Sometimes, I intervene
and direct but I don't encourage them to talk. Music gives them a different
way of listening," he explains.
Kwi left his homeland in 1986 and lived in Belgium for 14 years before
coming to Ireland in 2000. "Because I come from a former communist
country and developed a high sensitivity to deprivation, I might be obsessed
by freedom," he says with a laugh. "I'm lucky in that although
I am freelance, I work on specific projects for a very long time. However,
I don't treat these children any differently to anyone else. I just react
to their abilities," he adds.
The children in this particular group are in third class and they've been
attending these sound workshops for more than two years.
"The best thing about the music class is that you get to choose your
instruments and relax and start having fun," says Zara (10). Aaron
(10) agrees that getting to choose what instruments to play is what makes
it fun. "I like the way Slavek does the class," adds David (11).
"I like making rhythms and sometimes when I'm playing music, I make
noises to myself," adds Jake (9).
Instruments ranging from guitars to whistles to all kinds of percussion
instruments are strewn across a table and in a large open box. Often,
Kwi will include other recorded sounds in the workshop and sometimes,
he will record the sounds from the workshop itself and play it back to
Today, as it's the last class of the year, they are given
two CDs of recordings from the workshops to take home.
Michael Nolan, principal of St Declan's School, says the
sound workshops are very beneficial to many of the children. "We
were looking for something that would break through to high-functioning
autistic children who often have ritualised behaviours with little eye
contact or social interactions," he explains.
Kwi adds, "The sound workshops help them lose some
of their rigidity and fear of change and give them a chance to understand
the haphazardness of the day. It raises their self-confidence when they
can do something on their own. It also gives them responsibility for their
own behaviour and teaches them to be respectful and safe towards others
in the group," he explains.
According to Kwi, there is an added artistic element to the project when
recorded sounds are added into the experience. "It brings a conscious
awareness to the process of playing which adds to each child's ability
to listen, reflect and consciously develop their playing ability through
practice. In this way, the children are encouraged to create their own
aesthetics," he explains.
Slavek Kwi also works with children in the Children's University Hospital,
Temple Street, Dublin. These are one-to-one sessions with children in
the unit who have communications and language problems.
"I can build up a relationship much faster with the children on a
one-to-one basis and then when they join a group, I can use this to help
them become more aware of each other," he explains.
Both projects are funded by the National Concert Hall Learn and Explore
programme. This programme funds other performances and activities for
people in hospitals, schools and care settings such as the Kids Classics
series of music workshops for children in Our Lady's Hospital for Sick
Children, Crumlin, and the National Children's Hospital, Tallaght.
"Slavek's work is our longest running programme - and is in fact
a flagship of our health and wellness outreach work. Through it, we can
really see the impact of how sound and music helps children with communication
difficulties relate to the world around them in new ways," says Katie
Wink, manager of the Learn and Explore programme at the National Concert
"Our aim with the outreach programme is to bring the healing powers
of music to as many people as we can who might not otherwise have access
to music," she adds.
Through the work, Kwi is also building up an educational resource of sounds
that teachers can integrate into parts of the primary school curriculum.
So, for instance, sounds from the rain forest could enhance a geography
lesson or sounds of trains coming and going at a big railway station could
be used to bring to life the distances between cities.
He also plans to invite people to a public experience of this sound installation
in the autumn as part of the 50th anniversary celebrations of St Declan's
See also www.artificialmemorytrace.com