This article appears in the print edition of the Irish Times 23rd June 2009

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 the children.

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 Hall.


"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 School.


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See also www.artificialmemorytrace.com