Focus can be a real struggle for people with learning disabilities like ADHD and ADD, but music is being found to be a powerful tool to train minds.
Middle school student Thomas Beckman has the developmental disability Down syndrome and uses music to help him focus.
He takes adapted music lessons at Rhythm & Rehab in Durham, where he gets to play his favorite instrument — the drums — as a form of neurologic music therapy.
“Music therapy is using music to accomplish non-musical goals,” said Paula Scicluna, the founder and executive director of Rhythm & Rehab. “So, using music to improve speech skills, language, sensory motor skills, cognitive skills, social emotional skills.”
At the beginning of his lesson, Thomas banged the drums loudly, looked around at his surroundings and was not focused. He was very distracted.
Encouraging him to keep in time, Scicluna patted the drums saying, “Together, together, together. Can you do it together?”
Thomas ignored instruction.
However, as the session progressed — in a matter of minutes — something clicked and his focus increased.
He and Scicluna then moved to the keyboard, and as they attempted to play a duet, he was more in tune to the rhythm and “making music.” He intently glanced up at his song sheet and glanced down making sure he hit each key precisely.
“I don’t expect him to leave here playing Chopin,” said Donna Beckmann, Thomas’ mother.
She said the benefits of playing music, such as hand-eye coordination, helps him in his everyday life.
“Whether he’s writing something, whether he’s helping in the kitchen and cutting up vegetables, it’s all connected, she said.
Scicluna pointed out that the quality of Thomas’ playing is not what matters, but rather he “continued to play and that he stayed with the activity until I told him to stop.”
She said music helps organize the brain, and repetition is key.
“Once you add that rhythm and you add that structure, it helps actually organize the firing of the neurons. Focus, attention [and] impulse control — all those behaviors that you see children with ADHD and ADD struggle with,” Scicluna said. “That’s how music therapy is helpful to those children.”
So, while some may view Thomas’ drumming as noise, he hears music.
“He gets a lot of feedback from heavy movements. So for him to be banging on the drums, that does something for him,” his mother said. “The type of focus that this trains him in is to focus when he needs to. The therapy gives him tools to reach his goals.”
Beckmann said the structure grounds him, and his instructors have high expectations.
“They know the potential. They know what these individuals are able to do, and they don’t settle for less,” she said. “That’s why you see the phenomenal things my son can do.”
Thomas was so focused, he continued to play the keyboard.
“To see him so focused and visually tracking and using the right fingers on the right keys,” Scicluna said. “For those of us that don’t have to really think about all of those skills independently, you think of all those skills that have to come together in order for that to happen, it’s incredible.”
Beckmann said, “It’s working on so many different pieces of what he needs. I see a more whole child because of music therapy. It’s music, it’s fun.”
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