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Striking A Chord by Rimi Chopra

by Rimi Chopra (Arts Department Coordinator at The Gateway School Of Mumbai) “Singing and me??? No way. People will run away.”
“I attempted learning the guitar but my teacher was only focused on me clearing exams. The joy of learning was lost and I quit.”
“I wanted to become a musician but then getting a job became priority and now I don’t get time for it.”
“I wish someone had encouraged me to learn music when I was young.”
These statements sound familiar to most of us and stem from the popular myth that there are only a select few, gifted souls who are carved to pursue music. The education system forces us to focus on the end product rather than the process. So for instance, one is quick to assess or evaluate their child's musical aptitude and make early, inaccurate judgments rather than consider the larger benefits of playing and learning music outside the realm of performances and exams. Very rarely does one look at the larger picture of these benefits of learning music beyond the usual performing and creating. Music education in fact has widespread lifelong impact on one’s well-being, community engagement and also exposes one to the world history and culture.
I also belonged to the same category - performance seemed like the final destination to me until I pursued a course in arts-based therapy and then witnessed the power of music in my work at The Gateway School of Mumbai. A personal journey that started with singing the national anthem in gibberish as a toddler to then becoming a professional singer, and currently teaching music to children with special needs; life now seems to have come to a full circle for me. With the sole intention of transferring my love for music to my students, I embarked on this beautiful journey.

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In one of my very first classes at Gateway, I had planned a ‘calm down’ time where I intended to play a song while my students lied down, listening to the song and relaxing. To my horror, the CD player didn’t work. I spontaneously started singing instead and I was surprised to see my students instantly connect with me as my voice became the hook. This was my ‘Aahaaaaa’ moment. My first stint with the impact music can have on one’s body and mind! The ‘calm down’ ritual continues in the lower school music classes till date and I know my students are tuned in and learning to regulate themselves when the class is filled with requests like:
“ Ms. Rimi, switch off the lights”
“I want deep pressure.”
“Sing ‘Surmai Ankhiyon mein’.”
“Rimi, don’t stop. Start playing the ukulele.”
“I want to sing too.”
A calming ritual like this not only helped me connect with the students, it also helps them get ready for their next class with their bodies feeling “just right”, which is conducive for learning.
What naturally followed from here were musical transitions - before and within classes. My ‘start’ rituals are the ‘Om chant’ followed by a hello song. The Om Chant is a vocal warm up and it forces the students to focus on their breathing which helps in regulating their body and mind. The hello songs encouraged them to acknowledge each other by giving eye contact and listening. In addition to self regulation and establishing connection, I also found that this ritual served the purpose of being a clear signal that the music class has begun.
Realizing the power of music to support kids in transitions, I then started creating transition songs for predictable situations like a water break, handling of instruments, transitioning in and out of music class and lining up. I was amazed to find that this worked wonders as most of my students now started following instructions in the first go without any negotiations and so the constant roadblocks of my class were slowly getting cleared. One strategy that worked effectively was to write simple short songs (3-4 lines) that are repetitive and fit the lyrics to melodies of famous nursery rhymes/children’s songs. Sometimes these songs would be created in the spur of the moment too.
Achieving this initial success with music as my anchor, I looked beyond to explore other areas that I could influence with music. I noticed that most of my students struggled in communication and some skills that most of us naturally acquire like playing with peers and make-believe play needed explicit teaching for children with special needs. This drove me to use music with a new goal. I started introducing short call-and-response songs and interactive game songs in my classes which did much more than just singing. A few examples of these songs are: “Farmer in the Dell”, “Circle round the zero”, “I let her go go”, and “Bluebird through my window”. I found that any short song that encouraged some form of verbal/non verbal interaction among group members proved to be effective. The impact of these songs was enhanced when combined with movements and had embedded opportunities for peer interactions as this engaged the students in listening - they learned to start and stop on time and honed their ability for impulse control.
However, I regard the above accomplishments with my music and the children in a special needs school only the tip of the iceberg. The real big take-away for me through my experience in the school over the past 3 years has been to appreciate the influence of music beyond the realm of performance and creation.
The anecdotes below are a miniscule attempt by me to capture the multifaceted impact music has had on my students:
“For RP maintaining eye contact has always been a challenge, but doing the same while singing the hello song and greeting his partner is less threatening for him.”
“RD does not know how to communicate with others and hardly has any friends. He is now heard singing ‘I let her go go’ and following the movements naturally as he sings and plays with his partner.”
“GG still finds it hard to wait, but she is able to do so in the game in anticipation of the fun that is to follow.”
“NM who was hardly heard before, is now singing ‘Ae dil hai mushkil’ loud and clear in class.”
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