Holly Hamilton  

Performing for Special-Needs Children - An Interview with Holly Hamilton, NSO Violinist

Holly Hamilton
July 18, 2019

Editor's Abstract (Click to Hide)

Yvonne Caruthers, cellist with the National Symphony, interviewed her colleague Holly Hamilton about using music to work with special-needs children. Holly's son began working with the Tomatis system, which greatly helped his speech - the experience got her involved in working with these children.

She offers some invaluable advice about what to expect when playing for special-needs kids, what kind of music she plays for them, and how to deal with situations that might make you uncomfortable. She includes several heart-warming stories of the children's reactions to her playing.

- Ann Drinan

Q: What made you get involved with special-needs kids?

I have a child with special needs so I became comfortable with that population, and I realized these kids are just like anyone else. They love music. All the special-needs kids that I know love music just as much as other kids. It doesn’t matter what kind of music – all kinds. You can get them to move to music, speak to music, play on drums, dance, sing, etc.

My mother was a piano teacher and worked with blind and visually-impaired kids, and she still does. She’s one of the few who can still convert music to Braille.

Even though I grew up around her students, I wasn’t comfortable with them. She’d ask me to play my violin for them. I would but I felt awkward. I didn’t know how to work with her students, but now I can do it, because of being around my son and his friends and classmates so much.

Q: When did you realize that music was a good way to reach kids with special needs?

From the very beginning, my son heard me practicing. I would play music all the time, I would sing to him – anything to stimulate his brain. We did massage; they played music during his therapy sessions – physical therapy, occupational therapy.

Someone suggested the Tomatis system for my son. It’s a way to stimulate a certain area of the brain, for kids with speech deficits, autism, and ADD. They start with a Mozart violin concerto because it has high frequencies, which stimulate the brain better. They filter out certain frequencies and then add the mother’s voice. I had to read into a microphone. As time goes on, they reduce frequencies in the Mozart until the only thing that’s left is a high-pitched scratch.

When the kids start listening to the Mozart, they listen using headphones, while they are playing with blocks and balls, etc. A lot of the kids scream because they hate it. The sessions last for an hour at a time.

My son had one session a day, 15 days in a row, and each day more frequencies were filtered out. By the 15th day he was just hearing the high-frequency scratch. After 3 months, he was treated for 8 more days; then he had another 3 month break, followed by 8 more days of treatment.

In my son’s case, it stimulated his speech centers. He was hardly speaking at all when we started, but after an hour of this therapy, he would use full sentences with new vocabulary, and he would retain all of it.

It was unbelievable. It didn’t help his attention-deficit problem, but for his speech, it was miraculous.

Q: Did you have any special training for what you do? A college class?

No, I have an MM in violin performance. Today many schools offer 5-year programs in music therapy. Music therapy is not just for children – there are geriatric programs as well.

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