Collaborating With Specialists

An orchestra often does presentations with musicians only. Let us examine the difference in impact and effectiveness if symphony musicians team with a music therapist.

Let’s examine two presentations we did recently, one with musician performers only, the other with musicians and a music therapist, Emily Menhorn, MT-BC.

Program I:

The first of these presentations involved a symphony cellist, and the author playing violin. The program was held at a K-12 special needs school. We played twice, once for K-8 students and again for 9-12. There were 30-40 in the younger group and 20-30 in the high school group.

Having never been to the school, I knew very little about the students and how they would respond, so after we introduced ourselves I picked up the ocean drum from the collection on the tables behind us. I started tipping the ocean drum and asked the students what it sounded like (all answers accepted): “How many of you have been to the ocean? How many have been in the rain? So what do you think this instrument is called?” I had some of them try tilting the drum and experimenting with it. With the children watching the beads move as well as actively making the sound change, the ocean drum was a very effective way to engage the audience. Then I introduced the rain stick and asked them what it sounded like (Some thought it sounded like a creek or a waterfall).

By this time we were getting more comfortable with each other, so next I asked them to sing the tones that the cellist gave them, trying to match pitch. They were a bit hesitant at first but gradually produced a sound. The cellist and students kept up the drone while I played a bagpipe melody” Signal Mountain Sunrise” over it, so together we WERE the bagpipe.

Then I introduced the bagpipe version of “The Water is Wide” and ask if anybody knew what the song was called. I read the words, and then the cellist and I played the song. I encouraged them to hum or sing the melody if they knew it and fed them the next lines whenever I had a long note.

For the K-8 group we sang/played “Are You Sleeping,” first together, and then we divided the room into two parts and sang it as a round. We sang/played “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” Then we had half the room sing “Are You Sleeping” while the other half sang “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” at the same time.

The next round, “Hey Ho, Nobody Home” I taught in sections: “Hey ho, nobody home,” then “meat, nor drink, nor money have I none.”  Depending on the response, the cellist kept going with the song while everybody else stayed on “hey ho, nobody home.”

When working with the high school students, I started with “Hey ho, nobody home.”

Next I asked everyone to stand.

I asked them to start marching and to listen to the sound of their feet so they all would all step together. Adding the drum, I said, “Now listen as we start ‘Old Joe Clark’ because we may change speed…”

After we played that song, we had the students all get percussion instruments.

We played the “Chicken Reel.” I asked them “What movements does a chicken do; what sounds does it make? Why is this called ‘Chicken Reel?’ It suddenly stops and starts, so listen for the changes.”

We ended this activity with “Pennsylvania Polka” (some sang and knew the words.) As the song ended, I played a loud tremolo note and encouraged them to respond loudly, then softly, then loudly; then we all did a big crescendo and then stopped together. Anyone with a percussion instrument put it under their chair.

They sat.

I ask if anybody had ever gone ice-skating or roller-skating.  I indicated that their Phys Ed teacher would lead them as they moved to “Skaters Waltz” and
“Take Me Out to the Ball Game” (They ended up moving and singing along.)

The cellist told them about his instrument: who made it, when and where. He played a Bach Prelude (On other occasions he has played erhu with someone accompanying on a drum.)

We ended with “Saturday Night Waltz.” With the remaining time K-8 tried out percussion instruments.

For the older students, after the cellist played his solo they pulled out their percussion instruments, someone else started laying down the beat, and the cellist and I played “Swallowtail Jig.”


I could imagine a second visit with different players, but I would be hard-pressed to come up with new material if only the cellist and I were the ones to return.

Program II:

For the second event, a music therapist, an orchestra percussionist, and the author, playing viola, presented for a high school special needs class of 30-35 students at their local library. A year earlier I had done an interactive session with this same group, but with the orchestra cellist from Program I. So they were familiar with me and I recognized many of them.


 This time the music therapist and I made a number of planning phone calls and emails: she sent a tentative outline, I gave feedback and send her copies of possible pieces, and she chose from them. We decided who would bring what instruments and agreed that she would lead the session. We set goals for the session: we would work on impulse control, following directions, and responding appropriately. Torrell Moss, percussionist and PSO OTPAAM Fellow, was part of our team.

Setup: We set up in a semi–circle, with percussion instruments for the participants in the middle.

The three of us interacted with participants as they got settled and picked percussion instruments. The percussionist and the music therapist initiated some short one-on-one percussion conversations to get some of the kids on board and get acquainted.  The percussionist and I also encouraged or showed kids how to tap or hit instruments gently.

We introduced our instruments and ourselves.

Since the students were eager to play their instruments, I played “Lannigan’s Ball” while the students interacted with the music therapist and the percussionist. Next, the music therapist led “What is Your Name.” She played a rhythm for the phrase “What is your name?” and went around the semi-circle. Each person had a turn to play their instrument using the rhythm created by saying their name. The rest of the group responded back (in their own way) by echoing the rhythm and name. The percussionist and I helped guide the students’ responses.

We began a call and response: I played a walking bass line while the music therapist prompted her audience to repeat after her the rhythms she played on her instrument. Our percussionist reinforced her rhythmic patterns so the group heard them more clearly. The music therapist varied dynamics and tempo so that by the end of the experience the audience was playing fast and loudly.  The percussionist supported the exchange as he saw opportunities, looking out for any who might find it too loud. This activity was followed by me playing the “Pennsylvania Polka” and letting the students improvise throughout the song. The percussionist helped engage kids who were not responding.

The music therapist initiated a story: “traveling through the jungle” using instruments. She started the story with the person holding the ocean drum, imagining we were near the ocean or a waterfall. Someone added the sounds of the rain stick, and then castanets as the story developed. The audience called out and played the sounds of animals they saw in the jungle. She sped up the tempo to signify running and otherwise varied the sounds to keep the students’ attention.

Then the instruments went under the chairs and all who were able to stood up for a movement activity led by the music therapist. I played “Swallow Tail Jig” (an upbeat song).  The percussionist provided percussion support and nonverbally suggested rhythmic ideas and variations. This went on for a while!  Then they sat back down.

Using foam balls, the music therapist introduced a game using the song “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” She asked her audience to choose a number that she could use as part of the game. She encouraged half of the audience to sing while the other half of the group held foam balls (working on impulse control). Once she called out the number, that was the signal for the kids to try to throw the balls into the laundry basket placed on the floor near her. Then the balls were handed over to the other half of the kids and they also tried to make a basket.

The next part of our program featured our percussionist playing a solo on a practice pad, because a snare drum would have been too loud for that group. The students were ABSOLUTELY quiet for this, with one student totally immersed in the sound, swaying his whole body in time to the tempo.

Later the percussionist did a demo of the talking drum as well as the free wing instrument.

Our final activity was relaxation movement – I played “Molly Malone” while the music therapist had the audience take deep breaths and use gross motor movements, stretching and breathing techniques. The movement quieted down until the students became very still, listening to the viola playing the song as a solo. The percussionist supported this activity on percussion as needed.

The music therapist played two guitar songs as the percussionist and I handed out fidgets* and picked up instruments. She kept playing as we all clapped in rhythm.


What did I notice about this follow-up event?

The class remembered me from last year, so they were immediately more comfortable and open to following directions trying out new activities. The group was more unified and outward directed, responding, listening, imitating and reacting to us. They were VERY attentive as the percussionist played. Our student tambourine player latched onto the same instrument this year as last year but was willing to try soft use of covered sticks and gentle taps with hand and fingers, as opposed to hitting the drum forcefully. And he stopped when asked, showing much more restraint and control. He paid more attention to what others were doing and to what the tempo was. Success!!!!


What was the difference between the two events in the level and depth of the interaction?

From my perspective, with Program II the burden of planning and presenting was on the music therapist, so the percussionist and I were free to do what we knew best: play. The music therapist knew a great many ways of approaching the event, and could design many activities around the specific goals of the session. By the same token, the music therapist was also glad to have professional musicians as part of the team: because of this collaboration, the music therapist had a greater range of sounds, colors and styles of music. She could use the sound quality of live professional musicians to increase her effectiveness. She could keep her focus on the actions and reactions of the audience.

I could easily imagine further sessions using the same musicians guided by the music therapist: sessions designed to increase appropriate social behaviors and decrease inappropriate behaviors, increase attention to tasks, increase vocalizations, verbalizations, gestures, vocabulary and comprehension, increase communication and engagement with others, enhance body awareness and coordination, and reduce anxiety. Each session could build on the previous one, having a lasting, cumulative effect. Including a music therapist makes invaluable life skills training possible.


 If we expand our collaborations with trained music professionals, particularly music therapists; if we create deeper interactions tailored to the specific needs of the audience, many more of our community engagement events can have a cumulative, lasting and profound impact. And they can be a transforming experience for all the participants, musicians and audience alike.

*This particular fidget is in the form of a baseball, with added moveable arms and legs. Fidgets are used for calming and quieting agitation or anxiety.

This article is adapted from a paper published in the journal Music and Medicine 2016 Volume 8 Issue 3 Pages 112-117 Addressing Community Concerns Through Music.