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W&L Music Professor Eases Daughter's Autism with Music

Barry Kolman wasn’t expecting the outpouring of emotion from the audience after he and his 13-year-old daughter, Emmanuela, finished their clarinet duet at the annual convention of the Virginia Counselors Association last November. Then again, Kolman did realize that it was no ordinary performance: Emmanuela has autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

“People were just floored because they had never seen a kid who has autism play the clarinet,” recalled Kolman. “Children with autism can play piano because it’s easier—you press a button and get a sound. But with the clarinet there are a lot of things going on at once, and kids with autism have a hard time doing more than one thing at a time. People came up to us afterwards with tears in their eyes to hug my daughter.”

Kolman is a professor of music at Washington and Lee University. His wife, Grace, is a counselor and a doctoral student in counseling and supervision at James Madison University. Along with Emmanuela—Mano, for short—the couple had attended the convention to present their paper, “Autism Spectrum: Emotional Regulation through Clarinet Lessons.” Attendees included guidance counselors and music therapists.

The paper resulted from their three-month investigation into how learning to play the clarinet affected Mano’s emotional behavior. In their presentation, Grace Kolman explained how music stimulated the neurons in Mano’s brain, while Barry Kolman described the lessons from his point of view as the teacher, and how learning to play affected Mano’s behavior.

The idea for the family project came from the couple’s desire to combine music, the psychology of music and counseling. “We were constantly talking about music and psychology, and music and the brain,” said Barry, “especially with Mano having autism. When you love your daughter as much as I do, you have to ask yourself, ‘What can I do with what I know?’ And I know that music heals. Perhaps with my music and Grace’s experience and knowledge of assessment and treatment, I could find the key to make Mano’s life easier.”

Mano’s musical studies began when the band director at her school invited her to play in the beginner’s band. She chose the clarinet, her father’s instrument.

Before, Mano felt excluded from groups at school, bullied and ridiculed. “Being chosen for the band was a big deal,” Barry explained. “Now she was part of a group and was wanted and needed. It gave her more confidence that she was not so different from everyone else. So that gave us the impetus to give her clarinet lessons at home to reinforce the band classes at school and to start this investigation.”

Barry stressed that, unlike most music therapy, his approach used music as a total experience. He did not take just one aspect, such as rhythm, to modify her behavior. “I knew this approach could produce results for Mano, but I was also interested in observing my own changes as a teacher,” he said.

On the autism spectrum, Mano is high-functioning, which means she can talk and express her feelings. Before learning the instrument, she often succumbed to emotional breakdowns and outbursts and couldn’t explain why. “She was very frustrated at school because nobody would play with her and she felt alone, so she would act out her frustration, especially on the weekends at home,” said Barry.

Now, post-music, “there is barely an outburst,” Barry said. “She is aware of her feelings and can stop herself from going there. There’s something in playing music that evened out her behavior and calmed her down a lot.” She has more confidence in school, not only in music but in other subjects as well, and is also speaking more English to express her feelings. (She came to the United States two years ago from her native Brazil.)

Mano also has short-term memory problems, forgetting what she had for lunch, her coat, her books and her homework. To remedy the situation, Barry gave Mano his own first clarinet, explaining that his father had given it to him and that it was a very special instrument. He told her to take care of it and bring it home every day. “That’s a big deal for someone who tends to forget,” said Barry. “But because I gave her that talk and because she was learning clarinet, she brought it back every single day. She never forgot the clarinet.”

The clarinet lessons also had an effect on Barry. Despite his bachelor’s degree in music education, “basically everything I learned in school I had to throw out of the window,” he said. “For example, I give private lessons to middle-school kids, and I’m used to saying maybe three commands in one sentence. Finger it this way, breath this way and tongue that way. And most children accept those three commands. But with Mano I couldn’t do that. I had to take really small baby steps and do one thing at a time.”

He also found that if he went beyond 20 minutes for a lesson, Mano would lose concentration. And lessons needed to be at a time when she wasn’t tired or easily distracted.

Where the lessons took place was also important. The downstairs laundry room at home did not work, but the dining room, with the rest of the family as an audience, did. “She reacted well and was almost showing off in front of everyone,” he said. “I couldn’t believe how well she played. Things we’d been working on for three weeks, all of a sudden just popped out with the right rhythm, the right timing and the right tone.”

Barry also learned to be flexible. When giving private clarinet lessons, he has a certain regimen and an idea of what he wants to accomplish in each lesson. “Teaching Mano taught me a lot of things and changed my attitude,” he said.

One example came when father was trying to convey to daughter the difference between the black notes (which indicate individual single beats) and notes that are not colored in (half notes which last for two beats). Mano suddenly said, pointing to the black notes, “It’s like dark chocolate.” And, pointing to the white notes: “It’s like white chocolate.”

“In a different situation, I would probably have said ‘That’s very nice,’ and moved on,” admitted Barry. “But I know Mano loves chocolate, and so I diverted from my path and it was a delightful lesson. I accomplished the same thing, just in a different way, from following Mano’s cues.

“I was also impressed with Mano’s progress in learning to play the clarinet. To even get a tone out of the clarinet was amazing, but she did it in the second lesson. She was able to get a decent sound and not just a squeak or a squawk,” he said. “That’s quite an accomplishment. Many children get frustrated if they can’t make that first sound, but Mano was persistent and tried continuously until she made a good sound.”

Barry also taught Mano how to play a duet with him. “Sometimes she would stop playing when we were trying a duet because she thought I was playing the wrong note, or that I wasn’t quite at the right spot. So I tried to explain to her what a duet was all about,” he said. “I chose on purpose a duet where one part is different from the other part to see how independent she had become.”

Mano’s new independence was evident at the November presentation to the counselors. After the first duet, the audience wanted an encore. Mano chose “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” It had no harmony part, so Barry made one up while she played. “I thought I might mess up her concentration because my harmony was so different to what she was playing. But she played right along with the correct beat—she didn’t rush or slow down—and people were just amazed and gave us a standing ovation,” he said.

Since her parents began this project, Mano was selected by the school’s band director to play in the band’s debut holiday concert at the high school, placing her in the upper echelons of that group and furthering her acceptance.

Mano now practices her clarinet in her own time. “This is awesome, because kids with autism don’t practice,” noted Barry. “She can also now read music and gets good grades in all her quizzes and tests in music.”

Both Grace and Barry appreciate the band director’s invitations to Mano. “For the first time in her life, Mano felt part of a group. She feels like she belongs to the band and even brags about being better than other band members,” said Grace. “Teaching children and adolescents with ASD to play an instrument is a matter of inclusion more than performance. School counselors need to work closely with music teachers to support them and the children during the learning process.”

Barry Kolman kept a journal of his lessons with Mano, which can be found on his website: www.maestrokolman.com.

He conducts the University-Shenandoah Symphony Orchestra (USSO), along with teaching music fundamentals, introduction to music, applied clarinet and conducting. He is a frequent guest conductor of orchestras around the world and is the author of a book, “The Language of Music Revealed” (Universal Publishers, 2012).