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Music: Feel The Rhythm

Justin Vollmar’s one-year-old daughter, Clarisa
Justin and Clarisa

Music writer Anthea Skinner discovers a music therapy program for children who are DeafBlind.

People who are DeafBlind have a combination of vision and hearing loss. DeafBlind children often experience delays in communication, motor skills and socialisation. Music therapy and music education can assist in the development of these skills, helping to bring the outside world to children who often struggle with isolation.

In Link’s October 2014 issue we discussed some of the issues facing deaf people in accessing music. Depending of their level of hearing impairment, DeafBlind people may hear little, if any, of the music itself, but they are also cut off from the visual aspects of performance. Unable to see musical instruments, or the people playing them, a DeafBlind person receives little information on the way sound is made or music is produced.

Justin Vollmar’s one-year-old daughter, Clarisa, was born DeafBlind. Justin, who is Deaf himself, explains some of the barriers his daughter faces in learning to understand the world around her: “The brain receives 70 per cent of information through the seeing sense. The brain receives 25 per cent of information about the world through the hearing sense. Smell, taste and feel accounts for only five per cent. 

“Imagine living with 95 per cent sensory loss on a daily basis. Imagine every time you use your senses, you miss out on 95 per cent of the information flow to the brain… Clarisa’s brain is fine but she has an ‘information disability.’”

The effect of DeafBlindness as an ‘information disability’ is far reaching, especially for children who, like Clarisa, are born DeafBlind and who have little, if any residual sight or hearing. Children who are DeafBlind often struggle to acquire language. Unable to hear or see people speaking or signing around them, they rely on direct tactile communication, such as tactile sign language, to learn to communicate. DeafBlindness can also cause delays in motor control and socialisation because children do not reach out in response to objects and people that they are unable to see or hear. “DeafBlind babies may not know much about their surroundings. They may think that the environment is so small,” explains Justin, “Clarisa does not know that a very big world exists… We want to get her curious about her surroundings.”

Music is a great way to encourage this curiosity. DeafBlind children appreciate music through any residual hearing or sight that they may have, as well as by feeling the vibrations cause by sound waves. 

At one year old, Clarisa Vollmar is just beginning her musical journey. Last year her family were donated a Subpac, a tactile audio system which translates music into vibrations. Subpacs are just one of a number of technologies designed to amplify vibrations without amplifying sound. The most simple of these are soundboards, large, hollow wooden boards which transmit vibrations to anyone sitting or lying on them. Unlike soundboards, which are acoustic and amplify any sound in the room, Subpacs are electronic and only amplify specific recordings that are played on them.

Clarisa’s new Subpac has already increased her interest in music, and is encouraging her to reach out and explore her world. “Her reaction to it was very fascinating and heart-warming. The first time she touched the Subpac, I did not turn on the music. I wanted Clarisa to feel the texture and get used to it,” Justin explains. “Then I turned it on at a low volume and low vibration. She jerked her hands away. Then after a while, she brought her hand back on it. She enjoyed feeling the vibrations. I increased the volume to medium level. The vibrations were booming. Her hands would dart up and down the Subpac, feeling the texture and vibrations. Then at the next time, I put it under her feet. Her feet really moved all over the Subpac surface.”

Clarisa is also developing definite tastes in music, and is learning to communicate those likes and dislikes to her parents. “We have tried many different types of music but the music she seems to like the most is techno,” says Justin. “Also music with medium range vibrations is better for her. She does not like fast beats and high vibrations. Low pitch is also hard to feel through the Subpac. She will express her dislikes by turning away from the Subpac and getting into a defensive posture. When she enjoys the music, she will continue to put her hand on the Subpac.” For a child with 95 per cent sensory loss, learning to communicate like this is a major achievement.

As Clarisa grows, Justin and his family will continue to expose her to music, and all the benefits it can bring. “I am really glad that she is getting a positive exposure to the world of music,” says Justin. “We have added music to her night time routine. Every night before she goes to bed, I will turn on the Subpac and after enjoying the music, she will turn to her side and suck her hand, getting ready to sleep.”