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Music on the Mind

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For centuries, philosophers, anthropologists and political scientists have discussed and studied the arts as a vehicle for transcending social and political barriers. What happens when the arts serve as a vehicle for communicating and understanding physical disabilities and personality disorders? Can music, in particular, alter the discourse and approach to treating those perceived as disabled by the medical community?

These are some of the questions renowned ethnomusicologist, Dr. Michael Bakan, will address at his lecture on Monday, April 21, at VSA Indiana's space in the Harrison Center for the Arts. In 2005, Bakan shifted his focus away from the traditional ethnomusicological work of field recording primitive cultures to using musical performance as a way to engage and understand the needs of people on the autism spectrum. His work has taken shape in the form of the Artism Project at Florida State University, where Bakan has created an outlet for autistic musicians by creating an Exploratory World Music Playground (E-WoMP).

Through his work with children who are on the autism-Asperger's spectrum, Bakan's views on even the language used to describe their challenges and assets has evolved. - COURTESY OF ARTISM PROJECT
  • Courtesy of Artism Project
  • Through his work with children who are on the autism-Asperger's spectrum, Bakan's views on even the language used to describe their challenges and assets has evolved.

"The approach is in [an E-WoMP], these kids diagnosed with autism, Asperger's, whatever it's called, these are the culture bearers," Bakan says. "These are the cultural insiders. These are the experts. Their cultural way of being, which we might call autistic, that's normative in that environment. If I go into the Balinese gamelan environment I don't try to tell them to speak my language or play my music, I try and figure out how they do theirs and why it works and what it means to them."

Prior to his lecture, Bakan will lead an E-WoMP at the Rhythm Discovery Center as part of a professional development opportunity. The performance will include VSAI staff and students, music therapists from Noble of Indiana, teachers of students with special needs and others. "It's going to be learning through a drum circle, basically," VSAI's manager of grants and marketing, Lydia Campbell-Maher says. "We'll have the opportunity to learn through doing, which I think is effective."

Campbell-Maher met Bakan at the annual meeting of the Society for Ethnomusicology, which was held in Indianapolis last year. The two saw a synergy in Bakan's work and the overall mission of VSAI during a short conversation. This initial discussion led VSAI to invite Bakan back to Indy to share his work with the VSAI community.

From Prescription to Description

In 2005, Bakan's research focused on building successful experiences and confidence, responses to bids for reciprocity -- established benchmarks of remediation and intervention when working with persons on the spectrum. "I kind of bought into that," he says. "It even got to the point where we did a randomized clinical trial, and we were working with folks from the medical school on autism research. Quite honestly, had I continued in that direction it probably would have been much more lucrative than what I'm doing now, because there's a lot of interest in funding research that produces those kinds of measures and outcomes."

Balkan is speaking next Monday, right here in Indianapolis.
  • Balkan is speaking next Monday, right here in Indianapolis.

Through exposure to other kinds of paradigms, especially autistic self-advocacy, Bakan realized that people on the autism spectrum were not buying into the kind of standard research model of trying to fix and cure. Instead, he found they were "militarily hostile" toward it. As a result, he shifted his focus from prescribing to understanding.

Paraphrasing Mantle Hood, a pioneer in the field of ethnomusicology, Bakan says, "When you've learned to play it, when you've learned to dance it, when you've learned to sing it, you've earned the right to talk about it. As kind of a twist on that, what I've noticed lately is that through the years of working with these same kids who have grown from younger kids through their teenage years and getting to know them through the musical experience and other things that derive from it, I've earned the right not so much to talk about them but to talk with them."

In an interview, Dr. Bakan talked a lot about changing the linguistics around disability studies. He is a champion of the term neurodiversity. Bakan and autism self-advocates define neurodiversity as the understanding of neurological variation as a natural form of human diversity, subject to the same societal dynamics as other forms of diversity such as race, gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation. This spoke directly to the VSAI staff. "We tend to use a label-free approach in our classes," Campbell-Maher says. "Our students are able to tell us their disabilities if they would like to, but we don't really define an individual by their disability. All of our programs are completely inclusive, so we encourage those without disabilities to participate, with the idea that we can create a more harmonious society all together."

Bakan's lecture is free and open to the public, however attendees and supporters can donate via Power 2 Give to help defray the costs of bringing him to Indianapolis. While anyone can attend, space is limited and attendees are encouraged to register for the event. Campbell-Maher hopes the lecture provokes thoughts on how we view each other, encourages people to be more aware of others and inclusive in every setting. She also hopes attendees who are active in the disability service community will leave with actionable ideas to implement in their own programs.

"Disability rights are fairly recent in our history, which is somewhat shocking," Campbell-Maher says. "We're about to reach the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disability Act, which gives people the right to be in classes, in schools, and in public buildings. Sometimes when disabilities are hidden or perceived safe, an emotional disorder or a mental illness, we judge and dismiss somebody or isolate them for unfair reasons. We believe that the arts have the power to transcend these differences, and that's why we're around."

Bakan echoed this sentiment while underscoring the tenets of ethnomusicology, "In the moment of the ritual experience of music making and musical reception, some of the political, ideological or cultural boundaries and barriers that are normally in effect can be, at least momentarily suspended, if not transcended," he says.

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