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Beat NF: Understanding How Music Therapy Helps Children with NF1

cbriggsWelcome to a special guest post from Beat NF Music Therapist, Dr. Cynthia Briggs!
Cynthia Briggs, PhD, is a licensed Music Therapist and faculty member at Maryville University. She has collaborated with the Washington University NF Center and Jazz St. Louis to create Beat NF–a jazz music therapy program for toddlers with NF1.
Music Therapy for Children with NF1
The components of music include rhythm, tonality, meter, phrasing, accent, melody, harmony and lyrics. In music therapy, these components become the tools used to address specific therapeutic needs and to facilitate skill development. As a music therapist, my goal is to understand what types of skills a person in therapy is seeking to attain and then to find a way to integrate the potential for skill development into music. During Beat NF, we looked at multiple skills that are commonly delayed in children with NF1 and found ways to integrate those skills directly into jazz music.
Learning and AttentionBeatNF_Sess6_11
Many children with NF1 experience challenges with learning and attention as well as processing and retrieving information. Because the structure of music organizes information and facilitates memory and retrieval, it is the perfect tool for developing learning skills. One of our many goals during Beat NF was to create songs that required children to follow specific steps and actions in order to learn a new skill. By breaking skills down into simple steps, children had the opportunity to better process and retrieve new information.
Executive Function
Executive function, or the ability or plan, problem solve and execute solutions, is also an area that is often delayed in children with NF1. Music relies on components such as rhythm and meter in order to exist. These components readily lend themselves to sequencing activities. A child learns that a pause in the music means you wait and that in order to stay on the beat with your peers you must attend to your surroundings. At Beat NF, children had the opportunity to play a special instrument called an Orff Instrument, similar to a xylophone. We challenged children to play on a beat rather than simply playing randomly. By practicing this skill, children worked on planning and managing impulsive behaviors.
Language SkillsBeatNF_Sess6_04
Children with NF1 also experience delays in expressive (spoken) and receptive (heard) speech. Because music is built from the same elements as speech (rhythm, tonality, inflection, accent), it is an excellent way to practice language skills. When words are set to music, it can help children to attain more fluid speech. Encouraging children to sing a phrase and then speak the same phrase can help them transfer the fluidity of music into their spoken language.
Motor Skills
Motor skills, both fine or finger-based and gross or whole body-based, can be delayed in children with NF1. Music can be used to encourage movement in multiple ways. First, it can be written directly into a song. At each Beat NF session, we played an original Motor Song which encouraged children with NF1 to practice specific motor skills such as jumping and balancing. Even without writing the specific movements into a song, music can still be used to encourage motor development. Setting music as a background to movement can encourage fluidity. Changing the meter of the music from slow to fast can encourage children to change the rate of their movements. There are endless ways to encourage motor development through music.
We were so thrilled to have so many children participate in Beat NF this session and even more thrilled to see each child’s personal growth. We hope to see you all in the Fall!
Cynthia Briggs, PhD