Grading on the Curve

Boulder's Belle Curve Records makes music for a very specialized audience.

Three million children nationwide have been identified as having "special needs," but the term is so broad that it covers disorders from autism to lisping. Such kids generally have at least one thing in common, though: It's often difficult for them to learn in a traditional classroom setting. Likewise, they often catch on to concepts more quickly if their parents, guardians or teachers use methods geared to their conditions. Which is where Boulder's Belle Curve Records comes in.

Belle Curve is dedicated to the creation of therapeutic music and educational audiotapes for special-needs youngsters. In the eight years since it was formed, the firm has received raves from caregivers across the country, and while the explanations offered for these positive responses by company founders Aubrey Carton, Bob Wiz and Lois Hickman tend to be heavy with jargon, the three aren't afraid to use silliness alongside science. Marvelous Mouth Music: Songs for Speech Therapy and Beyond, the latest Belle Curve release, has serious aims, but it's also entertaining, and that's the key. Music greases the slides for learning speech patterns; anyone who's ever heard tots parroting jingles from television commercials knows that. But Mouth Music uses this idea to more productive ends.

At this point, most educators agree that music can be an excellent teaching aid. As Carton notes, "There's a lot of research on how children with learning disabilities or attention deficits learn more efficiently and effectively when the material is paired with music or gesture." But the reasons behind the phenomenon remain elusive. "I think it's because music goes to the limbic part of the brain, which is where emotional memory resides," she ventures. "As soon as learning is linked up with emotional memory, then it's stored in the long-term rather than the short-term memory."

Carton arrived at this theory after years spent mingling her love of children with her love of music. The holder of a master's degree in occupational therapy, she worked as a therapist for Children's Hospital in Denver until the early Nineties. But she also enjoyed a concurrent career as a musician; her 1994 CD, The Pleasure Dance, won a Westword Best of Denver award and was reissued earlier in 1998 on Synergy, a new jazz label just profiled in these pages ("Jazz in Synergy," March 19). "I have this weird combination of a keen interest in children's issues and rehab. And I've done a lot of singing," she relates. "My grandmother was a professional opera singer, and a lot of people in my family were doctors or involved with medicine."

Hickman and Wiz have backgrounds similar to Carton's: She's a practitioner of child-centered therapy who paid her way through grad school teaching piano and playing for a church choir, while he's a member of the Kroku Drummers, an Afro-Caribbean group, and a music instructor whose "creative piano" technique encompasses theory, technique, composition and improv. (Carton describes him as "the kind of music teacher you wish you had as a child.") Together this trio has conjured up an oeuvre of so-called "Songames" designed to help youths in the areas of speech and vision therapy, sensory integration and motor development.

Belle Curve's originators also envision these tunes as providing an extra dose of language exposure and experimentation. Such stimuli is important: A recent study at the University of Iowa linked the number of words a baby hears in the first year of life to the ability to think rationally, reason abstractly and solve problems later in life. But as Carton notes, "If both parents are working or if the family is really stressed, chances are that they're not going to be able to engage the child in a conversation or expose the child to a broader range of language outside of safety management language--'Don't touch that burner!'--or punitive language--'No! Don't! Stop!' Families with children with special needs are often under a great deal of stress, so they don't have the time to take breaks and play. The parents aren't getting enough play and the kids aren't getting enough play, and so we want to introduce a structure for playful activity, and then they can generate their own play from there."

Of course, Wiz acknowledges, some guardians probably let the tapes do the talking for them and skip the interactive part. "But it's like views on TV," he allows. "Some people say TV is bad, while others are discriminating about the TV they use--and some people use the TV as a surrogate. All we can speak for is our intention in the creation of it: to honor the individual child and to engage them on the level of imagination. And if they're not engaged with their parent, at least they're engaged with themselves."

Mouth Music is more than capable of grabbing the attention of anyone, young or old, in part because of its instantaneous familiarity. Some of the offering's 21 cuts feature African drumming intended to help children overcome common rhythmicity problems, while others are revamped versions of traditional ditties such as "Claire de Lune" and "Shoo Fly." Many of the latter were chosen at the suggestion of Suzanne Evans Morris, an internationally known speech-language pathologist based near Charlottesville, Virginia, who served as a consultant on the project. "We got really intimate supervision from Suzanne," Carton says. "We recorded a bunch of songs and sent them to her, and she would give us incredibly detailed feedback about what worked and what didn't work, and then we'd go back in and change it. It was kind of a laborious process, but as a result, it's really her clinical thinking in music that seems like it's not clinical at all." She adds, "There's a historical precedent to why we used the folk songs that we did. Some melodies are transcultural. And Suzanne believes that there's a familiarity to some of these folk melodies that encourages participation among adults--and they're easier for kids to learn."

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