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Grading on the Curve

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."

"It relates to the same way that there are fairy tales and myths that have been passed down for generations," Wiz elaborates. "Though the words have changed, the melodies have come down. I don't know if it's passed down genetically or in the morphogenetic field or what, but I think there really is something to the fact that they are archetypal--that they have these shapes to them that on a really basic level make sense."

The first song on Mouth Music is a case in point. "The Vocal Pokey," a variation on "The Hokey Pokey," has all the appeal of an old-fashioned sing-along, but it incorporates deep breathing, blabbing, raspberries and even Tarzan yodels that encourage kids to join in. "Our agenda was to start with something really familiar so that the listeners would know from the very beginning that these songs are interactive," Carton explains. "So in 'The Vocal Pokey,' we're adopting the personas of these creative, gregarious people who are making these wacky sounds as a kind of blind model for parents to learn how to engage their children in more playful sound play."

"Sing to My Lou" expands on this notion by inviting children to laugh, cry and yawn to their Lou, and subsequent tracks encourage the listener to jabber incoherently in order to experience speech on its most effortless and natural level. As Carton puts it, "Sound that comes out of babble is just pure emotion--pure gestural sound from feeling. As we get older, we get more of a repertoire of vocabulary, so we have more ways to shade that feeling with different word choices. But if you drop it down to, say, when you're getting a massage and you're making those mmmms and aaaahs, that's the essential response to the feeling you're having. So it's getting back into that response to sensation.

"I think that can occur at any age," she continues. "I wish Caspar Weinberger would babble more. That's why we are so perfectly goofy on these tapes--because we're trying to give people implicit permission to make silly noises."

This daffiness does not come at the expense of therapeutic concerns. In the informational booklet that accompanies Mouth Music, for example, each cut is rated for complexity of music, environment, language, vocal play and articulation--specialist-speak headings that carry implications regarding melody, narrative and the volume and duration of vowel sounds, among other things. But Wiz claims that such detailed considerations don't prevent the Belle Curvers from enjoying the music they make. "What I'm discovering, as we do more and more of these tapes, is that just because you have a specific goal in mind doesn't mean that it has to be this linear process that you go through to create it," he remarks. "You can still let yourself be inspired."

"The deliberation only makes us feel like were honing in on what's going to work for kids," Carton concurs. "So deliberation is actually an exciting thing."

The Belle Curve formula for overcoming developmental impediments has myriad possibilities. "One of the projects that we really would love to work on is a tape of Songames and stories for burn patients," Carton enthuses. "Children who have had serious burns have to do a lot of passive range-of-motion activities in order to keep the area where the skin has been burned supple during the rehab process, and it's just nasty painful. We'd like to create Songames that would help the kids engage cortically so that they're not as present in the pain."

That Carton, Wiz and Hickman are able to consider making such a tape demonstrates that they've found a market for their specialized recordings. (The imprint's products are marketed nationwide through catalogues for rehabilitation equipment. They can also be obtained by writing to Belle Curve Records, P.O. Box 18387, Boulder, CO 80308, or by visiting its Web site at www.bellecurve.com.) Still, they believe that their success owes as much to their sense of fun as it does to their clinical acumen. "Kids respond to play, and we know how to play," Wiz says. "We haven't forgotten how to do that. And that's our saving grace.


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