Music Belongs to Everyone: Moments of Progress in Community Music Therapy with Musicians with Severe Disabilities

By Luca Tiszai


The article describes novel and successful projects involving musicians with severe disabilities and adolescent music students. The Nádizumzuzum Orchestra consists of adult members of a nursing home. They are able to play music with a newly developed method called Consonate. The young musicians are students of the Zoltán Kodály Hungarian Choir School. This article presents the historical and socio-political background of the project to illustrate how music therapy grows from particular cultural and political circumstances of Hungary, and therefore takes a particular Hungarian form and flavour. The article also reflects on the wider context of the international research and practice of Community Music Therapy.

Keywords: Community Music Therapy, Hungary, severe disabilities, social inclusion, orchestra

Cultural Background: Hungary, the Country of Zoltán Kodály

Zoltán Kodály, a Hungarian composer, ethnomusicologist, and music educator of the early 20th century, played a highly influential role in the modernization of music education. His movable solfa system is well known in his country and abroad. His dream was to build a musical nation, where musical literacy (the ability to sight read) is a part of national culture. Thus, he strove for compulsory music education as an integral part of education in kindergarten and in elementary school (Forrai, 1988, p. 8). In order to reach his goal, he also emphasized how important the musical education of kindergarten and elementary school teachers is. As he put it, “Real art is one of the most powerful forces in the rise of mankind, and he who renders it accessible to as many people as possible is a benefactor of humanity” (Kodály, 1974, p.175). He proclaimed the priority of singing and promoted the renewal of the Hungarian Choir movement. Kodály (1941/2007a,) believed that “Musical education contributes to the many-sided capabilities of a child, affecting not only specific musical aptitudes but his general hearing, his ability to concentrate, his conditional reflexes, his emotional horizon and his physical culture” (p. 93).

He established primary schools specializing in singing nationwide. Furthermore, the strict centralization of education during the communist time put an emphasis on music education and made the Kodály method the only possible way of teaching music in Hungary. The result of this regulation is that the generation who finished elementary school before the political change is considered to be generally better trained in music than those who graduated later. My general experience is that people from the previous generation are able to read musical notes, know around 100 folk songs by heart, and are able to recognize the most popular classical pieces. Teaching the younger generation, I was surprised that they cannot sing even the most popular Hungarian folk songs, which can be found in every Hungarian songbook.

Currently, primary schools specialized in Kodály-based singing still exist, but instead of five weekly music lessons (not counting choir rehearsals) now they provide only three. Music education is still compulsory from 1st through 10th grade, but in spite of the protest of the music teachers, it includes only one lesson a week. Although the dream of Kodály about building up a musical nation could not become reality, there are many good projects based on his concept and vision. The spirit and inheritance of Kodály was the common ground for the cooperation that started between Zoltán Kodály Hungarian Choir School (ZKHCS) and the Nádizumzum Orchestra.

The Zoltán Kodály Hungarian Choir School (ZKHCS)

Ferenc Sapszon Jr., a conductor who was a recipient of Kossuth and Liszt Prizes, founded the ZKHCS in 1988. It is an elementary, middle, and music school in Budapest, Hungary. Its music-centered concept of education is based on the principles of Zoltán Kodály. The ZKHCS is a relatively small school having only one class for each academic year. The students of this school are devoted to music, especially choral singing. They have daily singing lessons, choir rehearsals, and individual vocal training, and many of them learn to play musical instruments as well. The school has five different choirs, which have concerts, even at weekends, sometimes abroad. All of these choirs reach the highest artistic quality; they are the recipients of several awards in Hungary and abroad. Because of the frequent concerts, these students spend a lot of time together. Thus, the strong sense of belonging and community is an important characteristic of the students of ZKHCS.

Community Music and Special Education in Hungary

Kodály emphasized the importance of providing high-quality general music education, accentuating the role that music plays in the overall development of a child. Following his path, musically trained special education teachers or musicians have established many different alternative methods to provide music education for children with different disabilities. One of the most well known methods used in this field is the ULWILA. This method uses a color scheme that replaces the five-bar-line system, and uses simple signs for marking the rhythm. The basic concept of this method is similar to the pillars of the Kodály Approach because it strives to make music available for everyone, to use the nonmusical benefits of music in a conscious way, and for people to learn music in community. The most famous orchestra using this method is the Parafonia, an orchestra founded by Anna Vető. In 1997, an association named after the famous quotation of Kodály was founded: ‘Music Belongs to Everyone’ (1952/2007b, p. 7). The aim of the association was not only to support the orchestra, but also to teach music with this method to children and adults with intellectual disabilities.

Professionals working in this field meet at different art therapy events or inclusive music programs, building up personal friendships and networks. A lot of us started as volunteers at the ’Music Belongs to Everyone’ Association. An important event of networking is the "Spring Festival of Music" (Tavaszi Zeneünnep), a yearly festival during which 10–12 special orchestras have been able to meet and perform together every spring since 2005. This is the project of Gábor Bajnok, a music teacher in ‘Dió’ Elementary School and the leader of the Dió Orchestra (consisting of children with intellectual disabilities) and a former worker of the Parafónia Orchestra. Another group is Nemadomfel [Idonotgiveup (sic!)], a group playing popular music. In addition to their performances since 2008, they have a big inclusive concert every year together with well-known Hungarian musicians in the Budapest Arena (the biggest venue for sports and cultural events in Hungary), with around 9000 people listening.

While the theory of Community Music therapy is not really known in Hungary, there are a lot of performing groups and creative projects nationwide, which highly resemble this approach. However, they worked in isolation and know little of each other’s work. For example, in March, 2015 a little-known but beautiful and popular video appeared on YouTube entitled Magyarország az én hazám [Hungary is my Homeland]. In this video János Kóti, a 9-year-old boy with severe disabilities is singing a Hungarian folk song with well-known professional musicians in the Hungarian National Museum. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0BnWnfuFKig.

The Nádizumzum Orchestra

I founded the Nádizumzum Orchestra in Saint Elisabeth nursing home for adults with severe disabilities in Ipolytölgyes, Hungary in 2007. The nine members of the orchestra are the residents of the institution. The initial purpose was only to find a meaningful and enjoyable free-time activity for the people who were interested.

The Founding Process of the Orchestra

First, I went around the institution singing well-known songs with guitar accompaniment to find people who are interested in making music. I observed that many residents expressed joy upon hearing music by moving different parts of their bodies. This behavior usually occurs as a subconscious and automatic response to the heard music. Although most of these individuals are not able to follow verbal instructions, they perform movements perfectly synchronized with the beat of the music. With a closer analysis of these affirmative musical responses, I discovered that these movements not only followed the pulse of the musical piece, but they also continually change in intensity expressing different musical dynamics. According to Daniel Stern (2010), psychologist and infant researcher, these changes can be described as vitality affects. He observed similar cross-modal behavioral patterns, so-called affective attunement between mothers and their children, micro-momentary shifts in the behavior. These are dynamic cross-modal experiences characterized by the matching of intensity, timing, and contour. According to his theory, the same phenomena occur in the arts, especially in music and dance (Stern, 1985; 2010). Instead of using traditional ways of music instruction, I started to use these highly musical movements to perform music as an orchestra.

In order to use these movements, I had to find an appropriate instrument for each musician to suit their own, specific movement pattern. There was a long period during which we would try out or modify different instruments in order to find a way to make them sound familiar, or to acquire the movements usually associated with playing the instrument. The musicians needed to be able to recognize that they were able to orchestrate sound with their own actions. Furthermore, they had to persevere in this newly found activity. Some of the musicians enjoyed alternating with new sounds, while others were satisfied with their own instruments without changing movements or tone colors.

One of my instruments is a popular Hungarian folk instrument called Hungarian Zither (citera). “Guest strings” create the unique and specific sound of this instrument. These strings play the base sound and the perfect fifth. (Consequently, it determines the key in which the melody can be played.) This accompaniment called bagpipe bass is a typical phenomenon in Hungarian folk music, named after the drones of a bagpipe. In addition to the Hungarian zither and the bagpipe, there are several other folk instruments that use the same pattern, for example the hurdy-gurdy (in Hungarian nyenyere or tekerőlant). In order to be able to do more than simply playing percussion accompaniment, I modified the instruments of the musicians to suit this simplified style of accompaniment, where the base sound, octave, and perfect fifth are dominant. Later I named my method after this simplified accompaniment “Consonante”.

The First Interactive Concerts

In September 2009, the Orchestra was invited to share music for a dance-house event. The aim of the day-long inclusive art-therapy festival called “Felemás nap” was to offer different opportunities where children with and without disabilities could play together. After the first concerts of the orchestra, it became obvious that negative attitudes of people towards individuals with visible signs of severe disabilities radically changed. Turino (2008) explained that “musical participation and experience are valuable for the processes of personal and social integration that make us whole. […] Music, dance, festivals, and other public expressive cultural practices are a primary way that people articulate the collective identities that are fundamental to forming and sustaining social groups, which are, in turn, basic to survival” (p 1-2). As Kuppers (2013, p. 49) described, “The disabled performer is both marginalized and invisible, relegated to borderlands, far outside the central area of cultural activity, by the discourses of medicine. At the same time, people with physical impairments are also hypervisible, instantly defined by their physicality”. She continued,

“disabled performers have successfully and visibly taken up the medium of performance to expand the possibilities of images, spaces, and positions for their bodies. In their work in public spheres, they attempt to break through stereotypes of passive disability” (p. 49).

Therefore, the Orchestra started to focus on interactive concerts, where participants were encouraged to sing well-known folk songs or dance. The interactive concerts involved “several groups or individuals (who) may belong to the same community music project” and accentuated the “untraditional therapist roles and tasks (including project coordination, interdisciplinary consultation, and local political information and action)” (Stige, 2002, p.328).

Learning more about Community Music Therapy (CoMT) was an important milestone in the progress of my concept. Although at first the work had a rather recreational focus, I discovered the hidden potential of a public performance toward socio-cultural change. I wanted to establish a positive, reflective viewpoint, that resembled the “PREPARE” (Participatory, Resource-oriented, Ecological, Performative, Activist, Reflective) approach described by Stige and Aarø (2012). Stige and Aarø listed these as the main features of CoMT (p. 18). I started to focus on the whole social environment of this vulnerable group, and found an important new goal: to build a new inclusive social space. Ruud (2008) explained musical performance as “a way to gain access to symbolic resources often highly regarded within a society” (p.58). My new idea was to share the methodology of the Orchestra with therapists and other professionals involving the members of the Nádizumzum Orchestra and lead the participants of the workshop to gain first-hand experience about the benefits of shared music. The first workshop was designed for an art therapy congress and implemented in 2013 SIPE Techniques of Art Therapy, Budapest, and in 2014 Áramlásban IV National Art Therapy Congress, Budapest. The most important experience of these workshops was that the joyful attitude of musicians of the Nádizumzum Orchestra serves as a role model for professionals without previous musical training.

This can be considered as a reverse form of inclusion, where a trained musical assemble is open to include people excluded from the musical community. In the case of the Nádizumzum Orchestra workshops, people can experience benefits from the creativity, joy, and musicality of the community of musicians with severe disabilities. Ansdell (2015) called musicking a “social help” describing “moments of realistic utopia where the hope of a better future is realized here and now in the present” (p. 194). The personal experience of receiving something valuable from someone belonging to an undervalued marginalized minority group could promote attitudinal changes. Elefant explained “representing and interpreting a marginalized group’s voice can be treacherous and risky; viewing them as vulnerable and seeking for ways to act on behalf of them” (2010a, p. 204). In contrast, the aim of these workshops is to promote positive musical encounters and to give voice to these people.

The Kállai Kettős Project

In October of 2014 I wanted to introduce the folk songs of Zoltán Kodály’s Kállai Kettős [Kallo Double Dance] to the Nádizumzum. This piece consists of four folk songs traditionally accompanied with a dance. The first song is: Felülről fúj az őszi szél, a slow song in verbunkos style. The next one is Kerek az én szűröm alja, a bagpipe song. The third part is a fast dance, a song of a gossiping woman: Kincsem komámasszony. The finale Nem vagyok én senkinek sem adósa is a captivating, fast song, which was one of the Nádizumzum's favorites for a long time. I played the whole series for my musicians. I discovered that the majority of the orchestra members understand and enjoy the development of the whole composition. I wanted to teach and perform it, but I faced two serious problems. The first was that the opening song of the series is slow, and it is difficult for the orchestra to follow the same beat if the first song is not fast and captivating. The second problem was that my soloist singer with Down syndrome cannot speak fast enough to sing the third song’s fast and funny text comprehensibly. In order to solve the problem and support the performance, two musicians were needed to play and sing together with the orchestra. I asked the students of the ZKHCS if anyone wants to participate. Instead of two, eight 9th grade students applied.

The Preparation of the Project

The preparation of the project started in 2013, when I was asked by a teacher of the ZKHCS to talk about my profession to 11th grade students of the school. The students were interested in how individuals with disabilities are able to perform music. Based on this interest of the class and the support of the teachers, I was invited to the summer camp of the Jubilate Choir, which is for 9-12th grade female students of the school. The participants had a lot of questions about the topic.

All of the girls who applied for the project had already participated in this presentation at the summer camp. Because of our first, all-night-long encounter they knew a lot about the topic and had seen videos about the Nádizumzum.

The Project

Eight students and Ferenc Sapszon Jr arrived at the institution on Friday, 20 of November, 2014. They had already learnt the songs with their teachers. We practiced for the performance on Friday and gave the concert on Saturday. It was the annual feast of the Hungarian Saint Elisabeth, the patron saint of the and also the World Day of Music Therapy. As expected, feedback from the audience suggested the participation of the eight musicians increased the artistic quality of the concert. There were lots of visitors at this annual feast; therefore another benefit of the concert was the positive effect of the performance on the audience. The guests, who had rarely had any contact with people with severe disabilities, could gain a positive impression about the possibilities and abilities of these people.

The orchestral work is highly important for the parents of the musicians because these are usually the only occasions in their lives when they can be proud of their grown-up children, seeing them gaining applause and appreciation. For these parents, friends, and relatives it is also important that their children were part of a high-quality performance. The simple presence of these students and the founder of their school and the fact that they had dedicated their weekend to a shared musical performance told an important message about social inclusion and the value of the performance of the Nádizumzum- members.

A second performance of Kállai Kettős was offered the next day in Siófok. As in the last program, the students led a dance-house for the participants of the program where the Nádizumzum Orchestra and Ferenc Sapszon, Jr. shared folksongs for the dance. After the concert, the students involved almost all of the participants in the dance. The feedback of the audience was even more enthusiastic in Siófok than it was at the institution before, wanting more and more songs and dances and giving more and more rounds of applause for the performance.

It was also a valuable experience for the students. They enriched the original program with new ideas. Going around the whole institution was not a part of the original project, but they wanted to visit every resident of the institution and sing to everyone. They also sang in the bus during the whole 200 km-long trip. In Siófok, they entered a sitting-volleyball championship together with an orchestra member with whom they shared their room.

During the rehearsals they observed many signs of the musical behavior of the Nádizumzum Orchestra musicians, such as following small dynamical changes or being particularly punctual. For example, they observed that one of the musicians was more involved in the vocal than the instrumental part of the performance. They also discovered that one of the musicians always vocalizes in F sharp, which they recognized as a possible sign of her absolute pitch. These observations suggest that the students viewed the members of the Nádizumzum Orchestra as fellow musicians. On a more personal level, one of the students shared that the experience was so meaningful to her that she wants to know and experience more about music therapy as her possible future career.

Considering the marginalized social situation of individuals with severe disabilities and the message of the performance, it seemed clear that music provided a special opportunity to involve and make visible people who would be described as a voiceless minority group (MENCAP, 2001; Ruud, 2004). According to Ruud, the core of Community Music Therapy is to “use music to bridge the gap between individuals and communities” and “create space for common musicing and sharing artistic and human values” (Ruud, 2004, p. 12). Music is a common resource, which has a power to re-define communities, build networks, empower subordinated groups and promote social change (Elefant, 2010b; Ruud, 2004).

What Have We Learned?

In retrospect, the project was much more complex than it previously had been planned. An essential factor is that participation was voluntary. The key of the involvement of the students was that all of them were classmates, 9th-grade students of the ZKHCS. It is important to mention that in addition to growing up together from the age of six, being a student of this school also means that they are part of a musical community that creates strong social relationships.

The attitude of the staff assisting the project is also crucial. The teachers of the ZKHCS supported the whole project and the new ideas of the students. Care-takers and teachers served as role models for the adolescents and these team-members were able to solve unexpected problems and situations with their creative and professional attitudes. They were able to support the Nádizumzum musicians with their daily needs in a natural way to decrease the challenges facing the vulnerability of the human body.

Their teachers reported that the students were full of enthusiasm and kept talking about their experiences. The positive experiences of this group could lead to long-term cooperation with these students, even with their friends and classmates. The girls decided to visit Ipolytölgyes again before Christmas and collectively performed Christmas songs with the Nádizumzum. The songs were recorded with their tablets and smart phones.

The project was planned to minimize the possible negative effects of the encounter. Practice shows that negative effects caused by ancient and subconscious reaction to the visual perception of a disfigured body are evitable. Giving the needed time and freedom at the first encounter through offering a secure physical and psychological space usually leads to positive experiences. It was a mutually empowering experience of “universal values of human potential, mutual care and social justice” (Rickson, 2014) both for the musicians of the Nádizumzum and for the students. The participants not only made a successful project together, but became friends. Ansdell (2015) explained that, “Musicking with another person can afford particular qualities of intimacy, companionship and support, generosity and love” (p.186).

Perspectives for the Future: Millennial Generation and Social Experience:

In the light of sociological and educational research related to the generation called millennials (born between 1980 and 2000), it is important to emphasize some of the key elements of the project. The double-fold perspective of Community Music Therapy suggests the role of music in empowering the person and the community at the same time. This project proved that a successful action is beneficial both for the focus group and for other participants. “As a discipline where musical interaction and communication are enacted and researched, music therapists have gained new knowledge about the contingency of musical communication as well as practical knowledge about how to enable and empower the individual through music” (Ruud, 2008, p.48) .

Research shows that this ‘millennial generation’ prefers working in groups and learning from their own experience (Benjamin, 2008; Kraus et al., 2008; Merritt, 2002; Skiba et. al. 2006). Their commitment to social justice, realistic and responsible approaches to social actions, their independence, and openness for creative problem solving is also well-documented (Collins et al. 2001; Howe et al., 2000; Roehling et al., 2010). In contrast with the previous project-plan to invite one or two individual musicians to the performance, the young people wanted to go with their classmates and wanted to continue the project together. It is a possible consequence of the group-oriented and collaborative attitude of this generation: they prefer working in groups, and belonging is more important for them than for the previous generations (Pew Research Center, 2010). In order to plan fruitful future actions for this generation, involving groups instead of individuals seems to be an imperative factor.

Another important experience of the project was the student’s ability to use their initiative. They added new ideas to the previous plans, for example singing around the institution or participating in the sitting-volleyball competition. The openness for their ideas is also a central factor, because they need information, motivation, and support from professionals, but they want to find their own creative answer to the challenges they face. In order to fully commit themselves to the action, they need to experience freedom and responsibility in the planning and implementation of the project.

The student’s most surprising response to the plans was that instead of being cautious about a new and challenging situation they wanted to experience every possible aspect of the project. This action- and experience-oriented interest questions the traditional methods of the preparation of a social field-project, because they seemed more capable to experience the challenge than the extended literature of social inclusion and exclusion would suggest (for examples see the Terror Management Theory (Greenberg et al., 1986; 2002; Mikulincer et al., 2002; Solomon et al., 1991) or the Disease Avoidance Model (Oaten et al., 2011) or the Us vs. Them Theory (Kama, 2004; Thomson, 2001). Furthermore, the evaluation of the project was not so important for them than sharing their experiences with their age-group and planning a subsequent action. This can be explained by action-oriented thinking (Kraus et al. 2008; Skiba et al., 2006) which suggests that a professional should be prepared for their practice-oriented way of learning, because they rather need mentoring during the project than lengthy preparatory studies.

Further Projects

As a first project it was even more successful than we expected it would be. Based on this positive experience, we made a common flash-mob with the all the students of ZKHCS and professional musicians of the Hungarian State Opera. This video was the official promotion of the Ars Sacra Festival 2015 (see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nf0P5-vlGZc ).

We started to cooperate with other schools and music students as well. For the International Day of Music Therapy 2015, we prepared a new folk-song collection from the Ipoly region, the neighboring villages around our home. The novelty of the project was that we performed lesser-known but humorous and captivating folk songs. The transmission of folk culture that strengthens the sense of belonging in the performers as well as in the audience was a new and empowering mission for our orchestra. We performed with a soloist singer and the accompaniment of two violins, a viola, and a cello. This performance was built on friendships: one of our co-workers offered to invite her friends: a music teacher of the regional music school and her daughter, who collect and perform folk songs of the region. They taught the new songs to us. We had three more guest musicians: two daughters of one of the professional musicians from our flash-mob project and their friend. Our last inclusive concert was in the end of February 2016, with around 20 students of Saint Norbert High School from Gödöllő and their teacher. We performed Zoltán Kodály's work “Gergely-járás” and Hungarian folk songs. The participation was voluntary; the students have seen our flash-mob and wanted to participate in such a project. All of these different models demonstrated the power music has in building relationships, which makes these projects worth further evaluation to find the most important elements of a successful CoMT project between nonverbal adult musicians and adolescent music students.


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