Patel Conservatory inspires special-needs students with music lessons

Patel Conservatory teachers bring the universal language of music to special-needs students.


Allison Novak held up a painting in front of a primary classroom of six students at Morning Star School.

"Is that your mom?" one student asked.

"What's her name?" another asked.

It wasn't her mom and she didn't have a name, she told the class. It was a painting of an American Indian woman rolling corn into cornmeal. She was singing as she worked.

"Have you ever sung a song while you're working?" asked Novak, the bespectacled 29-year-old performing arts teacher from the Patel Conservatory at the Straz Center.

They shook their heads, and she began to teach them the words to a Hopi Indian song:

"Grinding corn. Grinding corn. Here we are, grinding corn."

Novak told the students to clap their hands for each word — one clap for grinding, one for corn. Then she told them to clap on each syllable, showing them a drawing of eighth- and quarter-note stems they were clapping aloud.

"Can you do it?" she asked a room of still-shaking heads.

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Twice a week for the past two years, Novak has brought her boom box and pink backpack to Morning Star to teach music. The Catholic school is for students ages 6 to 13 with learning disabilities and challenges.

But through a $5,000 grant from the Kennedy Center and VSA, an organization that centers around disabilities and the arts, Novak and other instructors from the Patel Conservatory have been providing instruction to the entire school for three months, helping students prepare for Christmas Wishes, a school production the children will perform for their parents.

Daniel Powell, chairman of the Patel Conservatory's music department, said the grant allows the conservatory to expand its accessibility and hire a certified music therapist who specializes in working with students with disabilities.

"When you have a population with disabilities, sometimes it's harder for them to get out here, so it's a nice way for us to connect with them," he said. "We see the faces light up. We see the intangibles."

Some weeks, the curriculum includes learning about music history. Sometimes the students use iPads to record piano sounds. Other times they dance with brightly colored ribbons to classical music from the Nutcracker.

Novak said she developed her own curriculum, using state and Common Core standards to introduce students to rhythm and beats and pitch.

Alina Lopez, assistant principal of the school, said the classes are often the first exposure that the students with various disabilities, including autism, have to music instruction.

"There's a gigantic misnomer about learning differences. When people think of autism, sometimes they think of Rain Man. They don't see that these are brilliant, beautiful children," Lopez said. "It's almost like a new frontier for them. It's a subject area that many of them may have never had formal education on. … We see the possibilities, where others say 'impossible' or 'improbable.' "

Novak, who teaches at the Patel Conservatory and a few other schools that are partnered with it, said she can see the impact her lessons have on the students she works with in small ways — sometimes in their posture, other times in their mastery of a particular rhythm pattern.

"The cool thing about music is that everybody gets music," she said. "Everybody responds to music. I like those 'aha' moments you get every once in a while. Sometimes you'll have students and you're not sure if they've got it, and then one day they're participating and performing and they're just there."

• • •

The students clapped for each syllable. Then the task grew more complex. Clap. Pat. Clap. Snap.

"I thought you said you couldn't do it," Novak told the classroom of giggling students. "I saw you and you and you and you and you and you do it."

As the group formed a circle to end the half-hour lesson, one student asked Novak to sit next to her. She loved her teacher, she said.

"I have a surprise for you," the girl said.

She pounded twice and clapped once. Novak smiled. She remembered the rhythm she taught her the previous week.

"I have another surprise for you," the girl called out as Novak walked to her next class.

She blew a kiss in her direction.