Brian Muni: Occupational Therapy and Music

Does your child need a little extra help in school or at home? Maybe music is the answer! Occupational therapy, especially when combined with music can improve kids’ organizational skills and can help them perform better academically and socially.  Brian W. Muni is an occupational therapist and has more than 15 years of experience helping children with their academic performance and vocational and life skills. He specializes in working with children that have learning disabilities, autism, sensory processing and behavioral concerns. An award-winning songwriter and recording artist who has collaborated with legends like Allen Ginsberg and Woodstock icon Melanie, Brian is the founder and executive director of Theraplay Developmental Resources, LLC and has a private practice in New York City and Rockland County, NY. He is also a Senior Instructional Therapist at the NYC Department of Education.

 

 

Brian spoke to us recently about the benefits of music and sound, the types of children that respond most to music-focused therapy and how parents can nurture their kids’ interest in music at home.

 

Parents with Angst:

 

Thanks so much for taking some time to talk, Brian. How can music and sound help children become more calm, balanced and organized?

 

BM:

 

Depending on how you use music – as a parent, teacher or therapist – it will have different intended effects. Music can be used to arouse or calm, to promote movement or stillness, to stimulate vocalization or silence. If you want to calm, balance and organize, you need to choose music that is calming, balancing, organizing – usually instrumental music which does not become the focus of attention but fits nicely into the background, promoting thought or activity without distracting from the task at hand. There’s a lot of research about using classical music such as works by Mozart to improve kids test scores. But you can also benefit from using instrumental jazz, world, New Age music, chanting, etc.

 

Parents with Angst:

 

As a musician and songwriter yourself, when did it first click that you could use music and sound to help children in an occupational therapy setting?

 

BM:

 

I envisioned that I could use music as an occupational therapist before enrolling in graduate school, and that was a huge motivation for my choosing the profession. I knew how powerfully music had affected my growing up and what I needed to do to have it in my life:  the repetitive, focused movements that practice requires; the attention to detail; the necessary physical strength and stamina; fine motor dexterity and necessary social skills. Because I use music to reach therapeutic objectives, children are drawn to me in a special way. They become more cooperative, interested, willing to take chances in anticipation of a musical reward. Music is a fiercely powerful motivator!  It’s about the Pied Piper effect.

 

Parents with Angst:

 

What is the definition of “occupational therapy”? How does it differ from traditional music therapy?

 

BM:

 

Many therapeutic disciplines spring from occupational therapy (OT) (including horticultural therapy, recreational therapy, art therapy, etc.). Occupational therapy was born as a profession after World War I.  Its origins were basically psycho/social – people gathering around a table to make baskets or work together in a garden. While handicraft and restoration of hand function was the focus, the true benefit of the therapy came from the conversation and social interaction that accompanied the doing of the work.  By the Second World War, rehab therapy had come into being, and a medical model developed that grouped together OT and physical therapy (PT), with occupational therapists focusing on the hands and physical therapists the legs. In school settings today, occupational therapists apply their skills in a more generalized way in order to assist with overall classroom functioning, including addressing sensory issues. So, while music may be the therapeutic medium of choice, I think like an occupational therapist, which means I consider the needs of the client, break down the functional challenges through task analysis and then proceed.  My therapeutic approach includes not only psycho/social but also physical rehabilitative, sensory, cognitive, attention and behavioral concerns. It’s a broader scope than most traditional music therapists address.

 

Parents with Angst:

 

Which type of children most benefit from occupational therapy with a musical focus?

 

BM:

 

All children can benefit from the use of music but its effectiveness depends on the child’s therapeutic needs, how the music is being used and the child’s receptivity to its use. Music travels on so many pathways neurologically that its applications are varied and impressive. Think of the role music plays in your life – how it makes you move, affects how and what you think and feel, stimulates memories, conjures imagery, gets you to hum, speak, sing, interact, even to alter your breathing and heart rate. Music can literally take control.

 

I have used music to focus children with attention and behavior issues, address sensory processing concerns, assist with fine motor deficits, help with speech and language delays, promote cognition and improve socialization. It’s not coincidental that a rattle is a child’s first toy, or that songs like “Old McDonald,” “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” or “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” endure to teach the naming of and gesturing to body parts, development of language, cognition and group interaction skills. When I was a kid, every kindergarten teacher was required to sing and play the piano. Today, most teachers, parents and therapists can instantaneously access any music ever performed or recorded.

 

Parents with Angst:

 

What are the top three activities parents can do at home to nurture their child’s natural interest in music and sound?

 

BM:

 

  1. Expose and engage children at an early age to different types of music and music-making activities. Listen with them to TV, radio, internet, and live shows. Show interest and enthusiasm:  make musical instruments (e.g. simple shakers by pouring rice into empty water bottles, rubber band shoe-box guitars, water glass xylophones); play and sing along.
  2. Provide opportunities to make musical mentors, be it an inspiring school teacher, family friend or a professional musician.
  3. Provide opportunities for peer support. Enroll kids in classes, group lessons, invite over parents and kids with an interest in music and do some of the activities listed in #1. Karaoke and music video games (Guitar Hero, Dance Dance Revolution) can also stimulate interest in music and music-related activities.

 

To learn more about Brian and the work he does with music and occupational therapy, visit the Brian Muni website.