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We hear it often, and perhaps most people would agree that “music is beneficial.” But what does that actually mean and what does it take for music to have a beneficial effect? The Budapest Festival Orchestra’s autism-friendly Cocoa Concert drew attention to a rarely-discussed manner of using music. The concert inspired me to give an overview of how music can help people with autism, and to describe what a concert tailored for autistic (and other) children is all about. An account by Anna Belinszky.

Music can be beneficial for everyone, whether they’re aged 0 or over 100, since besides its emotional, cognitive and social effects it is also useful as a stress reducer, can improve memory and help develop communication skills. Several research papers have proven how music in particular can help in the everyday lives of those on the autistic spectrum. For instance, a 2004 study showed that those autistic children who took part in music therapy exhibited improved social behaviour, concentration and attention; they were more willing to communicate and had reduced stress levels, and their bodily awareness and movement coordination also improved.

A 2009 study by Kim, Wigram & Gold drew attention to the role of music in social interaction; autistic children who had group music sessions expressed their emotions more intensively and had stronger social bonds to their peers than those who didn’t. Playing with instruments, musical and movement exercises, listening to music or singing together are all tools that can add to the success, not just of music therapy in the strict sense of the word, but to any kind of substantial and well-prepared music session.

About 30% of children with autism cannot communicate through words, and many find it difficult to understand verbal instructions or body language. Wan et al. helped to establish a connection between sounds and actions by linking the areas of the brain responsible for hearing and movement so as to help understanding of verbal instructions. If, during repeated training, music was paired with performing actions, children’s speech abilities improved.

Children with autism are far more sensitive than an average child since they are unable to filter out disruptive stimuli from their environment, and music can help to cope with the resulting frustration. It has been found that the predictable nature of classical music, and music with an ostinato rhythm, can be most effective in reducing children’s frustration and stress levels.

And music is, of course, also a form of entertainment. It is nothing new to suggest that children are best able to perform tasks if they enjoy what they’re doing. Children can get so involved with music and musical games that they often don’t notice if, during that time, they are actually solving problems.

The host of the autism-friendly Cocoa Concert was no other than Iván Fischer, who said of the initiative that “a child who finds it difficult to express themselves in words may be reached through music, since they share the same feelings as everybody else.’ As part of the BFO’s Community Week, the music director used the concert to draw attention to the importance of research, co-operation with other professionals and international collaboration.

Both the BFO and the Nemzetközi Cseperedő Alapítvány (an International Foundation to support children and their families living with autism) prepared for the September 26 concert by giving previews. Iván Fischer spoke about the concert in a video, saying his goal was to create a format to allow the whole family – autistic children and their non-autistic siblings alike – to share the experience. The Cseperedő Alapítvány, besides publishing extremely useful and informative material about autism, also provided important information to the children to allow them to be better prepared for what they could expect at the concert.

They could go on a virtual tour of the concert venue via the foundation’s website, could get to know the concert hall or the recreation room and, to top it all off, try out the instruments used in the concert.

The part that explained the general rules of behaviour during a concert must have been useful for all children, not just for those on the autistic spectrum. When I first saw the title I was a little perturbed, half-expecting authoritative instructions, but I believe one would be hard pressed to summarise the accepted behaviour (both written and unwritten) of attending a concert in a nicer tone:

“Live concerts are a special occasion.” They said. “It is a little different to listening to music at home, since the musicians on stage are able to hear everything, so you must keep to a few rules to make sure everyone has a good time. Iván Fischer will be the ‘game master’ during the Cocoa Concert. You’ll need to pay close attention to him. He will always tell you which piece is going to come next, he’ll also let you know when you must be really quiet and when you should applaud. Of course, only if you liked the piece. There are three important rules you should keep to when the musicians are playing on stage. 1. Be silent. 2. Stay in your seat or next to the stage. 3. Applaud only after the piece has finished.”

I still haven’t said anything about the concert which, in every sense of the word, was fantastic. The Festival Orchestra’s musicians performed in various chamber music setups and showed, through the deft selection of music, what exciting things instruments can do and how much fun it is to play music together. From the first moment on, the ‘game master’ Iván Fischer communicated very clearly with the children; before introducing the musicians he would always explain in detail what the next piece was going to be and what details would be worth paying attention to. At the entrance, everyone received a coloured notebook detailing the instruments used and the programme, as well as colourful stickers for the children to mark the finished pieces after every ovation. And this idea was only one of many that enriched the concert, not only as a kind and entertaining gesture, but also as something that greatly contributed to helping autistic children in following and keeping in touch with the concert throughout.

When a piece began, the air froze almost every time; one could feel the concentration with which the children listened to the music. Although there were a couple of instances of a bigger commotion, smaller noises and fidgeting became more common as the children’s initially-active attention began to wane. However, the programme was so well compiled that generally, when that point came, the piece was already over and Iván Fischer had appeared on stage again with his green-and-red semaphore. At the very start of the concert the audience had learned that while the green light allowed for noise, the red asked for silence. This simple signal worked so well that it could calm the greatest hullaballoo in just a few seconds.

There were a few moments during the concert, perhaps the most important ones, when I could not decide whether it was the musicians on stage or the children in their seats who were enjoying the music more. Thanks to the ‘game master’, the concert had other active participants besides the musicians. A doll appeared on stage during Poldini’s Dancing Doll, while two bunnies called Cinnamon and Vanilla helped direct attention to the harp during Bernard Andrés’ similarly-named piece. Gérard Berlioz’s Mosgrad Express for percussion and noisy implements proved to be a most excellent conclusion to the afternoon. It created a fantastic party atmosphere that is a rare experience in any concert hall.

The children were incredibly grateful, and honoured the musicians with a great and heart-felt ovation. The musicians all played with great devotion and openness on stage, proving that not only in grand concert halls, but also when performing in a more personal, direct space, they can play to their best and bring the audience as close to music as possible.

And was the autism-friendly Cocoa Concert different from any other concert for children? I think, in its essence, not at all. The audience, be they autistic or non-autistic children, found the music such an enriching experience that it benefitted each and every child. But can a single concert of this kind be beneficial to the children’s lives? Recalling Iván Fischer’s thoughts, by all means it can be, since “music moves, affects emotions and strengthens good instincts in people.”

The original article can be found at Playliszt.