The Emotional Connection: Music and Happiness

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Along with being an instrument for the rehabilitation of individuals with disabilities, music has been linked to happiness in both musicians and listeners. But despite many people playing instruments as children, 91 percent of them abandon their instruments by the time they are out of high school.

“For some of them, it was a huge passion point,” says Carla Sullivan, Marketing & Diversity Awareness Director at Daniel’s Music Foundation. “But because they weren’t going to become a professional drummer or sing at Carnegie Hall, they walked away from it.”

At DMF, the Trush family saw the connection between music and the initial community they served and wondered how the general public could lead lives without music. They later expanded the foundation’s musical offerings, providing the opportunity for people of all abilities to experience the joy of music.

“It didn’t make sense to us because there are scientific studies that show that music activates more parts of the brain than any other activity,” says Daniel’s father, DMF Co-founder Ken Trush. “It’s inherently good for anyone no matter how they participate.”

People are looking for ways to relax, create, and connect, but many are not turning to music because there is a stigma of having to be a great performer. But music has incredible personal relevance that can be tied to happiness, and at DMF, happiness is actually a key measure of success.

“One day my father asked me how I wanted to measure success here,” says Daniel Trush, the inspiration behind the foundation. “He was thinking of all these metrics. And I just said, we’ll measure our success by a smile-o-meter. So now we measure our success by the number of smiles that we get.” 

The newly launched DMF Live Jam speaks to the relationship between music and joy too. Once a month, those who attend the Live Jam are separated into two groups – one to take a 30-minute voice class and the other to form a band. No musical experience is needed as long as you are open to exploring your creativity. After half an hour, the two classes come together, having each learned the same song, and perform as one. 

“The power of music is undeniable,” says Carla. “People feel confident. It’s fun. They have the opportunity to experience music in a low-pressure environment.”

Other than scoring points on the smile-o-meter, the leadership team at DMF is working toward one other major goal: to make 91 percent of all people musicians, flipping the percentage of people who abandon instruments on its head.

“What we believe here as our mission is that people should discover the joy of music in their lives,” says Carla, “and you don’t have to be at Carnegie Hall to do that. Just have it in your life.”

How Music is Taking the “Dis” Out of Disability

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They say that music is the universal language, and maybe that’s because it has a beautiful habit of speaking to everyone in their own unique way. Inside the classes for people with disabilities at Daniel’s Music Foundation, educators channel students’ relationships with music into positive ways to express themselves while teaching them valuable skills.   

“The goal for me in working with someone with a disability is helping them to realize their abilities and strengths,” says Elena Savvides, an instructor with Daniel’s Music Foundation who leads group classes, field trips, and private lessons for people with a wide range of disabilities.

“It’s taking the ‘dis’ away from disability and highlighting what they can do while giving them a positive experience, and making them feel good when they’re making music,” she says.

Day-to-day, Elena adapts lessons based on her students’ verbal ability, and whether or not they are able to maintain a beat. Just like all human beings, she says, it’s important to keep in mind that people with disabilities are all distinct individuals with different needs. In this light, her ways of approaching students with music are always one-of-a-kind.

“A lot of it is based around creative self-expression and exploring their world through music,” she says. “It’s giving them that chance to communicate in ways that are safe, fun, joyful, and easy for them to understand.”

Though no two classes are ever the same, a session at DMF will typically include a shaker activity where Elena encourages each student to incorporate their own way to shake the instrument before presenting it to their fellow classmates. Not only does this facilitate creative exploration and thinking skills, she explains, it also helps students learn the concept of turn-taking.

Many classes also include a dance performance piece where students can learn moves like the “Whip and Nae Nae” or the “Macarena.” This marriage of music and movement can increase coordination and memory, because students are asked to recall the dances they have learned later.      

Elena also provides the opportunity for her students to sing a song they like during class on the microphone, encouraging peers to say something nice about a fellow performer afterwards.  

“That really helps the creative self-expression piece, working together as a team to create music and supporting each other,” she says. “Using music and performance is very important for helping them improve their sense of accomplishment and positive self-esteem.”

Elena notices that when students first enter DMF, many of them are shy, withdrawn, and unable to speak or express themselves. To her delight, when the same students leave the center four to six weeks later, they depart sporting smiles and stronger body language.

“We’ve had some students here who have never said words before, and they’ll come into class and start singing full songs that they love,” says Elena. “By the end, they’re completely different people because they’re letting down their walls and breaking out of their shells by just exploring or enjoying music.”

Finding the Ability in Disability: Diversity Awareness in School and the Workplace

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When you first consider diversity, individuals with disabilities don’t necessarily come to mind. Yet the United States is home to more than 40 million people living with disabilities, making them the country’s largest minority. These individuals face challenges every day at home, in school, and in the workplace, and many of those challenges – from isolation to depression – can be combatted simply by taking a closer look at the way in which we interact with one another.

At Daniel’s Music Foundation, the Diversity Awareness through Music Initiative uses the universal language of music to build a bridge between individuals with disabilities and the general public through storytelling, engaging conversation, videos, and music.

“We may be using disability as a lens for diversity,” says DMF Marketing & Diversity Awareness Director Carla Sullivan. “But our message resonates with everyone: to really just be kind and get to know people and understand their challenges.”

The result is a mindset of understanding, mutual respect, and appreciation. Rather than using labels or unintentionally putting people into boxes, diversity awareness teaches us to recognize individuality and embrace unique character traits. In that way, we begin to explore our differences, build respect for one another, and nurture healthy relationships.

“It’s important to learn about a certain disability, as it helps give an understanding for some of the characteristics that someone may possess,” says Daniel’s father, DMF Co-founder Ken Trush. “But we believe it is more important to just call someone by their name, as everyone is an individual.”

“And we find that when people have the opportunity to celebrate the joy of music together,” adds Carla. “the differences seem to disappear.” 

In schools, the impact on children as young as three has been indescribable, as they are naturally inquisitive. So, as they grow older and have more opportunities to interact with people with disabilities, we have given them the foundation to be aware of how they treat others.

And the effects on adults have been even more profound. During their lifetime, they may have unintentionally let out a sigh when a person in a wheelchair boards a bus, or absentmindedly steered a child away from a disabled individual in the street, and may not recognize the impact of their actions until they hear Daniel’s story or engage with others in the program.

“Every presentation, every conversation, every opportunity we have to get out there, our goal is to just make one person think differently,” says Carla. “We feel confident that if we do that every time, that we will change the world in some small way.”

4 Reasons Music is Important for Brain Development in Babies and Toddlers

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Using music to soothe and interact with a baby is one of the most instinctive things in the world for most parents, yet many moms and dads don’t realize that they are actually influencing the cognitive, social, and emotional development of their child’s brain.

“What’s important to note about music in our brain is that it stimulates every part at the same time as well as neuroplasticity (brain connectivity), which is very important for babies,” says Elena Savvides the lead instructor of the Baby & Me classes at Daniel’s Music Foundation. “It’s truly a sensory powerhouse for them.”

 Because humans are pre-wired to appreciate music, early engagement in music experiences has a large effect on cognitive skills. Here, we discuss four ways music fosters brain development in infants and toddlers.

Language Acquisition and Reading Skills

Like an indiscriminate sponge, young brains have a way of wanting to absorb every part of their environment. When trying to communicate with their parent or caregiver, babies tend to emulate the speech they hear in their own unique way. 

“Music helps to facilitate communication and with actual speech intelligibility,” says Elena, who also works in a rehabilitation hospital and incorporates similar techniques in her co-treated speech pathology sessions for children recovering from strokes and other ailments. “It can help us learn how to make certain vowel sounds, how to speak in different volumes and intonations, and help facilitate and learn basic speech skills.”

Similarly, the ability to read depends on making a connection between the sounds of letters and symbols on a page, so when an infant grows and enters into childhood, these previously instilled verbal communication skills translate into increased reading comprehension.  

Motor Development

Because it influences every part of the brain, music also stimulates the region around motor development by channeling actions and unique modes of movement.

“Especially if you add something rhythmic,” explains Elena. “We’re naturally very rhythmic as human beings and have an innate ability to match a specific rhythm, for example when we’re walking or running on the treadmill.”

According to Elena, the brain is adapted to entrain to a rhythm because unborn babies hear their mother’s heartbeat almost exclusively for the nine months they are in utero. By channeling this natural adaptation through the use of instruments like shakers, drums, chimes, and piano, Daniel’s Music Foundation helps babies develop hand coordination and hone their fine gross motor skills.    

Self-Expression

Even before understanding the words in a song, babies can often be seen bouncing or moving their hands to its tune or beat. What this implies, is that music has a profound effect on the early development of self-expression.  

“It’s one of the most impactful ways of creatively expressing yourself, especially here at Daniel’s Music, where a lot of our participants and students don’t have the ability to speak or to express themselves in standard ways.” 

By exposing developing minds to various instruments and musical genres, Elena and her colleagues give them a fun outlet to share their emotions and whet their imaginations, while simultaneously teaching them about different parts of the body, as well as how to count and collaborate in a group.  

“I think you’re never too young to learn about Motown music and Caribbean music,” says Elena. “We take them on some musical adventures with different instruments. I think that piece is really important, and teaches kids how to communicate and play through music.”  

Memory Skills

Since music is stored throughout the brain, it helps with something called neuroplasticity — the ability to connect healthy neurons to other neurons that haven’t been activated in a while to form new neural connections. Acting as a liaison for bridging all the brain’s various regions, music creates strong access points to memories and can drastically improve recall function in the long-term.

“There are a lot of articles and research that talk about music and memory, especially with songs that we have a connection to since we were kids,” Elena says. “Music helps unlock information in the hippocampus and frontal cortex which is associated to memory, so we can hear a song that we haven’t heard in years and automatically know all the words and lyrics.”