Michael was 10 days old before I saw him for the first time — his tiny, blue body lying limply in the incubator as he struggled to breathe. He was diagnosed with Hyaline Membrane Disease, a respiratory disease that makes gas exchange difficult or impossible. He was so ill that every time the neonatal staff touched him, his heart stopped beating. He had three cardiac arrests during the first ten days of his life. Doctors warned me that he might be brain damaged as a result.
But Michael grew and grew. A beautiful child with big blue eyes and blond curly hair, he was very hyperactive, demanding constant stimulation. He did not sleep through the night until the age of 2 and had me up five to six times a night to comfort and reassure him. “Let him cry,” people said, “he’s just being naughty.” But if we left him to “cry it out,” he would scream and cry until he went blue in the face and stopped breathing.
Michael was also extremely lovable, always laughing and smiling. But he did not measure up to his brother in terms of crawling, walking, feeding, and dressing himself. I was concerned about a developmental disorder, but my doctor assured me that all was well.
The bombshell hit when Michael went for his ‘School Readiness Tests’ at the age of 6. The psychologist noticed that he could not hold a pencil correctly. He would clutch it in his fist, instead of holding it between his fingers to write. Though Michael was highly intelligent with a good memory, he was diagnosed with ‘minimal brain dysfunction‘ (now ADHD) and we were shattered, but also relieved.
He wasn’t just ‘naughty.’ There was a reason why he did not seem to listen when spoken to; would daydream and become easily confused; would struggle to follow instructions; be easily distracted, miss details; forget things and constantly demanded attention. He talked non-stop, would twitch, fidget and squirm constantly in his seat. If he flew into a rage, he could not control himself; on occasion, we had to stop him from beating his older brother to a pulp.
We saw an ADHD specialist, who referred as to several medical professionals whom, unfortunately, the Medical Aid did not cover. We were really struggling financially at the time, but somehow, we found the money. Michael saw a child psychologist, occupational therapist, audiologist, speech therapist, etc. Still, the doctor told us that, because Michael was ADHD, he would probably drop out of school early. The best thing we could do was to let him start school early, so that when he failed and repeated a year, he would still be the same age as everyone in his class.
We followed his advice, which I have regretted all my life. Had we just let Michael start school a year later, his journey would have been far less difficult. He would have been more mature emotionally and better able to cope intellectually. We enrolled him in a private school, thinking he would cope better in a smaller class. In the beginning, Michael lived up to the psychologist’s expectations. He had difficulty concentrating at school; he did not understand the work and drove the teachers crazy with his hyperactivity. It was so bad that the teachers would duct-tape his mouth and tie him to his chair with his hands behind him. At the time, we had no idea that they were doing this to him.
At the age of 9, Michael discovered a toy piano that a friend of mine had left lying around. He found that he was able to listen to tunes on the radio and work out to play them on this piano. Though his father and I were divorced by then, we immediately recognized his talent, clubbed together, bought him an ancient piano, and organized for him to have music lessons.
He excelled in piano lessons, which in turn had a positive impact on his schoolwork. He found that he was able to concentrate better in class and the work at school started to make more sense. What was most important, though, was that he started to believe in himself. Until he started playing the piano, he was convinced that he was stupid and not capable of doing the things that other children could. Playing the piano was something he was good at, and not many other people were able to do. When he started to get 100% on his music theory exams year after a year, he began to believe that perhaps he was not as stupid as everyone made him out to be.
We never had money to get the old piano tuned, yet when Michael played it always sounded in tune, and he would practice for hours. I remember my older son, Gareth, coming into the kitchen one day with a pained look on his young face saying “Mommy, if I hear ‘Fur Elise‘ one more time, I am going to scream!”
At his recitals, a hush would descend on the auditorium during Michael’s performances – there was just something magical in the way he brought the keys on the keyboard to life. At times like this I often thought about what my friend, Dr. Peter Smith once said: “There are no children with learning difficulties, each child is just wired for a different frequency.” Michael’s was music.
Michael began to contradict the psychologists who diagnosed him years earlier. He graduated high school and went on to study music in college. Completing the degree took dedication and practice. In addition to attending lectures, completing written assignments and essays, Michael also practiced the piano between 4 and 6 hours a day. In this environment, Michael was able to use his dyslexia to his advantage. He found that he was able to condense extensive textbooks on subjects such as harmony and counterpoint to a few pages of underlying principles. As a result, Michael excelled in these subjects and was able to help other students in his year by showing them these underlying principles and how to apply them in assignments and exams.
After working as a private music teacher, he completed a post-graduate certificate in education and then went on to complete a master’s degree in composition.
As a music teacher, he began to reflect on his own experience of how music had helped him overcome his learning difficulties and started doing some research into this area. He found research by Glenn Schellenerg that found children who studied a musical instrument scored better in IQ tests than children who had not studied music. Playing a musical instrument apparently activates both sides of the brain, which enables the brain to process information more effectively.
Michael found it interesting that Albert Einstein also did very poorly at school until he started to learn the violin. Einstein himself attributed his intellectual success in later life to the fact that he had mastered this instrument. Einstein’s friend G.J Withrow said that Einstein would often improvise on the violin as a way of helping him think and solve problems.
Research has also found that listening to music can positively impact learning and problem solving. The Centre for New Discoveries in Learning has found that learning could be up to five times more effective whilst listening to Baroque music played at about 60 beats per minute. The reason for this is that this music helps the brain to move into a relaxed Alpha state (8-12 cycles per second), which is the ideal state for studying.
It was his passion for music that turned Michael’s life around. Having to learn to read music, even though he could play by ear, taught him to concentrate, which improved his schoolwork and enhanced his self-esteem. As he perfected his musical talent, his confidence and self-esteem grew by leaps and bounds. As his hearing become more sensitive, he was able to memorize facts, rather than trying to write them down. His vivid imagination created pictures to reinforce memory and, through sheer hard work and determination, he excelled academically. For Michael, music changed everything.