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Group of disabled students use their heads to make music

Posted: Wednesday, January 22, 2003

CANTON, Mass. -- Joe Padula's mouth opens wide as the chorus ''I'll be there for you!'' echoes around the auditorium. The sound fades and Joe breaks into a broad smile. The recorded voice isn't his, but he made it happen with a nod of his head, and that's enough.

Padula can't speak and can barely move because of cerebral palsy. But as a member of a group that calls itself Headbangers, he can still sing and make music.

Computer software developed by group leader Jon Adams allows the group to sound notes and vocals with whatever movement they can best make: a squeeze of the hand, tap of the finger or a bang of the head -- hence, the group's self-mocking name.

The group -- which started in 1993 at the Brayton School, a state school run specifically for disabled children and young adults -- blends the sounds into tunes ranging from Japanese folk songs to classical to rock. But it's all about more than the music.

For students, aged 7 to 22, whose disabilities often deny them a way to fully express themselves in words, the music can give them a voice they've never had.

''They're locked inside themselves until they're given the opportunity to let them show what they can do,'' said Suzanne Hanser, head of the music therapy program at Berklee College of Music, which uses Adams' software in training. ''Music can get inside. It cuts to the soul.''

Denise Hughes, whose son Leo was a Headbanger for seven years, said the group connected her to him -- and him to music -- in ways she didn't know were possible.

''It just fills me up,'' said Hughes. ''His quality of life is so improved. It's his being.''

The group started in 1993, when Adams, a Berklee graduate, took his music skills and his computer program to Brayton in Canton.

Adams' program, called Super Switch Ensemble, allows the students to play 128 instruments, along with various beats, vocals and chords, by hitting a switch set up to take advantage of whatever movement they can best control. Adams conducts the group by pointing at each Headbanger when its time for their part -- much like a handbell choir.

For instance, Padula has a switch placed near his head on both sides -- one used to move up the musical scale on Adams' signal, the other to move down.

Mike Moreau has some control over his hands, so he uses an electronic board that can be programmed to play the musical scale, or hit certain notes like a piano.

Holly Childers squeezes a bulb connected to an air pressure switch that can make various notes.

Carlos Anahory can speak but has impaired vision, so Adams cues him by pressing a foot switch that vibrates.

''We have high expectations for the kids,'' said Eve Montague, creative arts coordinator at the school. ''We want them to play good, solid music. People appreciate the fact we aren't dumbing things down.''

''Music is, first and foremost, communication,'' Adams said. ''Isolation is something so many of our children face.''

''That's not how it has to work,'' Montague added. ''Music shows us that's not how it has to work. ... It gives them the ability to access their school, their family, their church, their friends. It just ripples out.''

Moreau has a more basic explanation for why he enjoys the Headbangers. He pulls out a keyboard and screen he uses to communicate and taps three letters:

''F-U-N.''



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