Play and Shutting Down the Critical-Thinking Mind through Music

In observing some of my newer clients and reflecting on some of my older clients this week, I saw the importance of coming in the back door, or shutting off the critically thinking mind, even in adults. This is when some productive, and more importantly, more permanent learning can evolve. Don’t get me wrong; there is a need for that critical thinking mind, but today I would like to focus on play and shutting the critical mind down.

I watched two new clients this week, the first a little non-verbal autistic boy whose attention was instantly grabbed by only the physical piano. Before the session began ,he went to the bottom of the keyboard and began to play a bottom note or two. He made our first encounter easy as I joined him with a little repetitive structure which immediately connected us not only with the music, but also by eye contact. he would leave the piano and joyously move and vocalize to the music as he investigated the room. I offered him a couple instruments that he had not seen, and he openly accepted and tried them. We had instantly formed his song and used it to give structure to all that he did. Every way he moved, and all vocalizations he made. There was an instant continuity in the session. The chord structure was basically a V to I cadence, a recognizable structured boundary or ending. As his play evolved, so did mine, reflectively and easily. When I gave him the harmonica, I left the piano and sang, “my turn”, then handed him his and said, “your turn” in a sing-song manner. I did this only a couple of times, and then he again went dancing around the room, playing the harmonica. As I got back to the piano, I played the V chord as he played the harmonica. He paused, and I went to the I chord and played my harmonica while continuing the piano accompaniment one-handed. My voice, which ha previously sung “my turn, your turn”, fit into this cadence rhythmically, although I did not repeat the words. We continued this back and forth play without gesture, singing, or written direction, as he danced, played, and vocalized with me. The two adults watching in the room commented, asking how he knew when to do this, seeing as this was only our first meeting. My question was, “How did the adults know this?” I did not give a direction: we just played. This play was grounded by a predictable, structured, repeatable pattern or sequence. The definition of cadence is “the rhythmic flow of a sequence of sounds or words: for example, the cadence of language” ( Since this boy ,although non-verbal, can already make definite sounds, my direction with him will probably to first facilitate purposeful vowel sounds or the production of words by harnessing his play with musical structure. Maybe this little boy’s creative mind will take us another direction of which, at this very early point, I am unaware.

The second little boy I worked with was one that I had already worked with a year ago at that time, undiagnosed. No one could guess at the problem. The little boy was just extremely low functioning, mostly unaware, inactive, uninterested, and very physically tiny, weak, fragile, and silent. Other staff was eager for the little boy to go to Music Therapy because working with this boy was very frustrating. Nothing seemed to “wake him up.” He had so many needs that it was difficult to prioritize. Music Therapy worked: it woke him up. Staff did not want him to miss Music Therapy because it made their job easier. Funding ran out, and about a year went by. When I was re-contracted, the little boy was on my schedule. When I read his IEP, I saw he now has temper tantrums while doing non-preferred activities. I was excited and impressed. This meant that awareness had taken root, he had an opinion, something mattered, and he was not only aware, but acting on this awareness. This was a big, big important step for this little boy who had basically just been existing and being transported from one activity or therapy to another in desperate hope.

Soon after he entered the room (which was in a different location than before), he did not appear to recall me or the Music Therapy routine. This session was at the complete opposite end of the spectrum as the previous one. Now he was able to beat along with me (he previously was unable to do so, due to lack of muscle strength and inactivity), but still did not seem too interested. He did appear very interested in my instruments and how they worked. He began to spin my cymbal, which I played to as we kept together, but I was still not seeing any significance here. He spun to the music, but still seemed somewhere else. As I watched, I had forgotten how this little mind had interest f its own. I would have to work harder and follow him closely. He found my drumsticks and began  pulling them out and putting them into a container (he always did have an interest in gathering my drumsticks). I was still playing and singing to this, but still not breaking through. The spinning of the cymbal and putting the sticks in and out, appeared to start as an interest that allowed him to get lost in his own mind. I did notice and remember that as his little arms reached up, I heard sound from him. I remembered physical push and pull activity (which this boy had discovered and enjoyed) that took his little boy effort, brought about sound, and seemingly a little more awareness. When I saw him a year ago, I nurtured this with ramps and weighted beanbags, and, of course, music. This day I did not have anything but the music. I handed him a cabasa after running it back and forth on his hands. There was a keen interest in how this (weighted) cabasa worked as he rolled it and gently separated each string of beads. He turned it round and round and looked and investigated to see how this worked. I realized I mustn’t try to interrupt this “why and how”, but nurture it and give it structure. This was a little person who was going to avoid me by getting lost in his own mind if his choice was not nurtured. There appears to be some big trust issues here. The escape route is passiveness. In passing to this safe place, this little guy is taken somewhere else. My job will be to not only nurture those playful interests, but to also come in trough the very back, hard to find closet door via a deep, subtle, grounded, stable, sensory, and reflective experience. As I continued to play to his investigation, he began to play to my music and his energy level became greater as the tempo did.

Both of these boys took a slightly different route. One found that once his own interests were given instant reflective structure, play was easy and productive. The other boy, having little trust, played and escaped. Trust and growth needed to be nurtured through gentle, stable grounding, provided by repetitive predictability.

Whether it is autism or trauma of some sort, both boys needed to be met at a playful place and gently, reflectively cradled by a nurturing, grounding, stable structure that music could provide.

Antoinette Morrison MT-BC



We have had many reports of special children and troubled adults responding dramatically when presented with opportunities to create music in a non critical environment.

moyra duchenne

What is a cabasa? Sounds fascinating. Music evokes such a response and I love using it as a tool.


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