Music without Barriers: an Integrated Experience from Lombardy

The SONG program in Milan, Italy (with its expressive acronym, designating Sistema Orchestre e cori / Nuclei Giovanili e infantile) began in 2011, and focuses on welcoming children with special needs into its core aims of integration through ensemble music education.

SONG is spearheaded by the Italian Sistema-inspired initiative in Milan—the large, industrial northern city best known for fashion, the San Siro stadium, and La Scala Opera House.  Milan is historically a city of progressive and egalitarian citizens; in this context, the Pasquinelli Foundation has emerged as a supportive and attentive partner and supporter of El Sistema here.

“Bringing music where there is none,” the main mission of SONG, reaches into the dynamic silence of many physical conditions, wherein—in the words of Jhonny Gómez, co-founder of El Sistema’s Educación Especial in Venezuela – “the soul knows no disability.”

The “Manos Blancas” initiative came to the fore in Milan several years ago; this openly philanthropic enterprise benefits from the presence of another major institution in the city, the Mariani Foundation for Child Neurology, allied with the National Neurologic Institute C. Besta in the care of developmental disorders.

Many of us are familiar by now with the touching movements of little hands clad in white gloves, synchronized with the voices of their singing companions and expressively alluding to their verbal meanings. What is less well known is the complex background of such endeavors, which SONG came to know and partly overcome through years of trial and error. The Italian school system is remarkably progressive in its approach to special needs, addressing them not separately but within the regular classroom. But we have learned, to our surprise, that there are ideological feuds regarding the various approaches to dealing with deafness, and some practitioners of the signed language (which, we were startled to discover, is not universal, but specific to each language) have criticized the white hands methodology for not being literal enough. We feel that the relation between gesture and sign is akin to that between poetry and prose, or dance and movement; still, our collaboration with the deaf community has had to be sidelined for the time being.

However, we are happy to have a demanding but uniquely rewarding collaboration with the only “special school” in Milan, the Paolo & Larissa Pini Comprehensive Institute, dedicated to the most severe conditions.  Through this partnership, we have created the  “Musica Senza Barriere” project, wherein the severely challenged children at this special school are assigned “tutors,” children from a nearby junior high school who have been identified by their teachers as needing extra attention.  These children benefit from the discovery that they can, in turn, help others who are more intensely in need than they are. The accompanying video is a powerful expression of the joy experienced on all sides in this endeavor.  The joy of the kids, the involvement of parents, the dedication of instructors, the patience of music directors—all make it clear that no effort is too strenuous when results can be so heartening.

A scientific collaboration with the Psychology Department of the Catholic University is underway to study the more measurable effects of these interventions, while observational evidence already points to enduring success.  Recently, the children made their first excursion outside the school setting, thanks to a special grant by BPER bank that enables dditional assistance and transportation.  In the great hall of the university, they sang at the closing of a national conference on education. “We have hands to play, we have hands to create, to work, to dream, to write, to sing, to lead… but we want hands to touch the sky with our fingers.”  The non-speaking children and young adults had tears in their eyes as they sang. And—though we had thought we already knew all about this—so did we.

Check out the following video about the SONG senza barriere program:

Author: Maria Majno, Founder and President of SONG, Sistema Lombardia, Italy

Date: 28 May 2019

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