Little Swallows classes at Dahlia create a musical space for everyone

Nathan at Dahlia Campus
Five-year-old Nathan works on a drawing on a recent spring morning before a Little Swallows Music class at the Dahlia Campus for Health and Well-Being Sewall Preschool in Denver.

Maria Isabelle holds her phone closely to her ear and listens intently. She is playing a recently-recorded voice memo of her five-year-old son Nathan singing from the back seat of the family car.

Though she tries, she cannot make out the language he is singing in.

“He was singing this but loud, loud, loud, loud for more than three minutes,” her excitement in recounting the story is palpable.

Nathan is diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. His family is bilingual. When Maria Isabelle shared the recording with a therapist, they confirmed the song had a structure, of verse and chorus, and Nathan sang it consistently – only in his own language.

For Maria Isabelle, Nathan’s singing was a major milestone. She credits this musical awakening in part to his participation in Little Swallows music classes at the Dahlia Campus for Health and Well-Being Sewall Preschool.

Maria Isabelle explains this in Nathan’s classroom at Dahlia one recent spring morning while Nathan sat at a desk a few feet away, absorbed in a drawing.

Nathan started reading at a very early age. At 19 months she says she took him to a neurologist who gave him a book, “and he read the whole book.”

Stunned by his ability to read while still so young, appointments with more doctors were scheduled. Nathan, according to his mother, only does what he wants to do when he wants to do it. When asked to read for the doctors he refused.

“When they left,” Maria Isabelle says, “he started reading again.”

The story is representative of how Nathan sometimes handles social situations – he withdraws or even shuts down.

Which makes what happens during the Little Swallows classes at Dahlia all the more encouraging.

The Dahlia Campus for Health & Well-Being is described as “the result of a strong partnership between the Mental Health Center of Denver and the Northeast Park Hill community, understanding that those in the community are the ones who know best how to improve their health and well-being.”

Among its programs are early childhood education classes. Dahlia partners with Swallow Hill to bring Little Swallows early childhood education music classes to its classrooms. The general music education classes are part of Swallow Hill’s rapidly expanding community outreach programs. In 2018 our grant-funded, weekly Little Swallows classes reached 1,200 preschool-aged kids in 19 schools in the metro area, up from 65 kids at one school in 2017.

Board-Certified Music Therapist Eric Feldman teaches the Little Swallows classes at Dahlia.

Eric Feldman teaches a Little Swallows class
Swallow Hill Instructor Eric Feldman checks in on how each child is feeling at the start of a Little Swallows music class.

“Many of the students I see through Swallow Hill have a variety of needs,” Eric says. “There are emotional-behavioral needs as well as children on the Autism spectrum.”

“I aim for my classes to provide musical exercises with clear structure that guide each child towards success,” he elaborates. “My experience and training as a therapist helps me in designing the exercises as well as attending to each student’s response.”

On this morning, Nathan’s classroom is abuzz with anticipation for “Mr. Wolf’s” music class. The emotions range from joy and excitement, to curiosity and apprehension.

With the aid of the classroom staff, Eric gathers the class into a circle. He begins by going around the room and singing “Hello my name is…”

Each child sings their name when it’s their turn. Then Eric sings back “Today I’m feeling…” and each child responds with two thumbs up, two thumbs down, or one thumb up and down. It’s a refreshing display of emotional honesty, and some kids put two thumbs down even as they smile or giggle, suggesting that not all emotions are easily captured.

When Eric gets to Nathan, Nathan says his name after a little coaxing.

“How you feeling Nathan? Can you give me thumbs up today?” Eric asks. Nathan sort of gives him a thumbs up, but it’s enough for Eric to know Nathan is with them for the class.

“Well it’s nice to see you everyone!” Eric enthuses and launches into a new round of songs.

While they sing through “Rock n Roll ABCs” a few times, Nathan is of the boisterous group, but also apart from it.

Eric moves into a new song. “I’ve got a sound I’ll sing for you…” Eric gets the room singing a round of “Ooh, ooh, oohs…” and as he goes around the room he praises several students for their participation, including Nathan. “Good Nathan!” Eric says with a gentle enthusiasm.

In some ways, Eric teaches multiple classes at once. In fact, while the Little Swallows class engages the entire group of students, Eric also connects with every student in the class, addressing their individual needs through this group class format.

This setup succeeds only with the enthusiastic participation of the Dahlia teachers and staffers, as Eric readily acknowledges.

This concerted effort is necessary due to the wide range of emotions on display in the class – from happy and exuberant, to sad and withdrawn. Eric and the teachers keep everyone moving in the same direction.

Nathan and Eric during a Little Swallows class.
Nathan and Eric connect with one another as Nathan gathers his shakers during the Little Swallows class.

Eric is also an accomplished singer-songwriter and performer. These skills help him in the classroom setting as well.

“I think the most important element is that you never have to think about the guitar parts,” he says about how his performance experience helps him.

“My full focus is on my clients/students and the instrument playing/singing is one of the last things that require my focus. My level of comfort allows me to improvise on lyrics, attend to the students, and keep the exercises as safe as possible.”

“How about we do one more song and then the shakers? How does that sound?” Eric asks, demonstrating the juggling act of instructor, musician, and negotiator with aplomb.

“Great!” Nathan replies.

“‘Wheels on the Bus’ and then the shakers,” Eric confirms. This goes over very well with entire class.

During “Wheels on the Bus” Nathan stays quiet for several rounds. When they start singing “the wheels on the bus go beep beep beep” he joins in, adding a long, fire-engine sounding wail. He gets up out of his seat and dances for the final verse and sings very loudly, joyfully as the song crescendos to a finish.

And now it’s time for the promised shakers. Nathan wanders off from the group and Eric calls him back to the fold. Nathan takes his shakers and sort of strut walks back to his seat.

He remains engaged and active throughout the entire song.

The students shake their shakers during “She’ll be coming round the mountain…” with Nathan adding a “Yee-haw” at the end of each line.

As the class draws to a close, time for one more song remains. “So long, good-bye friends, until we meet again,” Eric sings as he softly strums his guitar. The students sway from side to side, some clap, and some of them join him in singing.

“So long, good-bye friends, until we meet again,” Eric sings with a final flourishing guitar strum.

For the briefest of moments, Nathan, Eric and the entire class share a moment of silence as the final notes ring out; they’re a musical circle of individuals, all with different needs and interests, but together.

Nathan during a Little Swallows class
Nathan walks back to his seat after getting his shakers during a Little Swallows class.