A Trying Journey, Rich Rewards

When YTA Artistic Director Emelyne Bingham began pursuing her doctor of musical arts degree several years ago, she couldn’t have imagined that lightning would strike, both figuratively and literally, before she was through.


Bingham, who officially became Dr. Bingham in late 2020, unlocked a promising teaching method while researching her doctoral dissertation. She found that when teachers make certain hand and arm gestures — in the same vein as those conductors use when leading an orchestra — it’s easier for children, including those with autism, to learn musical concepts.


Her discovery could lead to the development of more effective teaching methodologies.


“It was quite a journey. It required a lot of perseverance, but I’m happy to have done it,” said Bingham, who also is a senior lecturer at Vanderbilt University’s Blair School of Music in Nashville, an accomplished conductor and double bassist, and an autism self-advocate. She serves as chair of the Tennessee Council on Autism Spectrum Disorder.


Sleepless Nights


There’s no question that Bingham is excited about her teaching method discovery, but the path that led her there was an emotional one. It was prompted by a painful experience observing a public school classroom with some of her music education students.


“During one of these visits, I watched as a very excited student came in with his instrument,” Bingham recalled. “Although I had no way of knowing for sure, I assumed from the way he presented that he had autism. The teacher had him sit in the very back corner of the room, physically distanced from the rest of the students. This child immediately took his instrument out of the case, put his music on the stand, and sat there with this incredible, wild-eyed look of anticipation and joy.


“And for an entire class period, that child never played a single note,” Bingham continued. “Nor did the teacher acknowledge him, look at him, say anything to him at all. So here ]was this poor student, distanced from his peers, ignored by a teacher, and obviously not able to engage in music-making, which of course was the whole reason he was there. He had been so excited when he came in, and when class was over he walked out of the room dragging his feet with his head down. It just broke my heart.”


After that, Bingham couldn’t sleep for nights. She knew it was unlikely that what she’d seen was an isolated incident. Students with autism often have a keen interest in music, but they can require extra patience, attention, and modified instruction methods. Teachers don’t always have the resources and training to meet their needs.


“I thought, how can we help teachers reach these students?” Bingham said. “How can we cross this bridge between what the teacher knows and where the student is?”


That’s when she decided to devote her dissertation to bridge building.


Conducting Experiments


Bingham found inspiration in her experiences as a conductor and symphony musician.


Good conductors often develop a highly expressive language of gestures to guide their musicians. Bingham had a hunch that children of various cognitive and verbal abilities could perceive conducting-like gestures as musical expression through a fascinating cognitive process called “crossmodal mapping.” Crossmodal mapping allows us to map one sensory modality onto another. It’s much like synaesthesia, except that crossmodal associations tend to be more universal.


Bingham decided to delve into the discipline of music cognition, which explores how way human brains process music, and phonomimetic gestures: movements that look like sounds sound. Then she focused on four gestures developed by the 20th-century movement specialist Rudolph Laban, who created a lexicon for categorizing human movement as well as a notational system to record choreography.


“I made videos of myself making these Laban-inspired gestures, and I asked typically developing children and children with autism to say a nonsense syllable in a way that they thought matched the gesture,” Bingham said.


Bingham found no significant differences in the way children with and without autism perceived musical gesture. Moreover, she found that these perceptions became more tightly coupled with their responses when the children learned to perform the gestures themselves. These findings likely lend support to the use of phonomimetic gestures as a suitable approach for teaching musical expression in included music classrooms.


That was lightning strike number one. As for the second strike, it literally came out of the clear blue sky.


Out of the Blue


During a day at the lake on Labor Day 2019, lightning struck Bingham. Or, at least, it struck near enough for her to be impacted.


“Of course it was an indirect hit — if it had hit me directly we wouldn’t be having this conversation right now,” Bingham chuckled. “It hit the water several hundred feet behind where I was wakeboarding,” she said. “And the weird part is there was not a cloud in the sky. I learned then that’s where the saying ‘out of the blue’ comes from. Lightning can strike anywhere at any time.”


Bingham’s niece, about 10 feet away in their boat, grabbed Bingham and pulled her in.


“I just felt like I got kicked in the chest really hard,” Bingham added. “I spent three days in the ICU so they could keep a close watch on my heart.” Fortunately, the lightning didn’t cause serious injury.


These days, Bingham expresses gratitude, both for experiencing the good and for surviving the harrowing during her doctoral journey.


It has been especially meaningful, she says, to help open the door to “musicking,” or engaging in musical behavior, for children with autism.


“I feel really driven to help everyone I encounter, whether it’s a performer or a listener, find that place where music is an enriching experience for them,” she said.


Read Bingham’s dissertation here: https://open.bu.edu/handle/2144/41837

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