Jamming on keyboards, bass guitar, and drums, four young men fill
a basement room with harmony. The only unusual items here are the
colorful squares, triangles, and circles up on a magnet board. The
symbols are stand-ins for conventional musical notes - the keys that
have unlocked music for the students here.
The Special Music Center Resonaari has a humble, cozy setting - a
converted two-story home in Finland's capital. But for the 170
people with intellectual or developmental disabilities who take
music classes here each week, it's a place where their talents, not
their special needs, take center stage.
For music teacher Markku Kaikkonen, the director, it's also the
nucleus of a "cultural revolution."
"Our pupils, many of them, have lived in the margin of society.
But now, with the help of ... music education, they are coming
closer and closer to the center of society," Mr. Kaikkonen says,
leaning forward with excitement, his brown hair hanging loosely
about his shoulders.
The effects spread far beyond the students, Kaikkonen says. They
change attitudes among families, neighbors, and the audiences who
see them perform.
Figurenotes, a system of notation and teaching, has been
developed and tested over the past decade by Kaikkonen and
codirector Kaarlo Uusitalo. Students learn to play by matching the
symbols to keys on a piano or frets on a guitar. Colors indicate
notes, shapes show the octave, and arrows show sharps and flats.
It's a simple way to convey all the information in traditional
The Figurenotes method has spread to Japan, Estonia, and
"What they're teaching us is that people with learning
disabilities are capable of doing so much more in terms of their
musical ability than what we previously knew," says Brian Cope,
artistic director of Drake Music Scotland, a charity that uses
Figurenotes in both mainstream and special education.
Students often arrive with no concept of rhythm, melody, or other
basics. Some can use only one finger to play. Others are very shy.
It can take years to reach the point of performing in annual
concerts, which draw hundreds. Kaikkonen and his teachers patiently
rejoice in every step of progress.
"In the beginning, it's only colors and symbols, but then
suddenly it starts to be music, and it's the miracle moment,"
Kaikkonen says. "When a person is playing for the first time in his
life, and he understands, 'I played music! …