Standing confidently in front of the class, a teenage girl starts singing in a pretty voice: “High on a hill was a lonely goatherd/lay ee odl lay ee odl lay hee hoo.” Before long, the rest join her in yodelling the chorus to The Lonely Goatherd.
Generations of children have learned the song from The Sound of Music. But in this rented room at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing the students are teenagers with autism and other intellectual disabilities. Every Sunday morning, they gather for a few hours of singing, dancing and piano lessons.
“I always pick easy, happy songs for them. The whole point is to get everyone involved and to enjoy it,” says their music teacher Jiang Dufang.
Beyond enjoyment, the lessons serve as therapy to stimulate mental development.
The programme was founded 12 years ago by Yu Huigeng, a former principal of a high school affiliated with the conservatory.
Yu, 88, had been struck by the remarkable progress of children who had taken part in a pilot scheme in 1984.
She had organised 18 months of violin lessons and pitch training at a kindergarten for about 30 toddlers who had no musical background, and made follow-up visits 10 years later. She found most of them excelled at their studies.
“These cases reinforced my belief that music could produce a noticeable influence on the development of children,” she says.
Most extraordinary was a brain-damaged boy named Feng Cong. When his mother took him to Yu’s violin class, he was drooling, his head flopped to one side and he was unable to extend three fingers on his left hand. Yet, within six months, he was able to play some simple tunes on the instrument.
When Yu visited his family in 1999, she was delighted to learn that Feng was doing well in his school; he was later even accepted to study psychology at university.
Feng’s story spread, and parents began coming to Yu for help with children who had developmental disabilities.
So in 2001, Yu approached the Central Conservatory of Music and proposed a music therapy programme.
There was a growing need to help children with disabilities, particularly those with autism.
Watch: How music therapy can help mentally disabled children in China
China has seen a sharp rise in the number of youngsters with autism in the past decade. On World Autism Day last year, April 2, the China Philanthropy Research Institute (CPRI) said there were about 1.64 million autistic children on the mainland. But only 10 per cent received any form of therapy at hospitals or other government facilities; most were cared for by parent-run organisations.
Yu was initially given free use of seven classrooms and more than 100 children enrolled. Among them was Wang Bocheng, who is autistic.
Then nine years old, Bocheng started by learning the keyboard and then moved on to private piano lessons. This summer, he went to South Korea to perform a piano duet with a friend from the music therapy class. “Music has become part of his life now,” says his mother, Zhu Jiangong.
“At the special education school my son goes to during the week, autistic children do not have many opportunities to perform music. The teachers are worried that autistic kids sometimes cannot control their behaviour,” she says. “Here, every child is treated the same.”
Yu first wondered if there might be a link between music and a child’s development in the late 1940s, when she was a teacher at a prestigious girls school in Shanghai. One of her students had trained in Peking opera from an early age. Despite often dozing off in class, the girl excelled in all her subjects.
“I asked myself if it was music that made her so smart,” Yu recalls.
That student was Li Shiji, who later became a national Peking opera star.
Through the years, Yu found herself asking the same question about the power of music training as she encountered various young talent. One student in Beijing called Liu Shikun topped all his subjects at school and went on to become one of the finest pianists in China.
Even during the Cultural Revolution, when students denounced her in big-character posters, the issue stayed on her mind. Instead of being angered by their accusations, she was struck by the vivid descriptions, arguments and originality of the posters.
“More than half of our curriculum was devoted to learning music. It was a miracle they could write so well,” she told a friend sharing her cell at the time.
Resuming her post as principal after Deng Xiaoping came to power in 1978, Yu sought an answer to the question that had puzzled her for nearly three decades.
She asked Zhou Lin, a researcher at the Psychology Institute under the Chinese Academy of Sciences, to repeat a cognitive test he had conducted at other schools on her students. She signed up 70 children aged between 10 and 12 years old.
Zhou’s test found that students at her music school outperformed their peers.
Still, Yu was not sure. After all, admission to her school was highly competitive, and they were likely to do better than others. But the results from her kindergarten trial finally convinced her, and so the music therapy programme was launched.
But in 2010, the programme lost the use of all seven classrooms after the central conservatory was renovated.
Nobody wanted to offer a space to Yu because they were worried the autistic children might damage the new facilities.
In the end, the conservatory’s trade union agreed to let Yu use their gym, a 40 square metre hall. Seeing the limited space, many parents stopped taking their children to the programme.
Twelve children stayed, including Bocheng. “My son does not want to miss a class here,” Zhu says. “We parents are also here to be encouraged by Yu.”
“These kids are often looked down on in society. They are extremely sensitive to criticism. We are here to help them restore self-esteem,” Yu says.
“Their parents also live under great stress. They think they are the most unfortunate parents. If they don’t have help, they can pass this negative attitude on to their children.”
In the unheated corridor outside the classroom, Yu tries to encourage parents.
“Remember, there is only one spot inside your child’s brain that has gone wrong. The rest of it is absolutely fine,” she says. “Things will change if you do not give up.”