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The City Journals

When words fail, music speaks: How one student shares his passion for music with others

Nov 22, 2021 02:07PM ● By Julie Slama

Elk Ridge ninth-grader Mone Ngata plays alongside others in the beginning percussion class, using a Skoog, a soft cube device that can be programmed to play notes to assist special education students to participate in music classes. (Julie Slama/City Journals)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

Mone Ngata is a typical teenager is many ways. He likes to hang out and play video games with his cousins, read Harry Potter books and watch his favorite sports teams — the Utah Utes and LA Lakers. On his bedroom wall, Mone has an autographed Super Bowl poster and owns a jersey from the days when his uncle, Haloti Ngata, played defensive tackle for the Baltimore Ravens.

The 14-year-old likes to be challenged and meet those challenges, said his mother, Anchalee Ngata Mone has about 15 different kinds of cube puzzles that he’s able to solve.

Mone uses drumsticks as part of Elk Ridge’s percussion, and along with 15 other beginning percussionists in the class, he tries to tap out the beat. When it comes to other percussion parts, this ninth-grader’s instrument looks a little different.

Mone plays the Skoog 2.0, a squishy rubber cube with colored buttons that can be programmed to play any note, in any octave, in any scale.  The device, which can be connected to Garage Band via Bluetooth, makes playing music accessible for Mone, who has little mobility and is mostly non-verbal.

His band teacher, Chris Lyon, spends about 25 minutes to translate each page of the beginning percussion book to “Skoog music,” a series of colored boxes that match the buttons, with long rectangles representing whole notes or shorter ones symbolizing quarter notes. 

Mone, with the help of an aide or his special education teacher, Amanda Mair, who points to the note and counts the beat, will play the music holding the buttons with his fingertips on one hand and usually, the palm of his other hand.

“His hands are pretty much in the same position, almost like a fist or cupped. He can open his hands, but it’s really slow to open and close,” Lyon said.

In October, Mone was still mastering reading the music and playing the instrument. But by Dec. 16 when the group takes to the stage to play its holiday concert, he will be playing right alongside his peers.

“Mone is going to perform at the concert and have his own music to play with the band. I can make his instrument sound like whatever instrument his peers are playing. So, if they are playing the bells, I’ll make it sound like the bells. If no one was looking at him, they would have no clue that he was playing a block instead of the bells,” Lyon said about the customizable and versatile Skoog.

It was Mair who approached Lyon about Mone taking a music class. Mone already has taken the cooking and art electives.

“I told him a little bit about Mone and said, ‘Do you think we can make this work?’ And without any hesitation, Mr. Lyon said, ‘Yes, put him in my class,’” Mair said.

Upon learning “he has quite significant motor skill disability,” Lyon suggested a percussion class so Mone wouldn’t have to worry about dexterity or facial muscles that are involved in playing wind instruments.

Then, Lyon began scouring the internet.

“I had no clue what to do for Mone,” Lyon recalled. “I needed to do something that involves him actually doing something, to be an actual participant in the class.”

It was through a Facebook band teacher’s forum that he learned about the Skoog.

“I learned about the instrument and how it works and realized that it would be perfect for him,” Lyon said. “The Skoog was developed with special education in mind as a way for those kids to able to participate in music with an instrument they can manage.”

With the support of Mair, Lyon asked Principal Curtis Jenson to fund the Skoog and speaker, at about $400. “If this is what’s best for the kid, absolutely, we’re going to do that,” Lyon said quoting Jenson.

“I had a day or two before the class started playing instruments to learn about it before asking Mone to play. I didn’t know what to do about notation. You can only program and play five notes on it and each note is assigned a color. So, I went on their website, found a template and I grabbed the book that we’re using with standard music notation and basically began to translate percussion music to ‘Skoog music.’”

Working with Mair, he made some tweaks for Mone to “make it a little bit more achievable and more clear.”

For example, each of Mone’s measures are numbered.  He does not play rhythms faster than two eighth notes in a row, so those rhythms may be modified to ones he can achieve, Lyon said. At the same time, Lyon wanted Mone to understand some standardized notation, so his music does include some music symbols, like repeat signs.

“My plan is to go through the whole book and translate it for Mone, then give it to him as a bound book; but right now, I’m only staying about two exercises ahead of him,” he said.

On the first day of class, Mair said Mone left without her.

“He went down there completely by himself. I didn’t even know that he knew where the band room was. While he isn’t able to speak, his face is super expressive and speaks volumes. He was just so excited to be there,” she said.

Lyon remembered it clearly.

“The first time he came in class with the Skoog sitting on the table, his eyes lit up like nothing I’ve seen before; it was very much like Christmas morning. He got really excited and just wanted to get right to it and started pushing buttons to experience it,” he said.

Even outside of class, Mone is excited about playing. Because there’s a Skoog interface on the app, he can practice on his school iPad. 

“I’ve seen videos and pictures of him in the special ed class showing his peers the work he’s been doing by practicing on his iPad. He creates stuff for himself all the time and has fun – all the things that other kids get to do with their instruments, he gets to do, too,” Lyon said.

Before they play music in class, the percussionists, including Mone, count the beats. 

“Even though Mone’s not able to talk, he vocalizes during that time, so he’ll count,” Mair said, noting that his band experience has translated to his other areas of study. “A week ago, we were playing a game in my science class and one of his friends spun the spinner and it landed on four. Mone, clear as day, yelled out ‘four.’ I feel very strongly the reason he was able to say four is because we’re constantly repeating the counts, ‘1,2, 3, 4; 1, 2, 3, 4.’” 

Mair said his hand movement while clapping the beat also has improved and he is able to better stay on rhythm with the class.

“Mone already has made huge growth this year and I feel like we can attribute a lot of it to this class. He’s seeing, he’s hearing and he’s touching, and he knows where the colors are, and he is able to track where he needs to be. It’s a lot for a kid of any ability level to look at music and be able to play, but then you add on the disability, and it can be tricky,” she said.  “He’s getting it and he is working his butt off because he just loves it.”

Occasionally, there are connectivity issues with the Skoog and iPad and it will glitch and start playing on its own, and that’s when everyone bursts into laughter because “Mone is a jokester,” Mair said, adding, “That kid loves to joke and he loves to tease with the friends he’s making in that class.”

She said that when the Skoog glitches, Mone starts laughing and points to the boy next to him because Lyon told him it was his classmate using “mind powers.”

Lyon said that “he was almost on the ground laughing one day because it just kept glitching. The kids are amazing. They joke around with him before and after class and even though he’s mostly nonverbal, they still found a way to rally around him, welcome him with open arms, and make him part of the class. And to watch his smile and enjoy being in the class and making music and making friends, it’s been fun to watch.”

Lyon said the kids have learned empathy and without being asked, they help get him a chair and music stand as he and Mair will support Mone from transitioning out of his motorized wheelchair. 

“It was really important to me that he has a place he’s comfortable and he could call his own,” he said.

Already the class has learned 20 exercises, so Lyon has spent more than eight hours transcribing music using his prep time.

 “School has become a big sprint. I get to work and it’s an instant 'get working on the Skoog music' or 'get working on grades' and it’s just go, go, go until it’s time to go home. Then, I do it all over again the next day, but that’s OK because this is what he needs,” Lyon said. “I love teaching because of the kids. Getting to know Mone and getting to see his struggles and see him overcome those struggles, and be eager every single day to come in, work and put himself out there and take risks, and experience music, it’s just amazing. The whole experience is pretty incredible.”