Our Journey – Part 1

What an Incredible Ride

A blog series by Michael and Denie Riggs

Michael and Denie Riggs invite you on our journey as we celebrate 25 years since we became a corporation. We will be sharing an accumulation of the visions that we have carried over the last 25 years.

These visions, when fulfilled, will offer something for everyone who ever has or will take music from Perfect Praise Music or participated in our programs.

We have desires and passions for providing help, health, healing for hurting families around the world. But it’s bigger than that! And best yet, you can Partner with us to move into the decades ahead together.

We are going to start sharing the journey with this blog as Denie shares the history of when we began a department of our school called Early Childhood Music.

The Journey Begins

A blog by Denie

I still remember the day.

It was 1998. The internet had just been available to us a short time, and I was just experimenting with searching words for music related categories.

I pulled up research regarding 3-year-old piano lessons.

Michael was reading the newspaper nearby. I said to him, “Listen to this! In this study they found that 3-years-olds benefited greatly from studying the piano! They have enhanced academics, reading, comprehension, and other abilities that are greater than their non-musical peers.”

“That’s so stupid” I muttered. “It’s just somebody trying to make money!”

At that time, I had been teaching piano for decades, and found it extremely difficult to be successful teaching piano to children under the age of 7 years. In my mindset, 3-year-old piano lessons was a joke, so I just discarded the topic and went about my internet investigating.

But I couldn’t get it out of my mind. I’d wake up at 3 a.m. for weeks after, thinking about 3-year-old piano lessons.

One morning, about 6 weeks later, Michael asked me how I slept, and I explained, “I didn’t! I keep waking at 3 a.m. thinking about 3-year-old piano lessons!”

Michael, wiser than me, said, “Maybe you need to consider that God may be telling you something.”

My comment, “About what? I’ve tried unsuccessfully to teach 5-year-olds … what would I do with a 3-year-old?”

“I don’t know, ask God!” he stated.

Long story short, that day changed my life, my thinking, our business model, and thousands of lives spanning decades in several countries.

Later that year, I began to write a non-traditional Early Childhood Music curriculum, a task that would take me 7 years. We launched the first piano-based music class of 3-year-olds in July 1998, in the Muscle Shoals Music Academy, Muscle Shoals AL.

I have taught piano since I was 12 years old. My ministry was with students ages 7 ½ and up with traditional teaching methods. I have enjoyed teaching students with all kinds of mental and physical handicaps, including blind students, those with Cerebral Palsy, Dyslexia, ADHD, Alzheimer’s, Asperger’s, and other handicaps.

As Early Childhood Music (ECM) was growing like crazy, a new buzz word was arriving in our culture for children with special learning needs.

Autism. And what we were about to witness for children with autism was indeed incredible.

The piano is the number one instrument for enriched brain function in all students. Because our ECM piano curriculum had a non-traditional approach to the piano, children with Autism were able to easily engage with music and more specifically the piano.

As individuals with Autism begin our piano program, it changes their brain, permitting more engagement which brings about more and more musical and non-musical benefits … life changing enrichments.

Moving the story forward, in the next several years, we witnessed breakthrough after breakthrough with children who had been diagnosed with Autism, most obvious having to do with speech and language development.

In April 2012, my favorite morning talk show was featuring an Autism Therapy every day of the month. I planned my month around watching each broadcast, waiting for them to feature music and the piano. As the days ticked by, I was certain they were still going to feature music. The last day of the month, their featured therapy was … not music, but tennis!

I was exasperated, disappointed and amazed. I said aloud to the TV talking heads, “Somebody needs to tell you guys that music helps autism.”  Hearing those words come out of my mouth, I realized that I could do it. I immediately phoned my IT guy to see if the URL “music helps autism” was available. It was. “Hold it for me… I’m going to write a book!”

Lunch with Michael was interesting that day. Working our business together, we always discuss everything before moving ahead. If one of us comes up with a new idea, we’d talk about it, pray about it, research it and ponder it for a time. A new idea or concept was always a long process from idea to launch.

Music Helps Autism

Not so that day! I announced to him that I was going to write a book about what we had been witnessing with our Early Childhood Music program and that it was to be called Music Helps Autism. And that I’d already secured www.MusicHelpsAutism.com.

In additional to my administration and teaching schedules, it took me 12 months to write the Music Helps Autism book. It was published the end of March 2013, just before Autism Awareness Month of April.

The Music Helps Autism (MHA) book is a testimony of HOPE. It shares the scientific research behind the benefits of the piano, one of the 4 levels of engagement with music. It shares many stories and testimonies from our students regarding their child’s improvement once they began our Early Childhood Music’s piano courses. (Get purchase information on Amazon here.)

In the meantime, our Perfect Praise Projects, Inc. board of directors met for our annual meeting. Two educators served on the board, and I shared with them about the MHA book. They encouraged me to do a Case Study to further document our findings. Perfect Praise Projects, Inc. voted to fund the study.

So once the book was published, Perfect Praise Projects, serving as my steering committee, helped me prepare to conduct a Music and Autism Case Study the summer of 2013.

I developed products for the 4 levels of engagement, taught in my MHA book.

  • Listening Therapy: I developed a Listening Therapy CD with specifically chosen soundtracks to give the greatest benefit to the listener.
  • Singing Therapy: I created a curriculum called Music4Me. I selected the best of Early Childhood Music melodies to be a part of the Music4Me CD.
  • Active Music Participation: We hired a professional videographer to film a series of 7 music lessons for the children to participate at home daily to saturate their environment.
  • Piano Therapy: And we included the piano in the home class videos. For children who were able, we included an online piano lesson series for them to work at home.

In addition to the education professionals on our Perfect Praise Projects board, I assembled a strong educational team to oversee and monitor the study:

  • We engaged an autism specialist, who helped train our team regarding working with children with Autism
  • I gathered educational specialists in our area to make the study as legitimate and scientifically documented as possible

Our autism specialist warned me that it usually takes a year or more to see any benefit from a therapy. “Denie, don’t get your hopes up,” she warned.

But my expectations were sky-high because of what we had witnessed. But we had only 8 weeks to change lives.

20 families volunteered to participate in the study, with ranging degrees of Autism. Most were low functioning; 7 children were non-verbal.

To be a part of the Music and Autism Case Study:

  • Their child had to have received an official Autism diagnosis
  • They had to commit to attending lessons in-studio for 8 weeks
  • They had to commit to do the assigned musical activities at home daily
  • They had to document everything

We launched the Case Study in June 2013 to run the summer. Here were our structures:

  • Every in-studio activity was videoed, and home study was to be documented
  • Every student was assigned an Intercessor to pray for breakthrough (anonymously, of course)
  • A Partner (parent or guardian) attended lessons with the children
  • A Buddy (volunteers and employees of Perfect Praise) was assigned to every student to interact with them in class, and to document in several assessment areas.

The results were remarkable across the board with the 20 families who participated in this study.

  • Five out of seven non-verbal children, ranging in ages of 4 – 11 years, spoke new words during the eight-week study.
  • A sixth non-verbal child broke into language 9 months later, as his mom continued to do the piano activities after the study.
  • All the parents in the study who did the required assignments, testified that their child was enriched in many non-musical life skills, like tying their shoes, potty training, sleeping etc.

Here are two of MANY wonderful testimonies from the Music and Autism Case Study.

  • “Music4Me is the most incredible program. I believe this program should be a must for all autistic children, and I believe it should be the first step in them getting help.”
  • “This music program is wonderful and being that the class was only eight weeks long and had the effect it had on my son … has blown my mind.”

You may read the full case study report and all the testimonies at this link : Music and Autism Case Study

Wow, reminiscing the start of Early Childhood Music and then the miraculous Music and Autism Case Study, makes me incredibly grateful to the Lord for the journey we are on; a journey of playing a part in changing lives … and we are just beginning.

In the next blog, we’ll share about the days after the Case Study and how God was going to name our Center, lay out His plans, giving us a step-by-step vision for the future.

Watch for the next segment of Our Journey to be appear in a few days…

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