PETALING JAYA: A volunteering experience over two decades ago had paved the way for musician Edwin Nathaniel to kick-start a lifelong philanthropic effort for special needs children.
Passionately driven by love and patience, the 62-year-old musician started a music school here to teach children on the autism spectrum disorder and with cerebral palsy.
“I started teaching in the year 2000 when I went to Spastic Children’s Association of Selangor and Federal Territory in Petaling Jaya with my band members called Aseana Percussion Unit.
“At first, we went there just to share our knowledge in music. And 22 years later, I’m still teaching the kids until today,” he said in an interview.
Nathaniel continued to show up at the association every Thursday, conducting free music therapy for the special children.
The idea to use percussion instruments as a part of a music therapy for special needs children came when he met famous American percussionist Arthur Hull some time ago.
“I was mesmerised by the way Hull taught the drum circle participants to play together.
“I asked him, can anybody play the drum? His reply was ‘Yes’.
“So I brought the drums to the spastic centre and tried it out with the children there,” Nathaniel recalled.
The music therapy that Nathaniel has been conducting and practising was formulated by himself which he called the Rhythm Interactive Special Enabler (Rise) project.
He then founded a school called Music Mart, located in Jalan Bukit here, where around 200 students (abled and special needs) had benefitted since its establishment in 2006.
His belief in the strength of inclusivity and no child should be left behind, regardless of their conditions, has become his main motivation for setting up the school.
The therapy uses percussion instruments to enable special needs children to strengthen their motor skills, instill discipline and improve their self-esteem.
Nathaniel said he had a special needs student, who initially could not communicate orally, but then started to say simple words during the class.
“The four-year-old boy could not really speak but during our classes and the therapy, he started reading random words he saw in the studio.
“I told his mother and she was surprised too!” he recounted the experience.
The boy, who just turned 10 this year, has enrolled in a piano class recently and is doing great.
He added that the key to ensuring the success of the therapy was by repeating the routine and teaching with patience.
“We need to repeat many times every week and we need to have patience as well.
“Those were the principles I told the teachers in my school. We need to have patience and love. Thank God, the teachers can adapt to it,” he said.
During some teaching sessions, Nathaniel occasionally combined the classes for abled kids and the special needs children.
He said it was to ensure that the abled children were aware of such conditions and to be more sensitive when they encounter those with special needs outside of their classes.
Nathaniel also recounted a touching moment when one of his students thanked him for his efforts of bringing the children together without prejudice.
Some of the other students went on to pursue music studies in colleges and have also become music teachers.
Wan Zareef Nuqman, 24, who joined Nathaniel’s classes for the past few years, has now become an instructor himself, teaching drum circles.
He said through the classes, he managed to build his confidence when meeting other people aside from picking up music skills.
“I’m happy to learn from him,” said the assistant music teacher with a wide smile when asked about his experience at Music Mart.
Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, Nathaniel organised over 50 free workshops, travelling across Malaysia to train special education teachers on running the Rise project.
As travelling was restricted during the pandemic, he then launched an instruction book to enable teachers to gain access to their training methods.
In the long run, Nathaniel aimed to expand the music therapy he formulated to every corner of the country.
He said he wanted to train more teachers so that they could help in raising awareness about the special needs children and their endless capabilities.
“I want to reach out to more schools and let people know what Rise is all about.
“I also want to give more opportunities to these special children to explore their talents,” he said.
Despite facing a challenge in raising funds, Nathaniel said he would make sure his efforts would never stop from reaching more people.
He has been running the school using his own expenses and generating income through the sales of his Rise project book.
For his noble efforts, Nathaniel is recognised as one of the 10 winners of Star Golden Hearts Award 2022 (SGHA) under the individual category.
SGHA is an annual award by The Star and Yayasan Gamuda that celebrates everyday Malaysian unsung heroes. For more details, visit sgha.com.my.