By Laura Hunt Little
When her second child was about a year old, Linda Lemke started noticing signs that something was “off” for her son. At first he appeared to be advanced in vocabulary and highly coordinated in motor skills. However, just a short while later his inability to handle sensory input prevented them from even leaving the house. By the age of 4 Christopher had become almost entirely non-verbal and was diagnosed with moderate to severe Autism. An instrumental musician and vocalist since she could talk, Linda did the thing that was most natural for her, she sang to her son.
Linda did not know it at the time, but this was the beginning of the most meaningful journey of her life.
Linda Lemke was raised on a farm outside of Austin, Texas and went to college in Houston, studying instrumental and vocal music for seven years. She has been teaching music for more than 20 years. She is a member of the band Blasting Echo. She is the mother of four children – three of whom are in three different schools – and the fourth is four months old.
Christopher’s challenges have defined and shaped Linda’s life, both as a mother, and a music teacher. Lemke discovered that by singing to her son, she was able to calm him down. When the family would have a change of plans that would normally cause Christopher to have a meltdown, she sang the new plans to him to the tune of “The Farmer in the Dell” and he was able to understand and handle the change in routine. “The thing that calmed him down was music,” shared Lemke.
During a special education meeting about six years ago, Lemke met teacher Diane Montgomery who was teaching at Lyndon B. Johnson elementary school in Indio. They struck up a conversation about music and how it was having a positive effect with Christopher. Montgomery invited Lemke to visit her special needs classroom. “I brought my flute, keyboard and some rhythm instruments,” shared Lemke about her first session in Montgomery’s class, where the student’s disabilities were so severe that some could only be fed by tubes and nurses were also attendants in the class. “I was so overwhelmed, I had to turn around to assemble my flute.”
After that day, Lemke gave music lessons to the Montgomery’s class once a week. The first request to teach private music lessons for a special needs child came from parents of one of students in this class. She began teaching a blind boy with cerebral palsy. “He loved the vibrations and he had a great ear,” recalls Lemke.
Lemke continued to accept special needs students for private lessons. She works most frequently with students on the Autism spectrum. “Lessons are outside of the box,” shares Lemke. “I am very careful to use positive language, to follow the desires of what the students want to learn, and to take lots of breaks. And they learn. Parents are amazed at what they can do.”
“I’ve learned that music can do so much for a child on the Autism spectrum. It can improve motor skills, especially fine motor. It can help the non-verbal regain language. It can help improve attention span. It can teach a hyper-active child focus and how to sit still. It gives them a creative and an emotional outlet to express themselves. I’ve learned so much from my students and my son,” said Lemke.
How does Lemke feel about the level of activity in her life? “For the first time in my life, I feel like I’m doing what I’m supposed to, even if it seems chaotic,” beams Lemke. “It’s perfect. I’m happy.”