Israel's Equinote helps special needs children feel the music

Taking a look at what the organization has to offer across a range of artistic projects all around the country is particularly pertinent at this time of year.

 TOUCHING THE Sounds, a show based on Beethoven’s life story, allows hearing-impaired children to sense the music. (photo credit: ZIV BARAK)
TOUCHING THE Sounds, a show based on Beethoven’s life story, allows hearing-impaired children to sense the music.
(photo credit: ZIV BARAK)

The arts offer so many advantages, and not just in terms of pure entertainment. Naturally, there is the visual, tactile and/or sonic end product to be enjoyed or pondered. But the creative process can provide so many rewards, particularly for people of all ages with special needs. In recent years, for example, there has been a substantial body of research work that indicates the benefits of listening to music for dementia sufferers.

The arts are also an important educational tool for youngsters, including those with physical and emotional challenges. That is the core thinking behind the Equinote (Tav Hamashveh) nonprofit, which was created in 2018 by Rinat Avisar and Yoram Lachish. The wife and husband twosome have four children, two of whom are hearing impaired. As Avisar and Lachish are both professional musicians, naturally they turned to their craft for solutions. That eventually led to Equinote and an ever-expanding range of activities and programs for kids with existential challenges.

Taking a look at what the organization has to offer across a range of artistic projects all around the country is particularly pertinent at this time of year. Earlier this month, International Day of Disabled Persons was marked all over the world. The event was established exactly 30 years ago, pursuant to a United Nations General Assembly resolution. 

It is designed, as the UN notes, “to promote an understanding of disability issues and mobilize support for the dignity, rights and well-being of persons with disabilities.” The official blurb also says that it aims “to increase awareness of gains to be derived from the integration of persons with disabilities in every aspect of political, social, economic and cultural life.”

Avisar and Lachish lean heavily toward the latter. Over the next month or so, they have a varied program of concerts, workshops and lectures lined up around the country that help get the message across that physical or emotional challenges should not be an obstacle to culture consumption. 

 BLIND FLUTE player Gidi Aharonovitz takes part in the Retzef Hamusica show, along with other artists with special needs. (credit: Yoav Lavi) BLIND FLUTE player Gidi Aharonovitz takes part in the Retzef Hamusica show, along with other artists with special needs. (credit: Yoav Lavi)

Making music and culture accessible to those living with disabilities

“Equinote was created out of the desire to make music and culture accessible to children and adults living with physical and/or mental disabilities.”

Equinote website

“Equinote was created out of the desire to make music and culture accessible to children and adults living with physical and/or mental disabilities,” the nonprofit’s website explains. “Equinote creates, supports and promotes projects with the concept of accessibility at core. Through concerts and workshops, it raises awareness about the obstacles people living with disabilities might encounter, while promoting values of acceptance of others and diversity.”

Avisar says she was inspired by a giant of the classical music world whose own special needs did not stop him from climbing to the top of the pile. “We started Equinote when Yoram and I created the Touching the Sounds show in 2018, based on the story of Beethoven going deaf.” Avisar had plenty of willing souls, arms, mouths and ears to call on at the time. “I was the manager of the Israel Chamber Orchestra back then,” she recalls. 

As luck would have it, one of the biggest stars in the current classical music firmament had a bit of cash to spare and was just looking for a worthy cause to channel it into. “There was a call for a response from Itzhak Perlman,” she says, referencing the celebrated Israeli-born violinist. “He had just won a [cash] prize and he was asking for suggestions for projects to support.”

Avisar and Lachish were more than happy “to help out,” and Touching the Sounds, which forms part of the Equinote repertoire to this day, was just the ticket for the Perlman offer. “We devised the show, using Kinematics. The whole orchestra is connected with water and colors,” Avisar explains. Kinematics is a branch of science that looks at how frequencies impact on material. That can help convey the mysteries and joy of music to children who struggle, or are unable, to hear it by, for example, filtering sounds through a tangible format. The performers also include young musicians with special needs.

That, presumably, also helps to open the public up to the creative possibilities available to the disabled. Then again, how does someone, for example, with severe motor skill challenges play music? That’s where Arkana comes in. In 2015, following a request by the family of a young girl with physical special needs, musician and educator Boaz Rienshrieber came up with the idea of the Arkana Strum apparatus. The digital instrument enables people with all sorts of disabilities to play music and to perform with groups and ensembles. 

EARLIER THIS year, under the aegis of Equinote and with the support of the Regional Cooperation Ministry, the Arkana Strum made its way over to Amman, where Jordanian adults and children got a taste of the hi-tech facilitated musical action themselves. 

While Avisar and Lachish were over there, they also presented their Tzililim Merapim (Healing Sounds) workshop which introduces groups to the palliative properties of focused listening to live music. Tzililim Merapim gets another airing, for adults, at Kibbutz Ramat Hakovesh on January 12.

Touching the Sounds formed the springboard for the whole Equinote venture, which now takes in a slew of concerts and activities that offer fun and enlightenment all year round to children of all ages, regardless of physical and/or emotional abilities.

The show tells the story of Beethoven’s struggles as his ability to hear his own creations is gradually eaten away by encroaching hearing problems. The Touching the Sounds storyline features an encounter between the anguished composer and a scientist, and together they embark on a voyage of discovery, looking at fundamental principles of music that will help Beethoven keep his compositional mojo in robust health. Naturally, that also introduces young audiences to the basics of sonic creation and appreciation, and draws them right into the thick of the art form.

Attending a performance of the show is not just about giving ear, in the conventional way. You can “listen” to music even if your aural abilities are not quite up to scratch. As we know, the brain can often compensate for a loss of one sensorial faculty or other whereby, for example, the sight impaired often have a keener sense of hearing. Avisar and Lachish took this on board and, with the help of the kinematics method, kids of all ilks now get to enjoy Beethoven’s music in the wider corporeal sense by, for example, feeling the frequency ripples the music sets off by immersing their hands in water. And it is not just those who are hearing impaired who, finally, get to appreciate the beauty and majesty of Beethoven’s sumptuous scores. Fully able-bodied kids are able to experience the music in a multisensorial way.

With Touching the Sounds up and running, and drawing sizable crowds, Equinote began to take shape. The roll-out over the next month or so shows how far the venture has evolved over the past four years. If you missed the performance slot a couple of weeks ago in Ra’anana, there is another one coming up in Or Yehuda on January 29.

ANYONE WITH an interest in autism, and life skills in general, may want to scoot over to The Meaningful Parenting Center in Ashdod on January 8 to hear a talk by Dr. Mordi Ben Hamou, a French-born writer, scientist, researcher and musician who also happens to be autistic. The lecture will be based on his bestselling book Autism Falafel and Rock & Roll, which portrays his childhood in France and his life in Israel. The book also looks at numerous aspects of everyday life, including self-acceptance, the education system and how we choose our partners.

Ben Hamou is also in action on January 4 alongside 2010 Star Is Born TV reality show contestant autistic singer Roni Ginosar at Beit Hayotzer in Tel Aviv when they take part in the Retzef Hamusica show. Retzef translates as “spectrum” and references the various levels of autism. Ben Hamou and Ginosar will be joined on stage by other artists with special needs which, says the Equinote program notes, “will enable the artists to present their art to the public.” Sounds like a highly enabling and empowering venture for all.

The moving and enlightening Equinote story just goes on and on. If anyone needs more inspiration and have their eyes opened to how daunting life challenges can be met head on, and overcome, the “Tiroo Otee” (See Me) session at the Music and Dance Center in Or Yehuda on January 3 should do the trick. The event features16-year-olds Roee Mori and Ron Hassing. and 12-year-old Choral Lachish, who talk about how they convert disability into advantage. Mori, who is autistic, is a gifted pianist and songwriter, while Hassing, who suffers from cerebral palsy, swims, sings and plays music on the aforementioned Arkana instrument. Meanwhile, Choral – Avisar and Lachish’s daughter – whose extracurricular activities include acting and basketball, presents a monologue on the sensitive theme of ostracism.

“I wondered how we could get youth to speak to other youth, and to do that through their art,” Avisar explains. That, she says, puts everyone on a positive footing from the outset. “It’s not like someone asks a disabled person something like: “Pardon the question, but how do you manage with your wheelchair?” Each of the kids brings their connection with art, and tells their story.”

The proof of the pudding, says Avisar, is there where it matters. “They have performed Tiroo Otee for youth movements and at schools. They did one recently and, over the weekend, Choral received hundreds of responses from children on her TikTok.” That has to be a shot in the arm for all concerned, including members of Choral’s peer group who, presumably, have their own social acceptance issues to cope with.

Avisar believes the nonprofit’s broad range of activities and events offers added healing values for us all. “We, as parents, tend to replicate and pass on the mistakes our own parents made, and their parents, and the problems continue to recur. We make the same bad choices.” She suggests that others, who are not officially recognized as having special needs, could also benefit from some of Equinote’s offerings. “We can all learn new techniques for addressing different kinds of issues.”

WHILE THE organization continues to churn out entertaining, educational and individually rewarding fare, there are still financial facts on the ground to be addressed, particularly as Avisar and Lachish do their utmost to ensure that all the artists get some remuneration for their onstage efforts. “There is no reason why an artist should not be paid for performing for an audience,” says Avisar.

“The amuta (nonprofit) gets support from the Culture and Sport Ministry, the Regional Cooperation Ministry and all sorts of foundations,” she continues, “but there is a need for more support. Every event we put on depends on funding.”

And there are plans aplenty afoot. “We are hoping to put on a production of a play called The Kingdom of the Very Dear Autistic People,” says Avisar. The show is based on a book published in 2018 by then 16-year-old Maryam Cohen. “She is on the autism spectrum. She doesn’t speak, but she learned to type and she wrote the book.” The idea is for the play to be produced in Hebrew and Arabic and to spread the word about overcoming obstacles, enlightening us about the challenges and abilities of people with special needs. Clearly, something worthwhile and worthy of support.

For more information about Equinote: www.equinote.org.il