Every so often, the quiet hallways of an office building in Tanjong Pagar become abuzz with the chatter of young children eagerly making their way to their music lessons. But as one observes these classes happening in situ, small clues reveal that this is not a typical music school.

At The Radiant Spectrum, students come with a range of special needs – from autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) to cerebral palsy and selective mutism. In some classes, large picture cards with simple instructions replace musical scores, while in others, students focus on learning simple finger placements on the keyboard.

“We are the only music school in Singapore that actively turns down neurotypical children. 95 per cent of them have special needs, and the other 5 per cent consists of their siblings or relatives,” says principal and founder Samantha Soh-Tann, who established the school in 2018. 

Samatha, who has been teaching music for 15 years, manages a team of 10 and oversees a cohort of about 100 students at the school’s only International Plaza location.

Many mainstream music schools, according to her, do not take in special needs children not only because they lack teachers trained to address their needs, but also because of the demands of the curriculum – which is already challenging for neurotypical individuals – are too overwhelming for most of them. 

“We opened this place to provide a safe space for learning music. If there is a meltdown [from the child], you won’t have another person staring and thinking, what is wrong with the child? Our curriculum is designed in a way whereby tasks are scaffolded, and taught explicitly and errorlessly. Something that comes very naturally to us may not be something that comes naturally to our kids,” explains Samantha.

She shares an example of a high-functioning student who struggled to focus on his piano lessons because of his ASD. The young boy would fidget and move about the classroom when he first started at The Radiant Spectrum over a year ago, but now, he is able to play an entire song at a Grade 1 level without getting off the chair. He used to dislike note-reading exercises as well, but through patient coaching, he is now able to sight-read treble clef notes from middle C to high G.

“Every time my student gets off the chair, I’ll bring his focus back by asking him, ‘What’s next?’ They learn these steps through repetition. We know they can reach this stage, but the work that it takes to get them there is what most people don’t see and understand.

“We don’t instruct or lecture them about what we don’t want to see. Here, we don’t say ‘don’t hit’, or ‘don’t kick the piano’. What we do is patiently share our expectations with our students: ‘Sit nicely; listen to the teacher. Instead of saying, look at all the mistakes that you’ve made, why not say, look at all that you’ve accomplished?” she says.

At The Radiant Spectrum, students are taught through scaffolded tasks instead of a typical music curriculum. Photo: Veronica Tay

Celebrating all wins

Samantha does not subscribe to the conventional measures of success that some adults might place on a neurotypical child. Instead, she considers all forms of progress – including behavioural achievements – to be worth celebrating.

“We have teachers who joined us from mainstream schools and at first, they would ask us questions like, ‘why are you not fixing this issue’, or ‘why are the students not taking exams?’

“Of course, the milestones are unique to each student. But we also have to note that the effort that goes into achieving these targets is a lot more pronounced for them. For one, it could simply be stamina, and tolerance. For him to continue playing when there are strangers watching his performance is an achievement in itself – even we get stage fright,” she points out.

The Radiant Spectrum’s year-end concert is a recognition of these wins. On 9 December, the school’s 80 students will take to the stage at the Enabling Village in Lengkok Bahru to perform for crowds of parents, fellow students and friends. For the parents, this occasion offers both hope and the opportunity for them to see their child represented. 

Says Samantha: “The parents just want to see their child succeed in whatever way success looks like for the child. It can be as simple as being able to take instruction from someone well. And that’s a win. We are not about achieving perfection, but what a win looks like for each child.”

The Radiant Spectrum believes in celebrating all wins and milestones. Photo: Veronica Tay

The heart of music

Besides helping her students achieve their own milestones, what is perhaps a larger driving factor for Samantha is how The Radiant Spectrum serves not only as an outlet of expression, but also as a refuge for some.

One particular case involved an eight-year-old child who is undergoing a series of major upheavals in their life. The child’s aunt passed away recently and their parents are going through a divorce. To top it off, the child has just started studying at a new school.

“My own dad passed away when I was 14, and as a regular person, I didn’t know how to talk about it then. I can’t imagine an 8-year-old-child with special needs knowing how to process this. The child does not know how to express themselves, but they would come into class and request for songs such as ‘My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean’. I don’t know if they understand the meaning of the words, but there must be something in the melody that soothes them. There have been many times where they would just cry, and it’s as if they are seeking emotional release,” says Samantha. 

“We also see similar signs in other students who are going through things, and they may seek emotional support from their teachers or myself,” she continues. 

“But once they leave the classroom, everything [that they are facing] comes back again. Sometimes, when they go through that, we may have to pause progress.”

This is by far the biggest challenge for Samantha – when her students are grappling with personal problems that go beyond her area of expertise. 

“They are still your students, so you have to take care of them and their emotional wellbeing. Those are the days that you feel out of your depth, but you cannot give up before the child does. So you just have to make sure that they come here to a safe space, like a constant in the chaos,” she says emphatically.

“And somehow, when I work with these children, there’s that feeling you get when they overcome hurdles like being able to write and colour, which are things that we take for granted. Then, you watch them succeed. When you witness this on a regular basis, that fuels you and it becomes an upward cycle.”