There's something remarkable happening in a boy's chorus in the little town of Calw, Germany.
There, 43 kilometers from Stuttgart, singing instructor and synesthete Alexandra Kirschner is identifying young boys who are also synesthetes within her classes at the Aurelius Sängerknaben Calw. She then works with them to improve their singing through the visual impressions they receive from sound: a new educational model. The seven other instructors there are on board and referring to her children they believe might also be synesthetes. And their boss, the art director, is very supportive. I can't think of another learning environment anywhere so open toward and helpful of young people with cross-sensory experiences.
Not only is Ms. Kirschner a talented teacher, she is sensitive. And she seems to know when one of the kids is a synesthete on sight; it's just a feeling she gets. She follows up by asking the child what color or shape he sees when he sings.
"These children are also very sensitive. I don`t know exactly how I feel that he could be a synesthete. Perhaps it is a sort of intuition. I ask the child if he likes to draw a picture of what his voice looks like. A synesthete understands this odd request. After a little while he detects more and more of his synesthesia."
Then she has him describe what he sees when she sings in her stunning voice. Generally the images are different according to tone and quality. The child opens up in this way and begins to orient himself as an experiencer of and not just a performer of, music.
"I want to help them use their synesthesia as an orientation (Orientierungssystem). This term was coined by Alexandra Dittmar in her wonderful book, Synaesthesia: a Golden Thread Through Life." (Dr. Dittmar is a fellow German synesthete and author).
While perfect or relative pitch is sometimes a feature of synesthesia, Ms. Kirschner has found challenges among the boys she teaches. "Half of the synesthetes I found sometimes sing out of tune or have difficulties with the polyphony. I teach them to 'see' the difference between a note sung out of tune and a note sung in tune. I let the student draw a picture of it. How do these notes appear when they are loud or low or high? After a while hearing and synesthesia seem to work together. I`ve seen veritable miracles."
It's easier for her to instruct the boys to sing the "orange, round" note than to say, "sing an F#," for example. They respond on key.
She relates the time three boys newly aware of their synesthesia and taught to 'see' this way were able to suddenly sing in tune and to lower their pitch!
The imagery the children see is depicted here in a pair of drawings. A nine year old synesthete personifies numbers -- but only when he sings or hears music -- not when he reads numbers or calculates with them. Many others report seeing stick figures who jump up- or downstairs when they sing or hear melodies.
One seven year old boy told Ms. Kirschner that the notes dance or laugh when he sings well. Another 11-year-old sees a little man turning round while singing a glissando. At the end there are stars flying around his head.
The teacher found she herself had synesthesia in 2006 through something she read. "I read an article where someone described five as yellow. I got angry and said , 'Five is red!' Until then I thought everyone thinks in color." She subsequently found she also has colored letters, weekdays, months, music and other sound and even smells.
Ms. Kirschner says she believes synesthesia is related to creativity, but only if we help synesthetes to develop their gift. "In addition to that we must bring it in all pedagogical disciplines (like the Orientierungssystem proposed by Alexandra Dittmar)." Synesthesia can help in learning as well (as it is a memory aid).
German artist Christine Söffing has taken notice of Ms. Kirschner's work. She just made a film about her program for an upcoming conference in Ulm, Germany that will have a focus on young synesthetes this May.
The boys think that everyone has color and other visual impressions at first, Ms. Kirschner says. "When I tell them that synesthesia is something extraordinary and a gift I believe they are proud of it. They like to talk about it with me. The children are aware of the advantages of their gift. But these boys keep it private. Especially for boys it is forbidden to be different in our society. I met two young synesthetes whose mothers where afraid that the other children in the choir would bully them because they are synesthetes. That makes me very sad."
Ms. Kirchner has been teaching since 1990 and started with Aurelius Sängerknaben Calw in 1994. She has identified 15 synesthetic boys in that time. "Our art director, Bernhard Kugler, is very open to it. I`m very happy about that."
She is a member of Deutsche Synästhesie Gesellschaft e. V. , the German synesthesia organization and finds it great to socialize and learn from other synesthetes there, she says.
Ms. Kirschner has loved music since childhood and became inspired to teach and to develop her own talent more after hearing a boys choir. Her favorite composers are Bach, Schubert, Schumann and Mozart. She will sing the alto arias in the Johannespassion or Passion of St. John by Bach in April with the boys.
Ms. Kirschner loves commuting from Stuttgart each day to teach her young charges, synesthetes and non-synesthetes alike. She has a message for educators around the world:
"Being a synesthete means not only to see some colors while hearing something. It forms your whole character and can you make hypersensitive. For these children it is often very hard to find their identity, because they don`t know what is different. It is sometimes not easy to work with these special children. Some of them are even highly gifted and they need much care and understanding. Of course, all children need much care and understanding. For everyone we must find the best way to be happy in the world and to learn to be good to others. And for synesthetes it is very important to find out their synesthesia and to teach them to live, to work and to learn with their synesthesia so they may develop their gifts in arts, science and humanism."
Further, she believes synesthesia is an excellent window through which to learn more about how all brains work. "It could open a (perhaps better) new world of understanding."
She welcomes inquiries from interested educators, parents and researchers and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.