This article describes a free program merging harp therapy with virtual reality education. The program targets children from low-income families who struggle with depression or suicidal behaviors. Those at the most risk of suicide are children who experienced trauma, neglect, or abuse.
The program invites children to a magical world of rare musical instruments. Kids learn to play harps (pedal, lever, and electroacoustic) and a handmade Celtic metal drum with perfectly cut steel tongues. Diving into the “fairytale” Virtual Reality theater via SpeakerGuru, a multiuser VR platform for public performance training, complements live music lessons.
Virtual Reality is an essential byproduct of helping kids gain confidence. This program is unprecedented in blending lessons of such a rare instrument as the harp with VR technology. The critical mission of the program goes beyond learning a particular craft. The program teaches children to love music. It involves staging events of utmost creativity with children and for children.
Public Speaking Anxiety and Stage Fear
The Problem Background
Public speaking anxiety has its roots in social phobia. And the common denominator for most phobias is a lack of confidence, often leading to fear of failure. If not promptly addressed, these feelings often lead to depression.
Public performance anxiety may trigger mental injuries, from severe depression to dangerous behaviors. Statistically, over 70% of people worldwide suffer from public speaking anxiety ranging from slight nervousness to paralyzing fear and panic. People suffering from stage fear may also experience physical symptoms such as shaking, trembling, pounding heart, shortness of breath, dizziness, and chest pain.
Growing insecurity and untreated depression may lead to suicidal thoughts. Those at the most risk of suicide are children who have experienced trauma, neglect, or abuse. Child abuse and depression go hand-in-hand. Furthermore, children with undiagnosed mental disorders may contemplate suicide and hide suicidal behavior. This makes it very difficult for adults to detect and prevent an actual attempt by a child to end their own life.
Suicide is the leading cause of death in the United States. A person dies every 11 minutes due to ending their own life. National Institutes of Health, CDC, and local hospitals report that the suicide rate among adolescents increased from 51% to 400% in some regions during the pandemic year. Covid-19 made these matters worse.
Not only medicating a patient is not enough. It may develop unwanted and “deadly” dependencies, especially in patients who suffer from anxiety or depression. The psychiatric-only solution focuses on prescribing antidepressants or even painkillers in some cases.
Medications often reduce symptoms without treating the underlying causes of mental and emotional pain. Some kids take drugs “recreationally.” However, many more were prescribed addictive medication to remedy mental distress. Besides, healthcare history is overwhelmed by frequent drug epidemics.
We don’t know how many more teenagers hide their emotional pain until it destroys them. Suicide prevention websites give very general advice on how parents and schools may identify a child susceptible to self-harm ideation. Yet, this is not enough. The suicide epidemic will only grow without a significantly more effective solution. And the development of AR (Augmented Reality) and VR (virtual Reality) tools makes it available.
About VR and AR.
How can virtual Reality help?
VR and AR contribution to the most insightful areas of human inquiry is often unthinkable. This includes modeling of virtual heart and brain. Another example is a device that (using thermal radiation) scans a patient’s blood vessels’ matrix and then projects it back onto their hand. With such technology, nurses will never miss inserting an IV in the vein.
VR and AR help children challenge the causes of any phobia they may suffer. VR can help to reduce fears arising from physical disability. For instance, if a child has poor eyesight or hearing impediment, VR and AR can help them experience perfect sight and hearing.
What is SpeakerGuru?
Life despite its uncertainties…
The idea of applying VR to conquer fears was first introduced by SpeakerGuru, a public speaking training tool based on innovative VR technology. “SpeakerGuru” (aka Virtual Orator) is designed to help public speakers release stage anxiety that challenges numerous lecturers, teachers, or anyone performing in front of a crowd.
SpeakerGuru can be described as a virtual room that looks like a theater filled with participants who suffer from public speaking anxiety. Most people report that conventional methods (including medications) would not help them. And many seek psycho-spiritual help to overcome public speaking or stage performance fears.
The participants of “SpeakerGuru” do not have to show their real faces (at least at the beginning), which makes it “safe” for new members who join SpeakerGuru. When signing up, a person selects their unique virtual character or “avatar.” The visitors of the virtual theater are more than just audience members. Each participant has numerous options for interacting with others via sharing opinions and critiquing those practicing in stage speaking exercises.
Having fun, SpeakerGuru achieves serious purposes. People’s shifting the roles of listeners and speakers is fully automated and well-organized. The program is highly engaging and even humorous, which helps (especially novice members) to get rid of emotional struggles by joining collective laughter. Members of the audience can even pelt the speaker with eggs and tomatoes.
Multi-Medallion Program for Children
A Total Commitment to Success.
The program is based in Johnstown, PA, a rural region that became depressed since the shutdown of the local Still Mill. Children from low-income families enjoy free-of-charge access to unique activities (otherwise unavailable in disadvantaged neighborhoods). The program options also support the youths who still experience the aftermaths of COVID isolation, as well as children with special needs.
These kids learn to play rare musical instruments like the harp (pedal and lever) and Celtic drums – truly healing and soul-comforting musical instruments. The program develops quickly as an asset to multiple communities in rural America. Franklyn Street United Methodist Church of Johnstown, PA, supplies free premises to house music lessons for children from 4 to 18 years old. The program runs live music lessons with Virtual Reality practice via SpeakerGuru.
“Speaker Guru is designed as a virtual reality tool. However, the purpose of the product is to help children develop healthy habits.” – says Elchin Melikov, the original architect of SpeakerGuru. “The combination of music and computer technologies is one of the key features of our program,” – Melikov continues.
Elchin is a descendant of parents from Azerbaijan. The ex-USSR government exiled his family from their homeland to the far north of Russia. Despite his difficult life circumstances, Elchin Melikov completed his law degree, as well as IT system analysis and software engineering certifications. Today, Melikov is known for his remarkable skills in IT startups and his contribution to the outstanding works of scientists and IT engineers worldwide.
Multi-disciplinary Team of SpeakerGuru
There’s no way I could do this by myself.
Elchin Melikov first thought about developing “SpeakerGuru” because he was inspired by integrating arts and science under one umbrella.
“And just thinking about it, I would not be able to do it without the perfectly coordinated efforts of the SpeakerGuru cross-disciplinary team. The program’s success greatly depends on unique and multiple-domain expertise that only a special team of scientists, engineers, musicians, and educators can offer: the unprecedented togetherness, scope, and depth of our collective expertise equipped this program with state-of-the-art software and hardware technologies. And together, we raised a joint mission to take knowledge of multiple disciplines (such as arts psychology and knowledge of technology), merge those to create something that was never done before,” – Elchin comments with excitement.
SpeakerGuru encouraged the simultaneous effort of musicians, educators, technical leaders, health scientists, and business executives who volunteer their skills and commitment to help children struggling with depression and thoughts of self-harm.
“The program not only supports cognitive and emotional intelligence but also, through collective creativity, touches something greater than what we can now imagine,” – says Vladimir Belev, the program marketing advisor.
Ukrainian National Vladimir Belev holds graduate degrees in marketing and engineering, and, among other things, Belev devoted his career to studying American leadership practices. Belev’s achievements include music, physical culture, and inventive activity.
“The music classes encourage creativity, leading to new insights, helping children develop critical thinking and problem-solving abilities essential for cognitive intelligence,” – Vladimir Belev concludes.
Elena Bespalova repeats that there are no untalented children, only talentless teachers. Educated as a psychiatrist, Elena Bespalova shifted her professional interests to favor health sciences. Bespalova is specifically passionate about her research supporting children with special needs. Her multiple credentials in music, arts, and athletics assist Elena’s competencies in multi-disciplinary aspects of psycho-spiritual development in children with special needs.
“For children, it is a fairy tale game,” – comments Elena Bespalova. “Kids love to explore the heroes of the virtual world, and they love experiencing themselves as fairy tale characters. And good fairy tales mirror our souls.” – Bespalova concludes.
Virtual Reality to challenge “Stage Fear.”
From Fear to Courage!
Most musicians and ballet dancers are well-familiar with “stage fear.” It is when offstage rehearsals go flawlessly, but onstage performances fail. Paradoxically, stage anxiety stems from all the attention and even admiration of the audience. What performers experience from the stage spotlight is the “endless pairs of eyes” looking up from the audience. Performers may experience themselves paralyzed by fear or being judged; some may “demonize” the audience projecting on it self-expectation that is subliminally setting themselves up for failure.
“The upgraded version of SpeakerGuru helps musicians, music students, or any performer to deal with stage fear.” – explains Elchin Melikov. “During the practice of stage performance via Virtual Reality, students have special markers attached to their hands. And sensors of the receiving tool read the data from the markers in real-time.” – Melikov concluded.
In VR, children experience themselves as confident performers—no longer trembling! Students confidently go up the stage, enjoying their performance. What used to be frightening becomes joyful and lovable. The consistency and repetitiveness of SpeakerGuru practices are crucial.
“We continue to brainstorm as we reflect on an extension of SpeakerGuru, possibly through cloud services, in various regions of the United States and outside the country, and this is just the beginning…” – explains Sergey Smirnov, a world-recognized expert in the fields of communication systems and artificial intelligence.
Smirnov oversees SpeakerGuru integration to include intelligent agents within its growing communications infrastructure. Sergey Smirnov describes VR experiences: “SpeakerGuru offers a VR-based environment that is, unlike conventional gaming, a unique experience. VR toolkit creates a spacious communication environment making every piece of the practical training very convincing, and every fragment in this environment can become as convincing as our imagination can perceive.” – continues Sergey;
“SpeakerGuru is a great tool for children to practice self-confidence. And it is wonderful that the program offers live music lessons and virtual training. As a father of two beautiful daughters, I was instantly moved by the idea of a children’s program synthesizing live music lessons with the virtual reality practice, which represents a highly innovative concept”, Sergey Smirnov added.
Children with Special Needs
Eye Contact is Especially Important
Elena Bespalova believes that the original combination of live music lessons with VR practices concurrently stimulates both the right and left brain: “a natural curiosity is one of the most remarkable assets of the “plasticity” of child emotions, feelings, and sensations” – notes Elena Bespalova.
The program bridges developmental gaps in special ed children. As a result, children with special needs catch up with the psycho-spiritual development of their age group, receiving an excellent chance to finish school and even graduate from college.
“Eye contact is significant in teaching children with special needs since their focus is often distracted and attention span is short-lived. Therefore, music teachers need to see a child’s eyes and train their attention in a safe environment for the child,” – continues Elena Bespalova.
The Major Aim of The Program
Where are we going?
Molding child psychology is a collective responsibility of personal and professional communities. The success of a multi-disciplinary team of SpeakerGuru is one among many examples of collaborative approaches to the most urgent public concerns paying particular attention to the young generation of Rural America and children from the disadvantaged environment.
“Unfortunately, we raise our kids “on autopilot” sometimes, forgetting that children are most often not born difficult, but perhaps become so under our influence, or rather in the absence of influence on our part.” – comments Alexey Tsybin, one of the original organizers of SpeakerGugu.
“I also like this program since I parent a little daughter,”– comments Alexey. “Most of our team members are parents. Sergey and Elchin each have two daughters as well. We care about this program as both professionals and parents. And we cherish these roles as one grateful package,” continues Alexey.
Tsybin’s graduate degree is in Public Relations, and he made a triumphal career in International Business. His experience includes:
• Setting up business enterprises.
• Developing companies from scratch.
• Transforming small Businesses into industry leaders and multi-million entities.
Alexey also served on the executive boards of large enterprises with a distinguished global reputation.
Alexey shares his renewed leadership philosophy: “Business without social responsibility has no real meaning to me. If a person has done very little to improve the quality of life for others during their lifetime, such a person will never feel satisfied with what they achieved. We are created to share the fruit of our creativity. And society is so focused on consumption and consumerism today that we often lose perspective.”
“Yet, when I look into the tear-stained eyes of a toddler undergoing painful procedures at a child hospital, my value system immediately falls into place.” – Tsybin continues. Organizing children’s parties, especially for such kids on long-term hospital treatment, is both familiar and precious work for Alexey Tsybin. However, Alexey does not like to call working with children “work.” For Tsybin, this is his calling.
Alexey brings his sincere love, compassion, and a sense of closeness to the world of a child. And this is very important because children are acutely aware of adult sincerity. “I need these children as much as they need me, or maybe even more,” – asserts Alexey describing his contribution to the program.
Music as Intelligence
What is it?
“With the help of music, we reveal the unique inner voice of a child and help her or him to find freedom and joy from within, perhaps for the first time in their lives,” – says Vladimir Belev.
It is interesting to see how different musical instrument sounds affect children’s behavior. Kids perceive the sound of various instruments differently and respond to them differently. The sound vibrations from live music are incomparably more intense, and children are interested in seeing a live source of music.
Vladimir Belev likes to compare the integrated learning method with that of multiple intelligences. “The point is to develop all the lines of multiple intelligences in a certain sequence,” – says Belev claiming that: “The theory of multiple intelligence is indispensable in working with children, especially considering the multi-disciplinary context of the program. And musical intelligence is among seven branches of the multiple intelligence tree.” – Belev continues.
Howard Gardner, the Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, first developed the theory of multiple intelligences. The idea critiques the narrow psychological view of intelligence — that IQ or other short answer tests measure intelligence with its “infinite exquisiteness” and “mysterious totality” of its qualitative value.
Vladimir Belev emphasizes that the IQ test, on its single weight, doesn’t even begin to assess the qualitative complexity of a human soul and mind and personality: “it is so narrow-minded to judge anyone based on their IQ. And it is tragic when a child is labeled “slow” merely based on their IQ level. Any given person’s cognitive and emotional architecture is not black and white. This is especially true for children and adolescents.”
Vladimir Belev believes that his leadership skills went through trials and tribulations since marine officers manage the quality of teamwork within a highly unpredictable environment. “Sea is a quite different habitat from what an average person is used to on the land. We become “true marine residents” not without paying a great cost in sacrificing the daily comfort of our homes.
Sea teaches us to appreciate life and accept its requirement to “wake up and grow up” toward greater maturity. It demands deep understanding and practicing patience. Suppose one commits to exploring the marine habitat for many months. In that case, this person must develop a harmonious relationship with the sea valuing its beauty and power.” – Vladimir Belev.
Regardless of his advanced degrees and diplomas, Belev calls himself an “experiential learner,” having spent years at sea as a marine officer. Belev continues to invest this experience in co-mentoring SpeakerGuru team members. “When I am asked to name my favorite side of the program,” – says Belev, “my answer is simple: – the best reward for me is to see that a recently constrained child feels confident and is no longer afraid of loud sounds of instruments.”
The corporate advisor of SpeakerGuru, Anna Shirokova, recently established a US Corporation called SpeakerGuru USA, Inc. The company aims to further develop and improve the SpeakerGuru platform’s qualities, capacities, and options. “The originality of the SpeakerGuru platform is in its unmeasurable potential of benefiting children and adults tormented by fears, depression, insecurity, and uncertainty.”– comments Anna Shirokova. “These universal adversities challenge people despite their age, heritage, race, and economic or social status,” – Anna notes.
Anna’s decision to establish and support SpeakerGuru USA Inc is not a matter of chance. Although she holds a law degree, Shirokova dedicated most of her career to teaching, writing educational articles, and helping prominent international companies multitask, increase compliance, and establish a business environment based on total commitment to clarity, transparency, and fair treatment of its employees.
“Most people know what emotional or mental pain is. SpeakerGuru can genuinely help, and SpeakerGuru USA Inc will extend this innovative product’s availability to many other regions of the United States.” – Shirokova reports.
SpeakerGuru’s team constantly grows by engaging and managing new Virtual and Augmented Reality talents, like Nikita Trubitsin, a younger 20-year-old team member. Young in physical age, Trubitsin’s is self-taught and rarely mature in his acquaintance with IT. And his innate drive for assembling IT masterworks is striking. The concept of placing unique markers on young musicians’ hands during their training on the SpakerGuru platform belongs to Trubitsin, which can help many people who struggle with trauma.