Music for a Change

The recital was like many others: an auditorium filled with nervous musicians and proud family members, a few tears, and lots of deep bows, with selections ranging from a carefully plucked “Ode to Joy” by a young guitarist to masterful original piano compositions. But there were also small reminders that these musicians face obstacles most don’t. Organizers, for example, requested that the audience applaud quietly after one pianist’s performance so as not to startle him, and a couple children required a quiet word from their accompanist to keep them focused on the keyboard.

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    Then again, that was no ordinary accompanist but one of the music therapists at the Music Therapy Institute (MTI). The seven therapists on staff work with clients ranging from children with disabilities like autism, Down syndrome, and cerebral palsy to seniors with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. MTI, which is part of the Music Conservatory of Westchester, has been working with more than 2,000 people each year, making it the largest provider of music therapy services between New York City and Boston.

    Results have been remarkable. Tim Devlin, 28, who has Asperger’s syndrome, came to MTI soon after graduating from high school. With the help of his music therapist, Lisa Sandagata, who’s also the director of Outreach Services at MTI, he is now the organist and music director at a Pleasantville church.

    “I think the biggest misconception about music therapy is that it’s recreational,” says Tina Brescia, director of on-site services at MTI. “They don’t know that every therapist at MTI is board certified and has an advanced degree in music therapy.”

    “People think it’s a music lesson,” says Jill Faber of Mount Kisco, whose son Nathaniel, 11, has multiple disabilities and attended MTI music therapy classes for five years. “It’s really a therapeutic intervention.”

    Because music stimulates both hemispheres of the brain and engages a number of brain functions, including language, movement, and listening, it is effective, according to the American Music Therapy Association, in the development of verbal communication, speech, language skills, and interpersonal skills. Through music, the therapist can encourage a non-verbal child to have a “conversation” on the drums, or work on fine motor skills with an elderly patient on the guitar. Some students become skilled enough to compose their own pieces, but for others it’s the small victories, like singing a word out loud, or even cracking a smile, that are huge breakthroughs. For children with autism, music provides a pathway to communication where the spoken word often fails.

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    Five-year-old Charlie Bertoli, a lovable boy with autism, has been working with Sandagata for the past two years. “Music therapy has been able to touch Charlie beyond what I would expect,” says Charlie’s mom, Jessica Kesselman of Piermont, New York. “Before, he wouldn’t touch his own face. He wouldn’t clap his own hands. When he wanted to play the piano, he’d take Lisa’s hands and use her fingers instead. Now, he will wave off Lisa and sometimes even physically remove her hands from the piano so he can play.”

    For all the benefit it confers, music therapy is not often covered by insurance. “Says Kesselman, “Charlie’s spoken language is three times as great during his music session than anywhere else. I want to videotape it and send it to our health insurance company.” MTI offers some scholarships to families who can’t afford the sessions, which cost $79 for a half-hour and $99 for 45 minutes.

 Photo by Jon Chattman

Tommy Formicola and music therapist Phyllis Bethel.

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