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Music therapy motivates with melody

Published on: March 01, 2010

When Wendy Zieve visits Forrest Neander of North Seattle, she comes equipped with a bag of tricks: drums, xylophones, hoops, ribbons and more. During each session, Zieve, a board-certified music therapist (MT-BC), uses tuneful tactics to engage 5-year-old Forrest, who has cerebral palsy and is nonverbal.

One time, Zieve gave Forrest an instrument with a pressure switch that activated a tape recorder. She sang, "There were nine in the bed and the little one said..."

On cue, Forrest hit the switch, playing the recorded words to complete the refrain, "Roll over." To his mother, Julia Neander, it was almost as if he were singing.

"[Music therapy] is a communication tool for Forrest," Neander says. "It gives him an opportunity to get involved in something. He has really limited communication and motor skills, so he can't engage in a lot of play that most children do on their own. It's an important part of his therapy regime."

Zieve defines music therapy as "a research-based, prescribed use of music-related strategies to assist specific nonmusical goals." Research shows specific ways music can be used to facilitate progress with language, cognitive, social, and fine and gross motor skills. According to Zieve, "Many parts of the brain are engaged when listening to and playing music," so kids often respond to it more effectively than other forms of therapy.

For example, Zieve says, many kids with autism have trouble answering questions such as "What?" "Where?" and "Why?" It's been shown that those kids are often able to process a sung request but not a spoken question. To demonstrate, Zieve sings: "Johnny wants a scarf; which one will he pick?" She says, "If you just speak it, they will shy away, but if you sing it, they engage."

Music is uniquely motivating, says Jennifer Hastings, MT-BC, of Music Works Northwest in Bellevue. "Often people use food or a token system as a motivator. The unique thing about music therapy is that music is the enforcer." With most of her clients, the goal is improving communication. For example, Hastings describes working with a 21/2-year old boy with autism who initially would cry most of the session and want to leave. At first he didn't speak at all and would push her hands away from the piano, but gradually over the last three months he's been saying more words or sounds, laughing and initiating interaction.

"Recently, he has started grabbing my hands and putting them on the instrument to play with him," Hastings says. "The other day, he took my hand and made my finger point to the guitar. He sculpted my hand into a point and pointed to the guitar and said, ''tar.' He's telling me what he wants with words, which he's never done before."

Music therapists describe the process of goal-setting as collaborative. When working with parents of kids with special needs, "We look at where their child is, what his or her strengths are, and areas where they would like to see improvement," says Patti Catalano, MT-BC, whose clients range from infants to octogenarians. Catalano says babies "are very responsive to music activities, so you have the opportunity to do things that will help them down the line." Activities Catalano uses with infants include songs with a steady beat such as "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star," finger plays and familiar tunes that the babies associate with someone they love.

For Mindie McDonnell of Seattle, whose 15-year-old son Guy has autism, music therapy is a fun way to build her son's language and life skills. Music therapist Zieve created a 12-verse life-skills song based on a familiar melody with a pattern that helps Guy remember the message:

  • Pick up the newspaper
  • Put it in the garbage
  • Pick up the plate
  • Scrape it in the garbage
  • Pick up clothes
  • Put them in the hamper...

Zieve says, "When his mother wants him to do those chores, she sings a bit of the clean-up song and he remembers." The song helps Guy take part in the social life of his family, she adds.

Based on her experience with music therapy, McDonnell says that parents of kids with special needs should know "that their kids are capable of this, and with the right direction they can have new experiences and successes, and a satisfying increase in their abilities."

Zieve also helps her students relate to their peers through activities that teach names, turn taking, partnering, group cooperation, listening and soloing. McDonnell says that for her son, participating in music therapy in group settings, such as at the Aim High for Kids Respite Care Home in Shoreline, has been most effective. Taking a turn on the xylophone, being featured socially and passing the instrument appropriately to the next child are challenging social goals for kids with autism, Zieve adds.

As McDonnell puts it, music therapy combines melody with meaning: "It's most beneficial for modeling and creating happy time and relationships, because that's really a hard thing for kids with autism. There's not a lot of playtime, and there aren't a lot of friendships."

Parents and therapists say that for kids with special needs, music therapy can open the door to emotions, in a variety of settings. At Seattle's Children's Hospital and Regional Medical Center, music therapist David Knott, MT-BC, helps kids and their families adjust to the hospital. Whether working with a child who has cancer, a ruptured appendix or is in physical therapy, Knott tailors the level of activity and interactivity to the child's condition. "I think the essence of music therapy is when the music therapist is able to assess what is the most needed service for them," Knott says. "If they're feeling pretty good, they can do something fun; they can improve their emotion with the instrument. But if they're in a lot of pain, you can still use music to give a calm, grounding stimulus they can focus on and take their mind off the pain for a while."

Perhaps best of all, music therapy can help kids with special needs access pure happiness. For kids with many therapies in their schedule, music combines therapy with pleasure. Christine Roberts, a local early childhood dance educator and mother of Samuel, a 10-year-old who was brain-injured from the pertussis vaccine as an infant, urges parents of kids with special needs to consider music therapy.

"If [parents] want to bring joy to their special-needs child, there's no better pathway than music and dance," she says.

Michelle Feder writes about a wide variety of subjects. She has 4-year-old and 9-month-old sons.

Music therapist Wendy Zieve will be teaching a music therapy class at Soundbridge in Seattle's Benaroya Hall on March 22 from 4-6 p.m. The class will address how music can address goals in social skills, motor skills, language and communication, as well as cognitive areas. The material answers the question, "What can music do for my child?" For more information or to register, call 206-336-6650.

Music therapy resources:

  • American Music Therapy Association. Introduces and describes music therapy in various settings.
  • Music Therapy Association of Washington. This website includes a referral directory listing all board-certified music therapists in the state.
  • Wendy Zieve, MT-BC (board-certified music therapist), has worked in public schools, group homes, park programs and private practice. She can be reached at 206-364-3734.
  • Music Works Northwest. Non-profit community music school in Bellevue, offers music therapy for people of all ages. Clients are actively engaged in a therapeutic arts process that may include songwriting, improvisation, singing and/or instrument playing, and receptive listening. Call 425-644-6869, Ext. 158.
  • Patti Catalano, MT-BC, is a music therapist in private practice who works with people of all ages. 425-836-8858,
  • Movement and Music with Your Special Needs Child. Taught by Christine Roberts at Urban Monkeys, held Tuesdays from 1-1:45 p.m., for non-walking children up to age 2. This is a parent-child movement and music class designed to encourage function and development. Call Urban Monkeys at 206-262-9282 for fees and to register
  • Nurturing Pathways®. A music and movement program for children with typical and special needs founded by Christine Roberts, designed to enrich the first three years of life. Roberts teaches Nurturing Pathways® at Dance Fremont and Urban Monkeys, both in Seattle, and the North Kirkland Community Center in Kirkland. Call 425-280-3805 for more information.
  • CLASS, Inc. Provides collaborative, integrated and functional remedial intervention to young children with speech, language, learning, motor and social communication delays or disorders. Call 253-874-9300.
  • Kathleen Q. Voss, MT-BC, Voss Music Therapy Services. Call 206-683-3523 or email for more information.
  • Aim High for Kids Respite Care for Autistic Children. A home day-care facility in Shoreline dedicated to helping kids with autism reach their fullest potential. Call 206-417-8357 or email for more information.
  • Arts With the Brain in Mind (May 2001), by Eric Jensen (recommended by Christine Roberts of Urban Monkeys.)


Originally published in the March, 2006 print edition of ParentMap.

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