Seton Hill students practice music therapy here, across globe |
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Jeff Himler
Seton Hill University music therapy majors (from left) junior Janie Wilcox of Irwin, junior Alexandra Nash of Johnstown and senior JoAnna Ayala of Nazareth practice on their musical instruments Feb. 16, 2018 at the university's performing arts center to prepare for a therapy session.

Elvis Presley was in the building recently at an adult day care center in Greensburg. About a dozen people got in tune with Elvis’ recording of “Jailhouse Rock,” and the energizing track helped them begin to move beyond their various developmental challenges.

“For every verse, we had them move a different part of their body,” said JoAnna Ayala of Nazareth, a senior music therapy major at Seton Hill University who helped lead the session.

While singing along to the song, she said, “We tapped our toes and tapped our heels, and we would march, moving our arms up and down and out and back, and we would do all of these movements in a seated position.

“They don’t seem like grand gestures,” she admitted. But the music-driven movements helped the participants maintain gross and fine motor skills, she explained.

To help bolster the attendees’ cognitive functioning, Ayala challenged them to identify a series of musical instruments based on snippets of the sound each makes when played.

“They had to focus on listening and comprehension,” she noted. “These are skills that aren’t musical at all, but you’re using music to get there.”

A growing program

Ayala is one of 40 students enrolled in Seton Hill’s growing music therapy program, introduced about 15 years ago. In addition to classroom instruction, undergraduates take part in a series of semester-long practicums — weekly sessions where they lead therapy activities for clients in the larger Westmoreland County community.

The students must complete an internship before they graduate and can take a national examination to gain a credential as a board-certified therapist.

Though it’s been in use since the 1950s, music therapy is little known outside those who practice it.

A music therapy session is not simply a mood-lifting performance. Music can be incorporated in a variety of ways, depending on the issues a client is experiencing and the therapist’s strategies for addressing them, the Seton Hill students note.

Janie Wilcox, a junior from Irwin, has worked with adults with developmental challenges who walk to Seton Hill’s performing arts center from nearby Community Living Care center in Greensburg.

To improve their mental focus, the clients work to keep a steady beat on a drum, she said.

“With proper training and knowledge, it’s limitless what you can do with this medium,” Wilcox said. “What is so great about it is music has some sort of connection with everybody.”

Students also lead larger group sessions at the Community Living Care center, where Chief Operating Officer Eric Noel said staying on task is a common challenge for the program’s clients as they work with staff to maintain daily living skills and integrate into the community.

The Seton Hill students, Noel said, are “making it interesting enough that it’s drawing in the attention of everybody.

“For people who are more withdrawn, even if they’re on the periphery, those students are doing things to draw that person in a little more and help them learn how to function as part of a larger group.”

Alexandra Nash, a junior from Johnstown, has been using drums to work with a younger client who is mostly nonverbal. She’s hoping the youth, who has been echoing speech patterns learned from television programs, will develop a more personal rhythm and way of speaking.

The client “has definitely been responding positively,” she said. “I’ve been noticing an increase in eye contact.”

Myriad applications, at homeand abroad

Seton Hill’s program is coordinated by associate professor Laurie Fox, who began working in the area as a music therapist in the early 1990s.

She worked with inmates at the former Western Penitentiary, most of them serving life sentences.

“We focused on stress management, interpersonal skills and communication,” she said.

She performed songs for the inmates and guided them in writing their own, so they could express their emotions through the artform instead of through physical confrontation.

She’s also performed music for patients who were receiving chemotherapy, as a way to divert their attention from the procedure and help them relax.

“Their blood pressure was up,” she said. “We had to reduce that so they could have their chemo IV or port put in.”

Fox noted a patient recovering from a stroke might be able to sing even if they can’t speak. Encouraging them to sing, she said, will “help them to maintain the motor function in their mouth so they will have a better chance of regaining their speech.

“Music helps to create a new pathway in the brain that can circumvent those paths that have been broken through a stroke,” she said.

Partnering with a faith-based mission group, Fox, fellow instructor Sarah McMeekin and some of their students have traveled several times to serve those in need in the Dominican Republic. They’ve worked mostly with children, singing songs, playing musical games and reading Bible stories as they helped the youngsters enhance their communication skills.

Fox is exploring a trip to Jamaica to offer therapeutic services there.

“I continue encouraging our students to see beyond Greensburg and Westmoreland County,” she said. “We can connect with people from other cultures through music.”

Jeff Himler is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-836-6622, [email protected] or via Twitter @jhimler_news.

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