Music Therapy Helps Develop Social Skills | Easterseals Arc of Northeast Indiana

Music therapy can look like a party, but there are serious goals behind the fun.

Once or twice a week, a group of Easterseals Arc participants in the Transitions program rides a bus to the Dolnick Learning Center at Purdue University Fort Wayne. There, instructors and students in the music therapy program guide them through an hour of rhythm, dance and maybe some problem-solving, too.

On a recent Thursday, seven people from Transitions worked with one staff member from Easterseals Arc and two students and one instructor from PFW in the group session. They were long on percussion — drums of many sorts, xylophones and glockenspiels, tambourines. As the Transitions participants made music, they also made decisions, cooperated and worked through some upset moments.

Instructor Deveana Schieler often looked to them to steer the direction of the class by choosing songs, such as “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” with a chorus so irresistibly familiar for decades that some of them could sing it in their sleep: “In the jungle, the mighty jungle/The lion sleeps tonight…”

Sometimes, someone in the group has a bout of anxiety and finds it hard to join in. When that happens, others in the group soothe him without crowding him, and he finds his own groove as they jam. Schieler is impressed at the smoothness in the way members of this group “don’t ignore him but give him his space.”

This is her second semester working with Transitions participants, she said. “I’ve been really impressed by how they interact with each other. They’re super-supportive of each other. That’s really awesome to see.”

Many people in this group have performed as part of the Easterseals Arc choir. They lean heavily on favorite songs from choir shows when it comes time to suggest songs in music therapy. One example: “Lean on Me,” a song they belt out with unstoppable gusto.

“With this group, we do a lot with coping skills, like when we’re upset, who do we go to to talk about stuff, what we can do to get through hard times,” Schieler said. “There’s a lot of discussion about music or having friends and just utilizing what we have … making music together and creating songs together to have a joint unity among the whole group.”

While the group sings “Lean on Me,” in a smaller room a few doors away, Shatory from Transitions, instructor Kristine Agen and music-therapy student Madison March are in a private lesson. They, too, work on “Lean on Me,” but at a more deliberate pace.

Shatory is building her own lines for “Lean on Me,” paying tribute to those she leans on besides herself: “Lean on God/Lean on Mom…” In the course of her session, she also plays the piano, then plays a tambourine as Agen strums an acoustic guitar.

“I like the piano. And the drums!” Shatory says later.

At a glance, the private session looks like a lesson, but it isn’t. The point isn’t learning an instrument. Instead, it explores what music can do for a person.

As Agen put it later, “Therapy is focused on personal goals such as communication, academic, motor, emotional, leisure and social skills, whereas lessons have the goal of teaching an instrument.”