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Providing Therapy Through Music, Drury Program Helps Children Improve Their Motor Skills with Tunes

Publication: Springfield News Leader

Writer: Cliff Sain

Music can bring joy to its listeners, but at Drury’s Music Therapy department, it brings a whole lot more. On a Friday afternoon, music therapist Leslie Jones plays an electric keyboard, encouraging 6-year-old Emma Follis to finish the song by playing the final note. Emma has Rett syndrome, a neurological disorder that affects her motor skills. Her mother, Heather Follis, said it is important for her to use her hands. “If it’s something she’s interested in, it helps,” Heather Follis said.

Interest is right. Emma starts out shy, but as the hour-long session progresses, she is all smiles. From her wheelchair, Emma strikes at the keyboard to finish the song. Later, she shakes a band of sleigh bells to a tune. After that, Jones plays the guitar and asks Emma to strum the final note for her. Next, Jones plays a drum and sings a song, the lyrics imploring Emma to hit the drum with her hand. She is hesitant at first, but then strikes the drum two more times. She smiles.

Heather Follis, who has been taking Emma to music therapy for about two years, said Emma loves the sessions. “Some days she’s really tired,” Heather Follis said. “I’ve almost canceled a couple of times because she was so tired after school. But when she gets here, she immediately perks up and is excited.”

Jones, who is one of two full-time therapists at the program, said the children she works with probably don’t even understand the purpose of the sessions. They just know it’s fun. “It’s very easy for them,” Jones said. “If they have trouble with motor skills they can still hit a drum or run their hand through a set of chimes.”

At the same time in another room, 11-year-old Cameron McMeley is playing, with full enthusiasm, a drum set while music therapist Carrie Jenkins accompanies on guitar and Drury music therapy student Markus Corley plays conga drums. According to therapist and clinical director Julie Cassity, the focus of the session is for Cameron, who has Down syndrome, to keep the beat. Of course, he throws in some frills, like any drummer in the spotlight. Later, Cameron plays a small electric keyboard. He reads a music sheet with letters (rather than musical notes) and plays the notes. “He’s reading letters as he plays,” Cassity said. “It’s a tracking skill. The idea is for him to keep up without help.” Cameron’s mother, Cindy McMeley, said that music is “a passion” for her son, which helps him learn. “He’s very motivated by music,” she said. “He learns a lot of skills here that he works on in academics.” As far as Cameron seems to care, he’s having the time of his life making music.

Drury’s Music Therapy program was founded in 2002 and recently expanded to include a master’s program. Therapists at Drury, as well as satellite clinics in Monett and Cassville, serve clients with a range of needs. In addition to developmentally disabled children, the music therapists work with older disabled people, substance abusers and the elderly. Program director Michael Cassity said that with substance abusers, therapists will help the clients work together to write their own song about their recovery. He said the process helps the clients loosen up. “They make friends and they start to talk about their problems,” Michael Cassity said. “The therapist can get a lot done. It can be the key that unlocks the door.”

He said that when the music therapists visit a nursing home, one of the big goals is to get the residents moving and to improve their mood. He said patients with Alzheimer’s tend to show reduced agitation after a music therapy program. For the disabled, Michael Cassity said there are many benefits to the program. By playing hand bells or other instruments, clients can develop attention span, motor skills, eye contact and on-track behavior.

“The best thing about this is that the patients who have the greatest need are the ones that receive the most benefit,” he said. In most cases, the program uses live music, whether played by the therapists or the clients. Occasionally, they will make use of recorded music, according to Michael Cassity.

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