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Crane music education major Katherine Skopkowski works on drumming and rhythm exercises with student Jesse Pete at the SLC Arts Council in Potsdam. Photo:  Todd Moe
Crane music education major Katherine Skopkowski works on drumming and rhythm exercises with student Jesse Pete at the SLC Arts Council in Potsdam. Photo: Todd Moe

"We're out there. We're performing. We're having fun."

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The St. Lawrence County Arts Council is looking to expand a music therapy class for people with special needs. Classes at the Arts Council are open to people of all ability levels. Over the last few years, music classes for teenagers and adults with developmental disabilities have been held weekly in Potsdam, Massena and Gouverneur.

The classes include singing, dancing and playing musical instruments. There's a lot of laughter and fun during the class. But it's more than a diversional activity. As Todd Moe found out, the goal isn't music education, but using rhythm, song and creative activities to improve non-musical skills.

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Reported by

Todd Moe
Morning Host and Producer

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On a weekday afternoon, about a dozen young people have gathered in one of the classrooms at the Arts Council's headquarters in Potsdam. They sit in a circle and listen to a calming, welcome song played and sung by Tracy Wannamaker on the guitar. She's a board-certified music therapist, and also a visiting instructor at the Crane School of Music where she coordinates the Music in Special Education Concentration. "The thing about music and art is simply that you can create experiences where anybody can be successful regardless of ability level," Wannamaker says.

The classes include singing, movement and a visual arts project, like working with water colors. Photo: Todd Moe
The classes include singing, movement and a visual arts project, like working with water colors. Photo: Todd Moe
About four years ago, the St. Lawrence County Arts Council began offering a music therapy class for people with cognitive disabilities, autism or severe learning problems. Some come to Potsdam from programs like St. Lawrence NYSARC, LEAP and Citizen Advocates North Star in Malone.

The weekly classes in Potsdam include sing-alongs that encourage participation, dance and movement, visual arts like painting, the Northern Notes Chorus, a choir for teens and adults with developmental disabilities, and with help from Crane School of Music student teachers — drumming circles that provide low-bass sounds to help organize timing and rhythm.

"When you bring drums in, you can have somebody who's keeping a steady beat, but you can have other people performing anything that they want to on the drums. And simply by the person that's facilitating, keeping some of the basic structure going themselves, you can create an experience where everyone can create and everyone can be successful and enjoy themselves. It's also about being able to make music with others and being part of a group," Wannamaker says.

Music therapist Tracy Wannamaker works with students in Potsdam, Massena and Gouverneur on a weekly basis. Photo: Todd Moe
Music therapist Tracy Wannamaker works with students in Potsdam, Massena and Gouverneur on a weekly basis. Photo: Todd Moe
St. Lawrence County Arts Council administrators say building community and being part of a group are major goals of the music therapy classes. Suzy McBroom is grants and education coordinator for the Arts Council. "It's also about social comfort. Not everyone who has special needs is comfortable with a group that they're not familiar with, so that's a really important role of this program. So, that's a goal – increasing their comfort around people they're not familiar with," she says.

Music's healing and healthy effects have been a topic of discussion for hundreds of years. During World War I, musicians often visited hospitals to help ease soldiers' physical and emotional trauma. In hospitals and schools today, music is used to help alleviate pain, elevate mood, reduce fear and promote movement. Rebekah Wilkins-Pepiton, executive director of the Arts Council, says music and art therapy programs have a long track record for success in building communication skills, increasing confidence, and improving overall wellbeing among participants.

"The famous neurologist Oliver Sacks writes about using music as this tool to unlock parts of the brain, and that's really the basis of this. And seeing people connect to each other and the world around them differently when music is involved," Wilkins-Pepiton says.

In her 20 years as a music therapist, Tracy Wannmaker says she's experienced a number of examples of how music has been an inspiration. She's worked with children, teens and in gerontology settings. She remembers using art and music therapy with a group of seniors living with dementia and an elderly patient who eventually had a positive reaction to music:

Tracy Wannamaker (second from the right) says parachute play is used to add an exciting element to singing games and movement activities during the class. Photo: Todd Moe
Tracy Wannamaker (second from the right) says parachute play is used to add an exciting element to singing games and movement activities during the class. Photo: Todd Moe
"There was one day in particular when he decided, all of a sudden, that he was going to clap his hands. This was a man who could barely move his body and he all of sudden clapped at the end of a piece of music. And everyone in the room who had worked with him gasped because they hadn't seen him move on his own in so long. And he continues to do that with music, but not any other time," she says.

Mid-way through the special arts class in Potsdam, the group takes a break from drumming and singing, and students sit in groups at big tables to work on a watercolor project. It's quiet and relaxing. The students concentrate and cooperate as they dip brushes in paints and mix the colors. Rebeka Wilkins-Pepiton says by putting a person into a role where they're creating, you have to view them not by their limitations, but by their potential. "And it's not just making crafts, but actually making art happening. Which involves creative expression, which is exactly what we want to see and it's really great," she says.

While the paintings are left to dry, student teachers from Crane break down some hip-hop dance steps to popular music. There are lots of giggles and squeals amid steps and shuffles to the right and left. This is the type of music that gets 19-year-old Samantha LaBrake's feet tapping and puts a big smile on her face. She loves music. "I love to sing. Bon Jovi is my favorite. 'Cause I like him," she says.

This year, some of Tracy Wannamaker's students from Crane are gaining experience working with the special needs students at the arts council. Student teachers Robert Orbach and Derrick Lacasse say helping to plan class activities has been rewarding. They agree that there were fun and poignant moments this year. "At the final concert and just seeing them smile on stage. You get the big picture: they're here because they want to be here. It's not about whether they're perfect. It's just about music and singing," says Orbach.

Earlier this year, Wannamaker was given an arts recognition award by the St. Lawrence County Arts Council for her service to the community. Her hope is to expand the special arts program – more classes, more student teachers interested in music therapy, and bringing more music and creative activities to individuals who don't typically get to experience them:

"We're out there. We're performing. We're having fun. We're getting that experience of making music and sharing it with others. Everyone deserves that chance, if they want to. That's the idea behind the entire program."

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