Two notes at a time, Christina Clapp has mastered “Ode To Joy,” a feat that any 14-year-old would be proud of.
But when Christina, who is diagnosed with Down syndrome, sits down to play the Beethoven masterpiece with the Phoenix Youth Symphony Orchestra on Thursday morning, the performance will resonate with all who believe that music therapy can have a profound affect on special-needs children, and come at a time when support for those services are dangerously low, advocates say.
For the last five years, 14-year-old Christina has been home schooled and taking piano lessons from her mother as a form of music therapy – broadly defined as the clinical use of music for treatment of people with mental, physical or emotional issues. Christina, who was born with Down syndrome, has a short attention span and behavioral issues, said Daniela, but those are defied by her penchant for music.
While music therapy generally focuses on the process of music making to assist and accomplish individual goals, Daniela said she takes it a step further and focuses the therapy on mastering the instrument. Daniela has developed her own step-by-step system that she said has been successful at teaching Christina to play the piano.
Music therapy emerged as a clinical profession after World War I, when hospitals used music as an intervention to address soldiers with traumatic war injuries. Veterans engaged in musical activity found relief in their pain. Since then, said Debi Kret, president of the Arizona Music Therapy Association, said music as a therapeutic medium has been shown to facilitate motivation, communication skills and social interactions among children with Down syndrome and other disabilities.
The thought was that speech-and-language development originated in the left hemisphere of the brain and that music stimuli is generally processed in the right, Kret said. However, research has shown that music sends a message to neurological synapses throughout the entire brain.
For Christina, music therapy has drastically improved her attention span and has helped her follow directions, said Shauna Dussart, her music therapist. Dussart will begin a song and then ask Christina to finish it off. If Christina is reluctant, Dussart promises that once Christina finishes the task, she will get to choose what she wants to do next.
“But because she loses herself in singing and dancing, she will pay attention for 15 to 20 minutes, opposed to the five minutes she would have if we weren’t working with music,” Dussart said.
This helps to explain why many children with attention and language difficulties, such as Christina, respond to directions more quickly when displayed through music, Kret said. They can also express ideas in words, music, dance and gesture.
Christina though, has found her calling with the piano.
At the age of 5, Christina who takes a combination of speech, occupational and music therapy, asked her mother to teach her how to play.
Daniela, a musician and piano teacher who works with students of all ages and at all levels, recalls how daunting that task seemed, but how she wanted to take on that challenge to empower her daughter. A few years later she decided to pull her daughter out of her elementary school in order to teach her full time at home and to focus on incorporating music lessons in the learning process.
Christina wakes up every morning, eats her standard toast for breakfast, plays with her dogs Zoey and Chichi and then spends time on her new hearing program, where she has to complete exercises of filtering out certain frequencies. After that, it’s time for her piano lessons.
In her 30 to 45-minute music sessions, Christina works on basic concepts such as fast and slow, and soft and loud. Daniela accompanies her at the piano or on her violin at a languid pace. If Christina gets too excited and begins to play rapidly, Daniela slows down her music, teaching her to respond to outside cues. Gradually, Christina falls in sync with her mother.
Christina has come to master scales and full songs, Daniela said. She takes bits and pieces of different materials and creates her own tunes as well.
In the 20 years she has been in the music therapy field, Kret says she has seen so much growth and research showing that music therapy benefits children with Down syndrome. However, due to state budget cuts in 2010, funding was dramatically reduced for many services that provided aid for disabled children and their families, including music therapy, Kret said.
Families struggle to pay the private rates to continue sessions for their children and some have stopped music therapy all together, Kret said. Music therapy isn’t covered by Medicaid or the state insurance program, Kret said, and the federal centers of Medicare and Medicaid Services do not consider music therapy a covered service.
Kret attributed the lack of federal and state support to lingering skepticism about the profession.
“If you ask an individual person if they believe in music therapy, they will say, ‘Yes’,” she said. “But if you ask a funding entity, they will cut it.”
Luckily, Daniela said, Christina is able to continue her therapy sessions and continue her exploration in the world of rhythm and beat.
She will be performing along side the Phoenix Symphony Youth Orchestra for their Symphonette Musicfest Concert at Pinnacle Presbyterian Church, located near Happy Valley and Pima roads. The concert will be performed for fifth-grade students from twelve schools.
“I thought it was a great idea,” Stacey Page, the orchestra manager of the orchestra said about Christina performing. “We can expose the children not only to classical music, but to Christina, who shows them that those with special needs can excel and benefit from music.”
Christina said she is not nervous about her performance, but that she is excited to play in front of her peers to show them what she is capable of.
“I am a piano star,” Christina said.
“She knows she is different,” Daniela said. “She knows she is discriminated against and she knows when people are talking about her.”
So for Christina to find her place in music, Daniela says, it is incredible. As she becomes more confident about her art, she becomes more confident about her place in the world.
“This shows that she can be included and that people with Down syndrome are human beings that are capable of amazing feats”
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