The soulful sound of “Mrs. Candice”’s “Hello” song fills the room as nine eagerly excited children enter the class at Ocean Palms Elementary School. Some children arrive being assisted by a wheelchair, pushing a walker or holding their paraprofessional’s hand; others need no help as they run towards the music. These children with exceptionalities bounce to the beat of the guitar and sway to the melody of the music, a therapeutic tool used by Candice Sirak to help these children achieve educational goals.
Sirak isn’t one of the St. Johns County music teachers employed by the district, she is one of two board-certified music therapists hired through the Cultural Center at Ponte Vedra Beach for a program called Sound Connections: Music Therapy for Children with Special Needs. The program has been designed, facilitated and funded through the Cultural Center since 2006, and has made over one-hundred thousand music therapy contacts for children with mild to profound disabilities. This specialized therapeutic service uses the expressive art of music as a tool to improve the physical, emotional, mental and educational needs of those with disabilities. Traditional music education focuses on music knowledge, style and technique, while music therapy uses musical experiences to teach life skills that generalize outside of the music setting and allow children with exceptionalities to achieve goals like following directions, improving literacy skills or learning how to socialize with peers.
Minda Gordon, The Cultural Center’s music therapist at Cunningham Creek Elementary School, describes one of her students, Jay, who has Autism Spectrum Disorder. Jay, who is non-verbal, is challenged to sit for more than a few minutes, doesn’t engage with others or follow directions. However, after months of music therapy through piano improvisation, he is able to sit for fifteen minutes at the piano, initiate eye-contact and complete an entire activity with little to no reminders to stay focused. The non-verbal aspect of music improvisation allows this student to interact with the therapist without words, and to engage cooperatively and actively in making music. As soon as he sits down at the piano, he begins to smile, reaches for the therapist, initiates eye contact and plays the piano. The music is a vehicle to allow students to interact with another individual in a way that isn’t accessible to them at any other time during their day. This wonderful gift that music therapy provides gives students the opportunity to connect and engage for greater social and academic achievement.
Pablo Rivera, a well-known Jacksonville photographer, has captured eloquent photos of these exceptional children during a Sound Connections music therapy session. The photos will be on display at the Cultural Center at Ponte Vedra Beach’s Art of Healing Exhibition until May 26.
For more information on the exhibition or the Sound Connections program, contact Leigh Rodante at (904) 280-0614 ext. 203 or Lrodante@ccpvb.org.
Written by By Leigh Rodante