Documentary to highlight Rochester's growing music therapy field

05:00 AM, Feb 10, 2013

Sarah Nettleton of Perinton extends her arms to John Dady of Hamlin, who, along with brother Joe, was featured at the Hochstein SENSE-ational Concert on Dec. 15, 2012. The audience had a mix of children, some with disabilities. (MARIE DE JESUS/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)/

Written By Stuart Low | Staff writer

Rhythmically clapping and stamping their feet, families keep time with a lively Irish jig at Hochstein School of Music & Dance.

Onstage, folk musicians John and Joe Dady are strumming and fiddling for all they’re worth. Suddenly, the brothers turn to youngsters in the hall and ask a strange question: “Are there any tattletales here today? Raise your hand if you are!”

See concert photos

Now, no one likes a tattletale: Even a 5-year-old knows that. But this unique concert is being held so everyone will tattle about it. Two filmmakers from Washington, D.C., are roaming the hall with their cameras, trying to capture this Hochstein hootenanny’s powerful message: healing through music. Their images will soon become part of a national documentary about music therapy.

Some of the 125 listeners being filmed are developmentally disabled, autistic or socially withdrawn. The many school-age participants are under the watchful eye of parents and music therapists stationed throughout the room. For all their diversity, these youngsters clearly relish making music together — shaking tambourines, whacking drumsticks and yelling for joy.

I always wondered if someone could give a concert where kids could interact with the music,” says Maria Battista-Hancock, chair of Hochstein’s music therapy department. “What I’ve seen at today’s concert is exactly what I had in mind.”

The art of music therapy

The event is a showcase for Hochstein’s music therapy program, which helps participants grapple with physical, cognitive and emotional problems.

Many hope to overcome feelings of anxiety and social inadequacy, or open new avenues of self-expression. Music therapy has been used to accomplish these goals at least since Al-Farabi, a central Asian philosopher who lived from 872 to 951 and wrote about music’s therapeutic benefits.

Music can bring up issues in a non-threatening way,” says Battista-Hancock. “It’s about being a whole human being.”

Participants may play instruments, sing or move to the music’s rhythm, among other activities. Many local groups offer music therapy, including several senior programs, Heritage Christian Services and The Arc of Monroe County.

Filming Hochstein’s concert are Michael Ricucci and Michelle Murphy, who have been documenting music therapy programs around the nation for nearly a year.

They’ve visited Monroe County three times, focusing largely on Hochstein and Nazareth College. Nazareth is the area’s most important training center for music therapy: About half of the region’s 60 music therapists earned their degrees there. Seventy-five students are now enrolled in music therapy degree programs at the Pittsford campus.

But the filmmakers chose the Hochstein concert in December as an ideal venue to illustrate music therapy in action.

This is a perfect way to show therapists, clients and performers working together,” says Murphy, 35.

She and Ricucci share a strong interest in music, but neither has a background in music therapy. She’s a professional filmmaker; he was for seven years the head baseball coach at Washington Adventist University in Maryland.

As a coach, I traveled through the country and saw schools cutting their budgets and emptying out their music programs,” says Ricucci, 33. “I wanted to step in and help raise support for music education and music therapy.”

The most effective approach, he and Murphy agreed, would be a documentary that expressed their messianic fervor for music therapy.

It improves quality of life,” says Murphy, citing information from the American Music Therapy Association. “It can help attention span and behavioral issues with autistic people, and may improve memory in the Alzheimer community. With patients suffering traumatic brain injury, it can help create new neural pathways.”

She and Ricucci plan to create a feature-length documentary for movie theaters and an academic version for schools and universities. They’re financing the project themselves, and have spent more than $15,000 this year on equipment and transportation to schools and clinics from Atlanta to San Diego.

Through their company, Terra Rising Records, they also organize fundraisers for music education and therapy.

Concerts for everyone

At Hochstein, the Dec. 15 performance by the Dady Brothers launched a new series of music therapy concerts. One afternoon every few months, the downtown school will hire professional performers across genres to perform for local families.

The series was developed by Battista-Hancock. She has three school-age children of her own and used to daydream about imaginary recitals where they could sing along, stomp to the beat and freely express how they felt.

Children shouldn’t have to sit like this,” she says, making her body as rigid as a marble statue.

Last spring, she approached Hochstein president Peggy Quackenbush about offering inexpensive concerts where kids could go a little wild without throwing ushers into a panic. Music therapists would be on hand in the audience in case a few listeners got “overstimulated.”

Quackenbush gave her enthusiastic approval, and the SENSE-ational series debuted on Dec. 15. It’s poised to become the public face of a music therapy program that has flourished quietly at Hochstein since 1975.

Today, 80 to 100 participants visit the school annually for music therapy sessions. Its therapists also work with 1,800 people each year at area schools, rehabilitation centers, group homes and other facilities. Hochstein recently started a music therapy program at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Canandaigua with a $25,000 grant from the Farash Foundation.

Harmonizing musical therapy

Music often is called a universal language, but music therapists use their own dialects to suit particular clients.

Earlier this month, three senior men with Parkinson’s disease gather at the Pieters Family Life Center in Henrietta. Seated behind an electronic keyboard, Melinda Kurowski is ready to help them work on their breath control, vocal articulation and facial expression.

Let’s get some instruments! How about doing percussion first?” she asks the weekly class.

Then she leads a rip-roaring sing-along of Take Me Out to the
Ballgame. As each phrase ends, the men whack the drums and shout: “Yea! Go Team!”

How’d that feel?” she asks them after the final chord.

Like we blew the roof off!” answers Che Chung Chow, 78, of Fairport.

The group’s gusto would be enough to warm the Red Wings’ hearts, but they’re just getting started. Soon they’re tackling breathing exercises, tooting harmonicas and rhythmically enunciating vowels: “Oh-aw! Eh-air!”

As class ends, they slip into heavy winter coats and discuss their progress.

After I had brain surgergy in 2011, I had a problem with shortness of breath,” says John Testa, 64, of Irondequoit. “I knew I had to do whatever I could to improve my breathing.

This class helped me do that. Now whenever I talk, I think about how I’m taking a breath.”

Chow is trying to boost his voice’s volume, which gradually has became softer.

I began coming here a year ago,” he says. “My neurologist thinks I’m improving.”

Kurowski sees about 40 people a week at Heritage Christian Services facilities such as Pieters Family Life Center. Her classes often include people with autism, developmental disabilities and Alzheimer’s disease.

Music therapy combines my passions for music and working with people,” says Kurowski, 29, a Nazareth College graduate living in Rochester. “Music is a great way to be with someone — a natural vehicle for expressing emotions. As I get to know people, I find subtle moments of connection I can expand upon.”

A larger group of seniors enjoys music therapy at Episcopal Church Home, 505 Mt. Hope Ave.

Sixteen residents form a circle around music therapist Adrienne Meyer while she plays her guitar and sings popular songs on a recent afternoon. Along the way, she guides her class through physical exercises and hands-on contact with musical instruments.

As they sing “Over the Rainbow,” the residents lift and lower a giant rainbow-colored lei to exercise their upper bodies. They tap tambourines with mallets for a rousing rendition of “Hail, Hail, The Gang’s All Here.” And they strum an electronic autoharp to sound chords for “Let Me Call You Sweetheart.”

It brings them together,” says Meyer, 27, a Chili music therapist based at Hochstein. “To engage them, I try to find music that everyone loves. I wouldn’t sing any Justin Bieber songs.”

Apparently, the shaggy-haired star hasn’t caught on yet with local octogenarians. But his songs doubtless are rocking a few other area music therapy classes — the ones with skateboards instead of wheelchairs.

Rochester music therapists keep pushing this ancient form of healing into the 21st century with new types of music and fresh teaching methods. If Murphy and Ricucci can give their efforts a national profile, the momentum may be unstoppable.