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Natural Awakenings Fairfield Cty/Housatonic Valley, CT

Music Therapy Unlocks Potential: FFC Organizations Empower Special Needs Populations

Sep 02, 2016 02:02AM ● By Nicole Miale

Theatreworks Summer Program

The use of music as a healing medium dates back to ancient times but the modern modality of music therapy developed in the United States after World Wars I and II. When the clinical professionals in Veterans Administration (VA) hospitals witnessed the effect music had on veterans’ psychological, physiological, cognitive and emotional states, it sparked interest in conducting more research.

Today, there are more than 70 approved music therapy programs being offered at colleges and universities to train musicians in how to use music for therapeutic purposes. Once a program is successfully completed, an individual is eligible to take a national examination and become certified with the credential for professional practice as a music therapist. The American Music Therapy Association (AMTA, is a professional organization representing approximately 6,000 music therapists nationwide and in more than 30 countries.

Music therapy is currently defined as the clinical and evidence-based use of music interventions to accomplish individualized goals within a therapeutic relationship by a credentialed professional who has completed an approved music therapy program (AMTA, 2005). Music therapy is an interpersonal process in which the therapist uses music to affect a person’s physical, emotional, mental, social, cultural, aesthetic and spiritual aspects in order to help someone improve or maintain their health. Music is used to connect with clients, reveal possibilities and improve quality of life. People of all ages, cultures, socioeconomic backgrounds and degrees of abilities respond to aspects of music in daily life. There is a growing body of research demonstrating its utility in populations dealing with specific conditions and situations, including autism spectrum disorder, sensory disorders, social anxiety, dementia, post traumatic stress and more.

Fairfield County is home to several organizations whose highly trained specialists are devoted to the use of music and the arts to unlock individual potential. These leading groups provide support and empowerment to special needs individuals of all ages and stages of life in Connecticut and neighboring areas.

Arts for Healing 

New Canaan’s Arts for Healing ( is a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing integrated music therapy and art therapy for individuals at all stages of life with emotional, physical, developmental and social needs. Director Karen Nisenson, MM, MA, MT-BC, founded Arts for Healing in 2000 to raise awareness of the power of the arts as a therapeutic vehicle for the special needs communities of Fairfield County and New York’s Westchester County.

“Music and movement provide a bridge that goes beyond disability and reaches the innermost potential of all individuals,” Nisenson says. “They enable people to connect in a different way, no matter how their brain functions.”

The organization’s eight art therapists—including art, dance, music and theater specialists—help individuals of all ages and abilities to achieve greater communication skills, self-expression, self-esteem and confidence. They work at the Grove Street center and Grace Farms in New Canaan, as well as at peoples’ homes and in institutional settings. The outcomes of the work vary widely but include reduction of anxiety, stress management, increased communication and improved emotional self-expression.

Nisenson sees creative expression as a reflective experience, which is especially critical for individuals who are non-verbal, such as children or adults on the autism spectrum and adults suffering from dementia.

“The work I do is about getting people to discover their own potential,” she explains. “The best way to do that is to give people a vehicle to access and express what they are feeling while targeting issues that hamper development and quality of life.”

Nisenson encourages the integration of the various expressive modalities, believing it is their shared expressive possibility which can often result in the greatest benefit. This is because art and music can target separate issues in the individual at the same time. The integrated music and art therapy methodology, known as IMAT, is used by all Arts for Healing therapists.

“Music is often the motivator for new movement,” she says. “It uses all parts of the brain and invites new body awareness through its rhythm. Human beings are rhythm. So when music is used as a motivator, it enhances and drives movement in a very natural and beautiful way.”

Connecticut Music Therapy Services

In 2005, Music Therapist Jennifer Sokira, MMT, LCAT, MTBC, started Watertown’s Connecticut Music Therapy Services (CTMTS, with a similar mission as Nisenson’s: to nurture creative possibilities in people. Music Therapist Emily Bevelaqua joined her as a partner as the practice grew; now just over a decade later, CTMTS has five full-time therapists serving hundreds of people throughout the state. A second CTMTS office opened in January of this year in Fairfield’s Harbor Light Therapy and Social Center.

Kelsy Gati, a music therapist who joined the CTMTS team in 2014, is passionate about the work the team does to promote social connectivity. “Music is a really connective medium,” she says. “It allows all people to experience socialization in a way that is less pressure-filled.”

Gati says socially connective opportunities are plentiful through music no matter what the individual’s age or ability. These possibilities include songwriting, lyric analysis, sharing familiar music, listening to music, moving the body, vocalizing and instrument playing.

The actual music therapy services delivered to any individual by a therapist are based on each client’s abilities, Gati says, noting the influence also of preferences, needs, the family’s values, beliefs and priorities. The initial music therapy assessment process is to gain an understanding of the individual’s current level of functioning while engaging in a variety of intentional and developmentally sound music experiences. The music therapy intervention plan is based on the assessment outcomes and is always person-based depending on the overall goals.

“Music, cognitively speaking, is one of the only activities you can do that requires use of both sides of the brain,” Gati explains. “Because of that, you are quite literally able to tap into your brain’s potential in a fuller and completely unique way.”

“It is so rewarding to see what can be unlocked,” Gati continues. “The key is the gradual nature of it and trusting that each individual will connect with what has meaning for them. You can’t force anything, it has to develop and be unlocked gradually.”

In the process, it creates possibilities for understanding of self and others. Whether it is two preschoolers banging on one drum together, a group of older teens tasked with writing a song together, or an elderly patient gaining joy or a moment of clarity from recalling and singing music of a bygone era, music has the capacity to soothe the soul and expand horizons.

Nicole Miale is publisher and executive editor of Natural Awakenings Fairfield County.

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