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At Valley Elementary, Music Works

Music therapy There is an alien in the music room at Valley Elementary School—but have no fear, it’s imaginary, and the friendly kind. Students in Bryan Thomas’ music group are singing what’s known as a stack song in which each student adds a line to the song, building on a theme: “There’s an alien in the classroom.” As Bryan strums the melody on his guitar, four 10 and 11 year olds chime in, and the song starts to take shape. The aliens are here to help us. We’re all headed to Jupiter. Then back to earth. But we forgot to take off our space suits!

Welcome to music therapy, Valley style. Behind the zany space-themed lyrics is a serious purpose. As Bryan explains, the stack song provides students with an opportunity to practice flexible thinking, including listening to other people’s perspectives and responding appropriately. For the song to work, students have to go with the flow. When a student suggests a trip to the zoo for the next line, Bryan gently points out that the space travelers are still on Jupiter, roughly 365 million miles away from the nearest zoo. “He had an idea but he had to change it. That’s flexible thinking,” explains Bryan.

Bryan has always had a passion for music. He drummed all through high school and knew that he wanted to pursue some kind of career that would let him continue to drum, sing and strum. Research led him to music therapy, a field that he’d never heard of before. He ended up getting his degree in music therapy and did an internship at Perkins School for the Blind before joining Valley in 2008. Explains Bryan:“In music therapy, music is the tool to reach a non-musical goal. That’s different than music education where the goal is to teach kids to be better musicians.”

While the music room may be the only place that students get to pound out their feelings using bongo drums, the four students in today’s groups, one of 22 groups Bryan sees, are all working on similar communications and behavioral goals elsewhere at Valley. “Our approach is really interdisciplinary,” says Bryan. “I stay in touch with the other teachers, speech therapists and behavioral aides and we keep track of the progress the students are making.”
Music can also be a way of reaching students who aren’t engaged in school, says Bryan. He recalls a student new to Valley who was having a difficult time transitioning and had largely shut down, until Bryan began writing songs with her. “It really became a way to begin to build a positive relationship with the school community.”