Alex Nelson and the Gift of Music Therapy

[Music] is such an underrated resource, yet people use music every day. We have it in our cars, on our phones, in the grocery store – it is everywhere we go and it is used to alter or encourage our own moods. My hope is that people will be able to recognize music not only as an art form, but as a tool to help others overcome obstacles in their life.

Having seen music’s restorative power through her own experiences, bassoonist and Jack Kent Cooke Young Artist Alexandra Nelson (Show 243) wanted to explore ways that music can inspire others beyond the concert hall setting. She decided to connect with several music therapists from her hometown, and wrote the following essay to share her experiences:

What Music Can Do 

It was once said that music is what feelings sound like. For the average person, we would all agree that music can transform our attitudes, change our perspectives, set a mood, help us from feeling alone… the list goes on. But how does music affect someone who has mental or physical disabilities?

This has been something that I have been more interested in as I have grown older. Given my own difficult family situation, I used music as an escape. Practicing became a way to disappear out of the discomfort in my household and focus on something beautiful. What about people who are uncomfortable in their own body or their own mind? I soon began to question if music would have the same effect on people other than me, other than just musicians.

Music therapy embodies this very idea. On the website for the American Music Therapists Association, it is 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.” These goals can be anything from opening oneself up emotionally to distracting someone from intense pain to encouraging verbal communication. Therapeutically, the benefits are endless. I have quickly learned that, not only is music enjoyable and mood altering, but it is a growing resource for therapists dealing with people who suffer from any type of disability or disorder.

When I sought out the music therapist, Eve Montague, at the South Shore Conservatory in Duxbury, I was just looking to have her shed a little light on this topic. She was able to share many stories with me: a patient with serious physical problems regaining use of her fingers and toes, a premature infant’s heart and breathing rate stabilizing immediately after birth, a burn victim becoming seemingly immune to the pain while having his dead skin removed – all through music therapy. It seemed unreal. I knew that music was powerful, but could it really have that much of an effect on people? I’ve experienced it myself, but never to this degree.

In my excitement, I began to participate in an adult chorus with Eve at the Conservatory, working with mentally delayed adults to sing and make music once a week. It was a place where people could socialize, learn about music, and most importantly, grow as a person. There was a woman who was nonverbal but still able to make sounds. Throughout the year, I soon realized that she was mouthing the words and actually quietly singing along. A young boy who shyly kept to himself before chorus was a new person when it came time to sing – yelling the words, jumping for joy at the climax of a song. This was all through music.

Another therapist who works with Eve, named Kari O’Brient, travels to several locations offsite for her therapy sessions. When I asked to observe her at a local elementary school, I had no idea what to expect. All I knew was that I wanted to see music therapy first hand, in all of its glory, to better understand how it really works in an everyday setting.

I traveled to the Hatherly School, an elementary school in Scituate, one afternoon with Kari to work with two special education classes. We arrived, signed in at the office, and headed down the hall, our arms full of drums and scarves, with a guitar on Kari’s back and a bag filled with who-knows-what hanging off of my shoulder.

When Kari walked into the room ahead of me, the room erupted. The kids could no longer focus on their math or reading – it was music time! We headed into one corner of the small room with a bright colored rug, bulletin boards creating a space around us, and a chair for each of the students, Kari, and me. I sat down anxiously and waited for the therapy to begin.

Instead, Kari quietly took the guitar case from off of her back while asking the kids how their vacation was. However, after a soft bitter mumble from the few kids around us, Kari laughed off their negative reaction and started to strum. Soon, her chatty words turned to song, “Why hello there, you guys! I know I’m happy to be here. Hmm mmm, hello, hello!” The energy in the room suddenly shifted back to excitement. We all sang the hello song, each of us having a chance to say our own name and say hello to the rest of the class. Not only was this song encouraging friendly greetings, but it was teaching the kids to say their name and “hello” loudly and clearly. For anyone with a social disorder, such as autism, even saying hello to someone can be a challenge. Kari, though, with her bright smile and upbeat guitar playing, had everyone doing this with ease. The next song was a variation on “Head-Shoulders-Knees-and Toes,” with Kari’s own musical spin. The students stood, did the dance moves, and some even took a turn leading the song.

I really noticed at that point that, despite the necessary therapeutic value these songs had for these kids, they really enjoyed this! It was a break from their school day. Especially for someone with disabilities, even the simplest of tasks can seem daunting and overwhelming. Music therapy was a care free and light hearted time set aside where they could simply be themselves, but still be absorbing necessary lessons like verbal skills and physical coordination.

The lessons continued – more songs, more dancing, more swaying back and forth, more singing – the fun went on, and so did the therapy. The next class was more of the same – excited children, each eager to listen and play while still taking part in the therapy. I left the school feeling excited, rejuvenated, and encouraged at the idea that music had such an impact on these kids. Not only did they have a great time playing and singing with Kari, but they were reclaiming themselves as fun-loving children, able to let go of whatever troubles they were having in school earlier that day, and just enjoy the therapy for all that it was.

Despite all of my wonderful exposure to music therapy, there is just one problem that I always come across when I leave the conservatory atmosphere: no one I know seems to respect music as a valid source of therapy. I learned quickly that this was because they didn’t understand it, but that’s no reason to dismiss it.

This is why I am writing this piece today: through my own experiences, I have learned and will continue to learn more about music therapy so that I can share it with my peers. It is such an underrated resource, yet people use music every day. We have it in our cars, on our phones, in the grocery store – it is everywhere we go and it is used to alter or encourage our own moods. My hope is that people will be able to recognize music not only as an art form, but as a tool to help others overcome obstacles in their life. As the author Berthold Auerbach said, “music washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life,” no matter what that dust may be.

Alex is currently pursuing a dual degree in Bassoon Performance and Music Education at Northwestern University.

From the Teaching Journal of Gloria Ferry-Brennan

(credit: Michele Stapleton)

“[Teaching] is one of the most important and gratifying professions, and I plan on continuing my new-found passion!”

When violinist and Jack Kent Cooke Young Artist Gloria Ferry-Brennan appeared on our show this past February (Brunswick 247), she took us on a magical spoken tour of her hometown: the colorful and picturesque Whidbey Island (off the coast of Washington state). She also spoke about her teacher Linda Good (pictured below) who co-founded the island’s Suzuki music program Island Strings. This past summer, Linda asked Gloria to join her in teaching two local violin students who were unable to afford lessons on their own. Gloria worked with the two boys over the summer, capturing her experiences and learning in a personal journal. Not only did she grow as a teacher, but also as a performer – she shares one of her journal entries below:

I walked into Linda’s cozy home and saw a newspaper clipping on the wall about my appearance on From The Top. Two young boys followed me in: one was about 7 years old and had deep, dark brown eyes. Immediately I knew there was something special about him and that he would be a pleasure to teach. The younger one was a small delicate boy with loads of energy. He was enthusiastic about music and I could tell that he was a natural performer. We all got out our instruments and I showed them how I set up the violin and bow. This might seem like an easy task, but it took a lot of concentration to make sure I showed them the perfect technique. It has become rather second nature for me to set up my instrument. However, thinking about it made me more aware of what I was doing and how I could improve. Linda asked the students to try to copy me, and together we set them up just right. We sang little songs to help us remember how to hold the bow; songs that I had sung more than 10 years ago in that very same house. It was amazing to see how much I still remembered. It made me a little nervous to be teaching in front of my former teacher but I got the hang of it quickly and the nerves turned into enthusiastic excitement over the boys’ progress. The older boy was using a violin that was too big for him. His mother asked me if I thought this was a problem and I expressed my concern. I explained that comfort was one of the most important aspects of playing the violin and discomfort could cause injury later on in his life. After the lesson Linda asked me to play a few songs for the boys. They were very impressed and when I left that day I felt like I had reached my goal of inspiring them to make beautiful music. Later I got an email from the oldest boy’s mom telling me how I had made such an impression on her son and she said that he keeps talking about how “really, really, really, really good that girl at Linda’s house was at the violin!”

Stay tuned as we continue to follow Gloria’s teaching experiences with Linda and Island Strings! 

Sandra Bailey Inspires Students to Pursue their Dreams

“(This event) made me realize what kids can accomplish when given the necessary support from role models in their community. I feel honored to have had the opportunity to enrich the lives of…youth in my own community.”

Sandra Bailey with Atlanta Preparatory Academy students

Bassoonist Sandra Bailey understands the value of outlining goals to help achieve one’s dreams. Wanting to share this message with younger students in her hometown, she visited a 6th and 7th grade music class at the Atlanta Preparatory Academy, where her younger sister is a student.

After challenging the students to write down their goals, Sandra talked about the steps she took to make her own dreams become a reality, from getting her first bassoon, to appearing on From the Top and being selected as a Jack Kent Cooke Young Artist (she was on Show #232 and will be part of our upcoming gala!).

Sandra dazzled the students with a range of musical selections, from Bolero to the SpongeBob theme, and encouraged them to explore their own musical potential. She created a special pamphlet with musical opportunities in Atlanta for the students to take home and share with their parents.

Continue reading

Reaching Out in Carmel, IN


Towards the end of March, we taped a show at The Palladium – a beautiful, acoustically-ideal concert hall that’s part of the Center for the Performing Arts in Carmel, Indiana. We had taped a show at the Palladium just last year and the excitement behind our return allowed us to make a number of connections with the community. Two weeks before we even arrived, local bassoonist Tom English (Show #233) was busy promoting our return to Carmel. He traveled to the Prime Life Enrichment Center, where he performed several solo works and spoke about his experience on our show last year.

On the day of the show, a group of sound engineering students from Crowne Point High School drove all the way to Carmel (nearly two hours) to attend our dress rehearsal and get a behind-the-scenes look at a live recording session. After the rehearsal, they met with our sound engineer, Berred Ouellette, who explained the process of taking the show from live concert to radio broadcast. Berred also treated the students to a backstage tour to see and experience our recording equipment.

Continue reading

Making Connections in Ogden, Utah

We had an exciting array of outreach events around our radio taping earlier last month in Ogden, Utah! Thanks to our presenter Weber State University (WSU), our staff and performers had the chance to make some inspiring connections with students, ranging from elementary school to college, in the Ogden community!

Within hours of arriving in Ogden, our education team and the Meshugene Quartet from Midwest Young Artists in the Chicago-area kicked things off by visiting with a group of students, grades 3 through 5, involved in WSU’s Strings Project: an after-school orchestra program that is part of a national initiative by the American String Teachers Association. The quartet gave a stunning performance of diverse repertoire, including Haydn, Shostakovich, and Grieg. Their coach Allan Dennis talked about the important musical aspects, giving the audience a “listening guide” for each piece. The group also shared some of their favorite ways to practice together as a group – check out the video below!

At the end of the program, the audience had some great questions, ranging from “How many hours a day do you practice?” to “What’s your favorite type of pie?” Many of the students stayed afterwards to meet with the performers one-on-one.

The next day just before From the Top’s dress rehearsal, our producer Tim Banker met with WSU students who manage the school’s radio station, KWCR 88.1, to explore what makes good radio. Providing handouts with sample stories and characters, Tim challenged the students to determine which would make the most compelling story within a From the Top program. He talked about how our show strives to bring to life these young performers’ memories and experiences. Check out the video below to hear some of what he shared:

The day after the taping, we traveled with four of our performers to Mt. Ogden Junior High School, where we met with a class of music students in grades 6 through 8. Gathered on the school auditorium’s stage, these kids got a “sneak peek”  of the show, with each performer playing a piece that had been featured the night before. Our performers also shared a range of personal insights, from struggles with finding the motivation to practice to what had first inspired them to pursue classical music.

Stay tuned for more exciting stories about our community outreach efforts on the road!

Guest Blog: Extracurricular Music in Relation to Academic Achievement

A little variety is always nice, so today we are posting an article by guest blogger Joy Paley, who writes for My Dog Ate My Blog. While education is a large part of From the Top’s core values, this post touches on a subject that we don’t often talk about – music as it relates to academic achievement. Joy has some interesting observations and insights about current research in this area. We hope you enjoy!

Most people don’t take up music as a way to guarantee success in other areas of their life. The fun and satisfaction of becoming good at an instrument is reward enough. Similarly, parents may involve their kids in music at a young age to ensure that they’re well rounded and become exposed to a wide variety of activities, so that they are sure to find their true calling.

Recent research, however, is continuing to praise the ability of musical education to churn out students who excel in many areas besides music—students who are highly motivated, intelligent, and college bound. While politicians and school boards might not listen to the argument for pushing musical education on its own terms, maybe they’ll listen to these arguments for music as a predictor of academic success. Continue reading

Arts Leadership in Bethlehem, PA

Last week, From the Top taped a show at Lehigh University in the beautiful town of Bethlehem, PA. Our four soloists joined us the following morning at the Arts Leadership orientation, where we explored the way music can make a difference and shared inspiring examples of arts leadership. We were truly fortunate to have one such example join us that morning: Stanford Thompson, the founder and Director of the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra’s Tune-Up Philly.

Stanford Thompson and the BOBs

When asked to define arts leadership, our performers agreed on the following:

  1. A way of communicating with others beyond words, and making a lasting impact
  2. Helping people that aren’t in the best conditions and making them realize that they can also help and change the world
  3. Helping younger kids find what they love to do

The group named themselves “The BOBs”, or Bring On Bethlehem, and created a fun video to introduce themselves and share their message on arts leadership. Check it out below!

To learn more about the show, check out this week’s On the Road with Joanne Robinson, and be sure to tune in when the show airs the week of January 17th!  You can check specific air dates and times here.

From the Top Inspires an Abilene Elementary School Radio Project

Yesterday we recorded an episode of From the Top in Abilene, Texas, which will air the week of December 27. Our presence in the town actually inspired 2nd and 4th grade classes at Allie Ward Elementary School to put on their own radio project! You can listen to the podcast about this production by Zane Goggans from KACU here.

This semester Cynthia Ladyman’s 2nd grade class was focused on 1940’s history and culture – World War II, clothing, speech, and classical music. She thought a radio production like From the Top would be a fun and creative way to bring all of this learning together. Each member of her class was given a specific role to play – writers, reporters, production team, actors, etc, and along with the help of a 4th grade class, these kids put on a special radio project that included three talent groups from the school, a choir, vignettes, and a commercial for the school’s library.

In order to prepare, these students visited the KACU radio studios (the From the Top presenter in Abilene) to see how radio works in real life.

Ms. Ladyman says, “It came up that [the school board] didn’t think second graders could do this, but I said yes we can, and so we have worked very hard to do that!”

This project is a great example of how classical music and radio can be interesting to kids of all ages. “I think kids value what the teachers and parents value, and I think they need to be exposed early [to classical music],” Ms. Ladyman said in an interview with KACU.

This hands-on production was a challenge for the kids because it was so writing intensive and involved a lot of preparation, but as you can hear in the podcast, they seemed to really enjoy it!

Arts Leadership in Davenport, Iowa

"The Rave" Group

Last week the From the Top crew and nine performers gathered together in Davenport, Iowa to tape a radio show. The following morning was the Arts Leadership Orientation, during which performers reflect on using music for positive change. Upon naming themselves “The Rave,” the performers designed a video for From the Top’s Green Room which illustrates their energy and shared definition of arts leadership. Check it out below!

In case the text was a bit hard to read on our little flipcam video, here’s their message.
Arts Leadership is:

  1. Promoting the arts and inspiring kids to explore their creativity and imagination and inner artist.
  2. Music/art can be a safe haven not just a practice jail.
  3. Helping the community in means other than words.

Working hard to define "Arts Leadership"

Learn more about the show by checking out On the Road with Joanne Robinson, and tune in the week of November 1st to hear the show! Check your local listings for air dates and times here.


A New Age of Arts Leaders

Tuesday, October 5th, was the first in a series of Boston Arts Leadership gatherings From the Top is hosting to bring together local musicians – high school, college and beyond – who are passionate about using music to make a difference. We met with some of last year’s Margaret Stewart Lindsay Arts Leadership Award recipients as well as some Boston Arts Academy High School seniors involved in the school’s Senior Project Grant Proposal program.


Michael and Brian (left) Noni and Griffin (right)


Among the attendees were four faces familiar to our blog : Brian Kaufman and Michael Reichman of the concert series Musical Diplomacy, and Griffin Gaffney and Noni Carter – two Harvard sophomores developing a project  that promotes literacy and exposure to the arts for Boston middle school students.


Arnold Pesnell, Jonathan Anderson, and Gregory Groover


Joining the group were three new arts leaders from the Boston Arts Academy (BAA): Arnold Pesnell, Gregory Groover, and Jonathan Anderson. Continue reading


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