December 20, 2012 - Spurred by Personal Experience, Fostering Connection & Common Ground Through Music
Earlier this summer, Stuart Isacoff reported on a symposium called “Music, the Brain, Medicine and Wellness” for the Wall Street Journal.
Isacoff’s piece begins by recapping a striking presentation by Beth
Israel Deaconess Medical Center’s Gottfried Schlaug on music therapy’s
impact on a child with autism.
“After 40 sessions, [the child] was speaking simple sentences as well
as his name,” writes Isacoff, who describes Schlaug’s findings as “a
dramatic example of how music is now being employed to revive dormant
pathways in the brain.”
Dramatic, yes—but not surprising for Schweitzer Fellows Martin Piazza and Lauren Hartman.
While volunteering with Best Buddies as a high school student, Piazza
met Alex, a young man with epilepsy and autism. They got together every other
week, eating lunch and taking trips to art and history museums
“Before we left, Alex made sure that he had his eclectic CD
collection with him so that we would have adequate musical accompaniment
for our drives,” the Wake Forest School of Medicine student remembers. “He was much more communicative after singing along with a few songs.”
Piazza, Alex, and Alex’s family have maintained a strong
friendship—and in the years since those high school car rides, Piazza
has noticed Alex’s confidence and communications skills progressively
“I believe that much of this has to do with his continued active
participation in music,” Piazza says, adding that Alex has been learning
to play different instruments and spending time in group music classes.
Now, with the support of the North Carolina Schweitzer Fellows Program,
Piazza and Hartman—who has powerful childhood memories of using music
to connect with an uncle with Down syndrome—are partnering with theCenters for Exceptional Children in Winston-Salem to provide a music enrichment program for children with autism, Down syndrome, and other special needs.
“Though support for people with disabilities has improved
dramatically in the past few decades, this population continues to be
underserved in many communities,” Hartman says. “Marty and I believe
that using music to facilitate development of social and communication
skills among children with disabilities will have lasting benefit.”
ASF: Why did you decide to develop your particular project?
LH: As a cognitive science major, I took an array of
classes in developmental psychology as well as music cognition. I’m
fascinated by research in physiologic response to music and its
therapeutic benefits for many people with cognitive, motor, and social
This fascination perhaps had its roots in childhood memories of my
uncle David, born with Down syndrome. As children, my siblings and I
weren’t quite sure how to interact with him, and he with us. But I
remember us all having the best time when my grandma turned on the
radio—David loved music, and he especially loved to dance.
This common ground allowed us to connect in a way we couldn’t before,
and these moments are always in the back of my mind as my personal
inspiration in carrying out this project.
My classmate and fellowship partner, Marty Piazza, worked with
children with autism in the Best Buddy program and was inspired by how
much his buddy enjoyed and excelled in music. He proposed the idea of a
project centered around the social and cognitive benefits of music in
children and young adults with disabilities, and I was sold immediately.
MP: After graduating from his school catered toward
young people with special needs, Alex began spending more time working
his jobs, which really improved his sense of independence—but he also
began spending more time at his group music classes and learning to play
different instruments. I know that my introduction to collaborative
music at an early age has strongly influenced my confidence and ability
to communicate with others, and I believe the same is true for Alex.
It was Alex’s success with music that influenced me to develop this
Schweitzer project. Studies have linked early exposure to interactive
music exercises with the development of social and communication skills.
After discussing the project idea with Lauren, a musician and vocalist
herself, we were surprised to find that there were few opportunities
available to medical students to work with children with special needs—a
population that often requires significant medical attention.
Additionally, we learned that there was currently no music program in
place at the Special Children’s School, a member of the Centers for
Exceptional Children in Winston-Salem. With these needs in mind we
proposed to bring music as a means of social and communication skills
development to young children with disabilities through the Schweitzer
Fellowship at the Centers for Exceptional Children.
ASF: What do you hope will be the lasting impact of your project on the community it serves?
LH: Studies have shown music strategies to be
effective in stimulating speech development, providing organization for
cognitive and motor development, and offering a setting for
socialization. We hope that continuation of our project through the
Pediatrics Interest Group at Wake Forest School of Medicine will provide
a regular venue for the development of these skills, as well as
increase the use of music outside of the classroom.
The goal of our project is to not only continue to provide regular
structured opportunities for children with disabilities to interact
through music, but to educate families on the benefits of music to their
child’s development and encourage them to make music a larger part of
their child’s life.
MP: Our interactive music program at the Centers for
Exceptional Children provides an extracurricular activity to bolster
the development of social and communication skills in children with
intellectual and developmental disabilities. We also hope that it has
effectively introduced parents to the positive effects of musical
instruction and musical therapy exercises on the successful growth of
While we are not music therapists ourselves, we use many of the same
exercises and techniques employed in music therapy to make our program
more constructive. We hope that, through our project, parents will be
inspired to pursue other music programs for their children in the
Additionally, the children at the Centers for Exceptional Children
have a wide array of physical, intellectual, and developmental
disabilities that many medical students will not be exposed to before or
even during their clinical years. Through the Pediatrics Interest Group
at Wake Forest School of Medicine and a few related groups at the
undergraduate campus, our music program provides a perfect venue for our
student colleagues to gain a better appreciation for the variety of
needs that children with disabilities may have—and also to understand
that these children, despite a few limitations, have the same interests
and desires as other children. We are in the process of nominating
students to lead the program in the upcoming year.
ASF: What do you think is the most pressing health-related issue of our time, and how do you think it should be addressed?
LH: I think one of the most pressing health-related issues
today is certainly the rising obesity trend. While there are countless
professionals spanning many disciplines working to address this issue
through research and policy and national initiatives, which are all very
important, I believe most strongly in community-based programs
facilitated by people familiar with their population.
Particularly inspiring to me this year has actually been a project by
another North Carolina Schweitzer Fellow who is working through faith
communities to provide health information. Knowing a group of people
well enough to be able to identify their particular needs and engage
them in terms that they value is exceedingly important in encouraging
people making the lifestyle changes that will be necessary to combat
MP: While access to health care is undoubtedly a widely
discussed and important concern, obesity is perhaps the most pressing
health issue today. It is a major risk factor for many chronic illnesses
including cardiovascular disease and diabetes, and it also affects the
general wellbeing and functional status of our population.
Obesity is often a completely preventable condition, and would become
much less prevalent with a stronger focus on family centered diet and
exercise education programs. A family-oriented approach to our society’s
obesity problem would have the most profound effect on children as they
begin to develop independent health and wellness habits, but it will be
important for parents as well. By extending healthy habit education
programs beyond school-age children to their parents and families, and
perhaps even making such training mandatory, parents will not only be
encouraged to improve their own health, but they will also reinforce the
development of healthy habits in their children and future generations.
ASF: What was the most surprising element of your experience as a Schweitzer Fellow?
MP: The most surprising aspect of my Schweitzer experience has
been the strong enthusiasm and support for the project that we have
received. The faculty and staff at the Centers for Exceptional Children
have been enormously helpful in aiding in the development of our
curricula and in creating a program that is both effective and enjoyable
for all the children despite differences in age and functional status.
Additionally, the interest in our program from fellow students has
been much greater than expected. Since beginning our program, we have
developed a consistent group of volunteers that is continuously growing.
LH: With any service project, it is hard to know what to
expect, and even more so when planning work with children. I had
steeled myself for giant boulders
from every direction, but they have been mere pebbles, and thanks to a
wonderful site, The Children’s Center, our project has run smoothly from
My experiences serving our project population have been
very much about love and the sharing of joy. Not only have we had to
adjust to several more classes of children than we originally thought,
but each class is so different from the next, making it both exciting
and exhausting to try new things and get to know each child’s
personality. Some days are good days for a child, and some days are just
not, no matter how much enthusiasm I display.
Within the framework of love and joy and Dr. Schweitzer’s “Reverence for Life,”
though, patience is not so difficult to achieve, and the small
victories are that much more special and important. Keeping all this in
mind is the hard part! But it is something to strive for every day, and
at the end of the day, I love working with these kids.
ASF: What does being a Schweitzer Fellow (and ultimately a Schweitzer Fellow for Life) mean to you?
LH: I was drawn to medicine as an opportunity to use my
particular strengths to produce real change, and I see reflected in the
Schweitzer Fellowship this same harmony between idealism and action.
The Schweitzer Fellowship appealed to me as a way to serve my
community in an important and sustainable way. I’ve loved being
surrounded by the creative and passionate minds behind these projects
while taking part in Fellowship activities. The diverse interests,
ideas, and life experiences Schweitzer Fellows contribute have made this
an interesting and innovative group, allowing for conversation and
collaboration that provide unique ways of thinking about a problem or
new avenues of addressing health needs.
I am troubled by stories of passionate and energetic medical students
who, as they progress through training, become increasingly jaded and
lose sight of what called them to the field of medicine. Though I find
it difficult to imagine this ever happening to me, I can see how being
connected to a network of people who are truly dedicated to service
would be an incredible support during the trials inherent in medical
Counting myself among the Fellows for Life will be a reminder of the
zeal I have at this moment in my education and the drive to serve others
that called me to medical school, to this fellowship, and to a life of
service of those most in need. I am honored to call myself a member of
an alliance of such devoted leaders in service, as well as to carry out a
project I personally believe in under the Schweitzer banner.
MP: Throughout my academic career, I have had a
strong investment in serving the community, particularly those with
intellectual and developmental disabilities. As a medical student,
however, my schedule has become less flexible, and I have had fewer
opportunities to serve this population in creative ways. As a Schweitzer
Fellow, I have learned to successfully balance a heavy academic
schedule with my service to this community of individuals.
Additionally as a medical student, it is easy to get focused on small
goals in the immediate future, whether it be an upcoming exam or report
due dates. Through the Schweitzer Fellowship, I have been able to
remind myself of why I decided to enter the field of medicine in the
first place, and learn from other Fellows how to be efficient and
effective as a professional and as a leader in service. As a Fellow for
Life, I will be able to continue my active participation in the
community outside of the day-to-day activities of a physician.
to learn more about the North Carolina Schweitzer Fellows Program and our work to develop leaders, create
change, and improve health in vulnerable communities. We are supported
entirely by charitable donations and grants.