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 around town.
“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 improving.
“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 the Centers 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 disorders.
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 their children.
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 future.
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 obesity.
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 the beginning.
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 practice.
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.
Click here to learn more about the North Carolina Schweitzer Fellows Program, Fellows like Herman and Piazza, and our work to develop leaders, create change, and improve health in vulnerable communities. We are supported entirely by charitable donations and grants.