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Therapy workshop makes sweet music

The symphony of drums, maracas and songs was enough to let any casual passer-by know there was fun going on inside.

Last week, the Woodbury United Methodist Church was the setting for a family fun with music therapy event, aimed at children with disabilities, their brothers and sisters and their parents.

The expressions on the children's faces as they sang and played the instruments left no doubt about the "fun" aspect of the evening, which was organized by the group Arc Greater Twin Cities, and a trained music therapist was on hand to explain some of the theory behind the therapy to the parents.

That's if he could make his voice heard over the beating of the drums.

"A lot of the research is pointing to a whole-brain response when we participate in music, whether it's active involvement in making music or passive listening," explained Todd Schwartzberg, a coordinator with the MacPhail Center for Music.

"When we are listening to music, we are activating both hemispheres of the brain, and smaller areas of the brain that deal with learning, memory, emotions."

Arc Greater Twin Cities, a non-profit dedicated to serving people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their families throughout life, decided to partner with the MacPhail Center for the free workshop in Woodbury -- the first of its kind in the Twin Cities -- after Arc staff experienced for themselves a music therapy session, and saw the potential it could have for the families they worked with on a daily basis.

Woodbury resident and Arc's GetSet! program specialist Sharon Mulé has a daughter with epilepsy and got involved with Arc when she realized she was being given merely a glimpse of what many families coped with.

It was extra-special for her, she said, that Arc's first music therapy event was being held in her home city.

"My motivation is this is my community," said Mulé. "My three children all went through the North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale School District, and I have a daughter with a developmental disability.

"You get highly motivated to see things change in your community...

"We [at Arc] are there because we have a passion for change and a passion for the people in our community."

One of the parents at the music therapy workshop was Michele McAlister, whose 12-year-old son, Justin, has autism.

"I want him to have every opportunity," said McAlister, who runs her own autism support network in Woodbury.

"Often, especially in the autism world, there's so much out there that you are supposed to try -- all the diets and gimmicks... but what I've found one of the most effective things to be with my son is music.

"He became more organized -- it's very, very powerful."

McAlister says part of her motivation for attending the Sept. 18 event was to make contact with other families and network with parents in similar situations. Justin has been through music therapy three times now, and McAlister says she continues to believe strongly in its effectiveness.

"[Justin] is not very good at it, but he believes he is, and that's all that matters," she said, smiling.


• Arc Greater Twin Cities is holding a series of free workshops throughout the fall for parents who have children with disabilities in Washington County. For more information, call (952) 920-0855 or visit

• The MacPhail Center for Music has a dedicated music therapy program at its locations in Minneapolis, White Bear Lake and Apple Valley. For more information, call Todd Schwartzberg at (612) 767-5373.

• Michele McAlister's support group for parents of children with autism meets at 7 p.m. on the second Tuesday of every month (except July, August and December) at the Family Achievement Center, 8320 City Centre Drive, Woodbury. For more information, call (651) 491-3480.