How music therapy is helping people of all ages in Philadelphia

It’s a Sunday afternoon and Sabrina Stafford, a certified music therapist from EasterSeals  of Southeastern Pennsylvania, is heard playing the piano right next to her brother, who scoots himself near her feet and giggles as he feels the vibrations of the music come through the floorboards.

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Music therapists can use any type of instrument such as the piano, guitar, and even their voice for their therapy sessions.

Stafford’s brother is minimally responsive to language and the only way she is able to contact him is by using music therapy.

At a young age, Stafford aspired to be a music therapist from living with her two special needs siblings.

Stafford’s brother, Sammy, is severally medically fragile and requires full-time nursing. Her sister, Sophia, is diagnosed with Williams Syndrome, an intellectual disability that affects her cognition, speech, and motor skills.

“I have often used music in the home to communicate with my siblings. It wasn’t until I began researching into colleges that I discovered music therapy and it seemed to be a perfect fit for me. I love what I do because I believe in what I do. I have seen with my own eyes the power of music for all different clients.”

American Music Therapy Association defines music therapy as an established health profession in which music is used within a therapeutic relationship to address physical, emotional, cognitive, and social needs of individuals.

Since it was her dream to become a board certified music therapist, she knew she had to complete the proper qualifications to become one.

Stafford attended an AMTA (American Music Therapy Association) approved college curricula, while also accruing 1200 hours of clinical training.

Once she completed a 200 hours, Stafford also completed a 1000 hour internship under the supervision of a board certified music therapist. Afterwards, she passed a board certification exam provided by the CBMT (Certification Board for Music Therapy) and was finally able to pass the exam to become a practicing music therapist.

Stafford currently works at a preschool for developmentally delayed children, ranging from ages 3 to 5. Most of her patients have autism spectrum disorder, down syndrome, developmental delay, medically fragile, cerebral palsy, severe neurological impairment, behavioral disorders, as well as children with vision and hearing impairments.

She mainly uses the guitar and voice to move around and engage with children during her sessions. She oftentimes has the children play guitar with her when it is their turn to say “hello” during her welcome song.

However, music therapists must be functional at playing guitar, piano, voice, and percussion. It is up to the music therapist to which instrument they would want to use during their sessions, according to Stafford.

Although there are similarities between music therapy and other forms of therapies such as speech, physical, and occupational therapy―there is one big difference.

In music therapy, the music therapist uses music as the tool to effect change and to meet the non-musical goals such as communication, social/emotional development, and motor control.

This is what makes this form of therapy life-changing for Stafford’s patients, and how much of an impact it has on many of her patients.

“Music acts as the catalyst of change and I often think of it as my co-therapist,” said Stafford. “Music is indeed very special to me, my family, and the music therapy field.”

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