[Guest Post] OCMT Sponsor- Songs to Grow On

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An Amazing Music Therapy Journey

It gives me great pleasure to share this second blog post with my music therapy colleagues from around the world.  My private music therapy practice and piano studio, Songs To Grow On,  located in Farmington Hills, Michigan, provides services to a wide range of children and adults.  I have had the great pleasure of working with Lance Vardon now almost 23 years old since he was eleven years old.

I originally became acquainted with Lance when he entered the Oakland Schools Autism program, a center based program for children on the autism spectrum back in 2002.   I distinctly remember when Lance entered the program because an IEP was scheduled that involved his parents, an interpreter for the deaf and an advocate for Lance.  This meeting convened for many hours.  While I did not attend this first meeting, I was informed that Lance had autism as his primary disability but was also completely blind. In addition, Lance had parents that were both profoundly deaf.

In the early days of providing music therapy services to Lance, he was scheduled to receive group music therapy services in a self contained classroom composed of five other children on the autism spectrum.  He was very sensitive to sound and in the initial phases of therapy, he would often cry and become extremely distressed. The sound of a guitar (even a nylon stringed guitar) was not soothing to him and even soft gentle unaccompanied singing was something that he retreated from.  Over time with increased exposure to different sounds in small doses he was able to remain in these groups for longer periods of time.  It is important to understand that Lance has a brother who thankfully has perfect hearing and sight, but with both parents being deaf he was essentially brought up in a home that was devoid of conversations and other sounds that a typically developing child would be exposed to.

The Oakland schools team of professionals that worked with Lance are an amazing group of individuals.  Julie Unatin, teacher consultant for the visually impaired with Oakland Schools worked tirelessly to make sure that Lance would learn to read braille.  His paraprofessional Sheri Sienkiewicz, who continues to work with him today, spends countless hours making sure that all the necessary materials for his learning are brailled and ready for him each and everyday.  Dwayne Wessel, who was Lance’s original classroom teacher at Pattengill elementary, when he entered Oakland Schools, has been an important teacher in his life from the very beginning, and while Lance has had many teachers over the years, things have come full circle. Mr. Wessel is now one of the classroom teachers in the Berkley Public Schools post secondary program and this is the program where Lance currently receives services. Michigan is one of the few states that allow special needs students to access curriculum in the public schools up until the age of 26.

By 2003, my caseload became a little more flexible and I was able to begin seeing Lance on a one to one basis.  I discovered that if we were in a room by ourselves without any other distractions, I could engage him in playing short phrases on a keyboard (initially on a very low setting).  Over time he began to imitate short phrases and eventually he began playing simple melodies such as “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.”  That particular school year, students on my caseload along with peer pals put on a concert in the spring called “A Wacky Day In May When The Snowman Came To Play.”  I wrote an original piece of music for Orff instruments, piano and voice based on the Carl Sam’s book Stranger In The Woods  (www.strangerinthewoods.com)  and Lance was able to play an ascending scale on the keyboard in this ensemble piece.  It was the first time that he was able to be in a group performance and he tolerated it very well. He also was able to sit through an assembly that featured Laura and Rob Sams, niece and nephew of Carl Sams talking about the creation of the lovely photographic book.

During those upper elementary years, and early in middle school I continued to work with Lance on a one to one basis.  I was only able to see him once a week for the duration of a half hour, so progress was slow but steady.  Lance became more tolerant of all kinds of voicings on the keyboard and his repertoire of music expanded to include more complex music.  Late in middle school a paraprofessional by the name of Tim Austin, who was very musical (and able to see Lance everyday) engaged Lance in learning the melody line to “Just My Imagination” by the Temptations.  This was a tremendous breakthrough for Lance because he could play the melody line while Tim accompanied him on the guitar.  At first when I attempted to duplicate the accompaniment with Lance on the keyboard, Lance became very agitated because he had learned this originally with the guitar accompaniment, however with repeated attempts he eventually accepted the idea of playing “together” on the keyboard.  In time he was able to play this piece in a group setting with peers which provided a much needed outlet for working on social skills.

This blog post would not be complete without mentioning that Lance’s family had a life changing event in 2004.  This family became a recipient of an Extreme Home Makeover by ABC.  This made a huge difference in the life of the entire family as the home was rebuilt with amenities such as as sensory room, a pool, and a custom made swing for Lance to help with his daily therapies.  There were also safety features built into the home including a lighting system that could alert Lance’s parents if he were to leave the premises.  The show aired in November of 2004 and can be viewed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7-IvzfejHsw

Lance eventually moved on to middle school in the Clawson Public Schools.  By this time the center based program of Oakland Schools had dissolved and the Clawson Public Schools took over the center program responsibilities.  Here a very significant event took place. Tavia DiSalvio was hired to teach both general music at the elementary level, and middle and high school orchestra.  She was a new teacher and was open to the idea of Lance playing in her middle school orchestra.  Lance played along with the “violin one” parts and attended this class on a daily basis.  I made sure that cassette tapes were prepared for him for practice at home.  We soon discovered that Lance could manipulate a tape recorder independently and learn these violin one parts very quickly. Soon Lance was tolerating the sound of a full orchestra and even playing on stage for concerts. The most difficult thing for him to tolerate back then was the applause from the audience but after several years he learned to tolerate that sound as well.

In 2011, Lance returned to his home district in the Berkley schools.
In the state of Michigan the center programs for autism have lost some of their students. In cost saving measures, many local districts have created their own programs for children on the autism spectrum, and bring them back home.  Lance returned to Berkley High School and again a very creative and forward thinking music director allowed him to be included in the Berkley High school concert orchestra. John Robertson paved the way for continued exposure to music on a daily basis.  When this began in 2011, I had no idea about the sequence of events that would unfold before my eyes.

Lance blossomed in the orchestra and continued to learn the “violin one” part with increasingly more advanced music. Lance began to have weekly private piano lessons in my home for an hour on Saturdays. Several students from the Berkley orchestras have volunteered to play the violin parts with him at his private lessons over these past four years. They include Abby Tucker, Haley Bennett and Lauren Bennett. The time with these students was very helpful to him for the extra practice playing his orchestra parts and for providing an outlet for socializing. All of these students made special efforts to interact with him during class and were excellent role models for all of the students in the orchestra program. In the last four years Lance has traveled out of town with the orchestra three times.  He has visited New York City twice and Baltimore’s Chesapeake Arts Center in Brooklyn Park, Maryland.  The most significant trip took place in March of 2013 when Lance had the opportunity to perform at Carnegie Hall. He was among 93 other students who performed four beautiful pieces including St.Paul’s Suite by Gustav Holst, Andante Festivo by Jean Silbelius, Baltic Dance by Kirk Mosier and Fantasia on a 17th Century Tune by Richard Stephan.

While Lance’s parents cannot hear any of the music that he has performed they realize the importance of music in his life and have accompanied him on all of these trips.

Haley Lance and Lauren
Haley Bennett, Lance Vardon and Lauren Bennett in the warm-up room at Carnegie Hall!
Lance Vardon and Lisa Barnett at the hotel before going to Carnegie Hall
Lance Vardon and Lisa Barnett at the hotel before going to Carnegie Hall

Lance officially graduated Berkley High School in 2011 but was able to stay in orchestra for a full four years through the post secondary program. In the summer of 2013, efforts were made to explore the possibility of Lance performing out in the community.  He was beginning to learn songs where both of his hands were engaged as opposed to playing just the melody line.

Lance began playing piano in the beautiful lobby at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Michigan which is in close proximity to the Berkley during the summer of 2013. He had a small repertoire of songs that he could play by himself but was used to learning melody lines quickly so we developed a playlist of songs that he could play independently and some that we would play together.  This was a tremendous success and provided another outlet for developing social skills as many people would stop by the piano to comment on his playing and shake his hand.

Lance does not have the ability to initiate conversation but can participate in facilitated conversations such as “Lance say….Hi Sheri!”  He can then echo back “Hi Sheri!”  He has met so many people and we often take photographs of the people he meets and display them on the business page of Songs To Grow On on facebook.  There are also many videos of Lance’s performances on that site as well.

In an effort to take things a step further this past fall, Lance became an “official” Beaumont volunteer.  He now has a beautiful red shirt with the Beaumont logo on it and a nametag.  He plays piano there three times a week from 12:30 -1:45 pm.  His playing continues to amaze us all and people often stop by to tell us how beautiful the music is.  We have heard all kinds of stories about people visiting their loved ones who are undergoing surgery or chemotherapy and how the music has been so helpful in providing a sense of calm and peace.  Sometimes patients are wheeled downstairs to the piano area and they are always so appreciative of the music. An entire community has embraced Lance from the other volunteers to the pet therapy dog Moose who visits by the piano regularly. One of Lance’s most requested songs is Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah. His other piece that appears to draw people in is Spiral Dance which is a new age piece of piano music by David Lanz.

Two summers ago Lance was invited to play at a ceremony where a young student nurse received an award.  She payed him for his time and it is our hope that he will receive more opportunities to play like this in the future. Lance was invited this past summer by music therapist Samantha Sinai to play at a benefit concert for a community garden in Berkley that was called “Cellos Unleashed”.  Special thanks to Sharon Berke, Berkley school’s transition coordinator for facilitating this opportunity! You can click on the video link at the end of this blog to hear Lance and Samantha perform the Bach Prelude in C Major from the Well Tempered Clavichord.

There has been talk of Lance entertaining at a private cocktail party that may be held by the new chief of neurology at Beaumont in the near future.
We all can’t wait to see what happens next.

Lance at Beaumont Hospital
Lance at Beaumont Hospital


For your listening pleasure this is Lance playing the Bach Prelude in C from the Well Tempered Clavichord with Samantha Sinai,  music therapist and cellist at a program called Cellos Unleashed which took place last summer.

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2 Responses

  1. Thank you, a 1,000 times over for this story. You, your intuitive MT work and tenacity & your colleagues have made a tremendous difference in Lance’s life… And now, mine.

  2. Such a pro else to work with Tslented Lisa and be part of the amazing work she goes with lance. He has taught us do much about resilience strength and the power of believing!