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Adaptive music lessons give students a place to be themselves

Caitlin Whyte


The benefits of music on individuals with autism are widely known. Improved focus, advances in speech and language, and better motor skills. But sometimes it’s about the growth that you can’t quantify in numbers.

On a Tuesday night in a sleepy plaza in Penfield, the Music Education Center is buzzing. Kids are in the waiting room, parents are catching up and students are practicing anything from trombone to piano.

Noah Svokos is a curly haired 13 year old who has been taking piano lessons for 5 years at the center.

The facility is open to anyone but they have a focus on adaptive music lessons, for individuals with disabilities.

Noah’s dad Tony Svokos brought him to class, and said over the years he’s seen his sons confidence grow, his memory get sharper, and he can remember notes and song titles and adapt these skills to his day to day life. Tony says places like this center are essential.

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“Like it or not, there is a bit of a stigma still when it comes to special needs kids, kids who have autism. Thankfully, the awareness is growing and there are a lot more programs now. Even at his school he’s got integrated classrooms.”

A lot of Noah’s classmates have grown up around kids with autism Tony says, so they don’t treat them any differently.

“But there are a lot of other places out there who have no contact with kids like this. And it can be nerve wracking sending your kid to a place like that where you’re not sure if they’re going to be accepted, you’re not sure if their insecurities are going to get really, really magnified by negative experiences.”

The music education center started in 2004, co-owner Sarah Jamison tells me. As a graduate of the Crane School of Music at SUNY Potsdam, she never really pictured her career going down this path, but the students kept her coming back.

“It really brings a lot of light into their lives. There’s a lot of other things they might be struggling with in school or at home and music ends up being something that they’re really good at and that they can be proud of and show off to their friends and family. And that’s probably the best thing about our job is just seeing that.”

For many students, their parents chose music lessons simply to get their kids into a new hobby or because it was family tradition. Sean Mahan is on his second year of lessons and second book of songs, something his mother Johanna Mahan didn’t think would ever happen.

“I couldn’t imagine how he would be able to learn how to read music. I thought that would be completely foreign to him. And I wasn’t sure how to make that connection with the notes and the music and just putting it all together.”

Johanna was a piano major in college, but couldn’t figure out how to teach her son who has autism. When his teacher Sara wrote the notes on the keys so he could learn the letters before learning to read music, everything changed.

“Any child with special needs, a lot of time the focus is what they can’t do. But I love that he can do this, and we’re able to say Sean can play the piano and not everybody can play the piano.”

Anyone with the internet can Google “autism” and “music lessons” and find the scientific benefits music has on developmental disabilities. But Johanna says you’re really missing out on the impact that places like the Music Education Center has on their students and families.

“At least in my experience here, they just understand our kids, they get it. We don’t have to explain their quirks; we don’t have to explain the differences in our kids.”

This story is reported from WXXI’s Inclusion Desk.