Soundtrack of Life: Georgia College Music Therapy enriches lives of adults with disabilities

Soundtrack of Life: Georgia College Music Therapy enriches lives of adults with disabilities

A s executive director of the Life Enrichment Center (LEC) in Milledgeville, Barbara Coleman has a simple––yet far-reaching––goal.

To change the world one student at a time.

To do this, she created a partnership with Georgia College called Creative Expressions. Every week, this program brings adults with disabilities together with music therapy students.


We saw the opportunity to make a global impact, because every one of these students will go back to their own community with a different mindset. Hopefully, one day, we’ll change a generation of mindsets.
– Barbara Coleman

Bringing adults with disabilities together with students accentuates the center’s motto that “we are more alike than different.” It gives LEC participants a chance to engage musically with the community, share their unique talents and enhance skills.

On campus they become artists, guitarists, singers, dancers. They get to be like college students.

LEC participants enjoy drumming recently at Georgia College.
LEC participants enjoy drumming recently at Georgia College.

In return, students learn to work with others, accept differences and lead groups in therapy. It’s a relationship like few others, according to LEC Activity Director and Music Therapist Jay Warren, who earned a master’s in music therapy at Georgia College in 2020.

I’ve lived in a lot of places, and I’ve never seen this anywhere. It’s astounding. As a student, it changed my life. I wasn’t planning on working here. I wasn’t planning on staying in this town. It completely changed the direction of where I was going.
– Jay Warren
“It’s rare to find a community that’s willing to engage with adults who have disabilities. We all know, having grown up in the United States in the last 60 years,” Warren said, “There’s stigma attached to people based on their looks, speech patterns, things like that.”

“I’ve lived in a lot of places, and I’ve never seen this anywhere,” he added. “It’s astounding. As a student, it changed my life. I wasn’t planning on working here. I wasn’t planning on staying in this town. It completely changed the direction of where I was going.”

LEC Activity Director Jay Warren helps guide students, as well as adults with disabilities.
LEC Activity Director Jay Warren helps guide students, as well as adults with disabilities.
Georgia College is one of two state universities with a music therapy major. It’s the only Georgia school offering a master’s in music therapy. The program started in 1977 and services Baldwin County Schools, in addition to LEC. About 78 students with disabilities are served K-12th grade at the music therapy clinic on campus. Music helps with social skills, sharing, impulse control and attention span.

Georgia College’s Creative Expressions program with LEC began more than 20 years ago. About 55 undergraduates majoring in music therapy get their clinical hours through eight Creative Expressions groups that meet each week on campus. These include Men’s Vocal Percussion, Jungle Royales, Bell Tones, Harmonettes Vocal Choir, Good Vibrations and Music in Motion.

People respond to music at pretty much any point in their lives, so we’re able to tap into that and help them have a better quality of life.
– Katie Whipple
On any given day, vans of adults with disabilities are coming and going––and the bottom floor of the Health and Sciences building is engulfed with the sound of music. Visitors see happy faces, moving bodies. They hear singing, clapping, drumbeating, bellringing, guitar strumming.

“People respond to music at pretty much any point in their lives, so we’re able to tap into that and help them have a better quality of life,” said Katie Whipple, lecturer of music therapy, undergraduate coordinator and clinic coordinator for the music therapy program.

LEC clients have a range of disabilities like Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, Williams syndrome and autism. Music therapy is also used with stroke survivors and elderly patients with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. Some clients have trouble remembering and expressing their thoughts. They might have an awkward gait or trouble managing muscle movement.

But in Creative Expressions these characteristics fade. Other traits appear. There’s a willingness to try new things. Bonds are formed. Confidence grows.

Senior music therapy major Abigail Hearn leads the Harmonettes recently in a Creative Expressions group on campus.
Senior music therapy major Abigail Hearn leads the Harmonettes recently in a Creative Expressions group on campus.

Senior music therapy major Abigail Hearn of Loganville has been part of the women’s vocal choir, Harmonettes, for seven semesters and now leads the group. She proudly notes how several clients––too shy to participate in earlier years––are clamoring for solo roles in the Creative Expressions concert scheduled for Nov. 22.

... it’s just an experience like no other.
– Abigail Hearn
Hearn helps clients memorize song lyrics, learn proper pronunciation and choreograph dance steps. She never tires of watching them interact with students. They radiate so much excitement and delight.

“The concert––seeing the atmosphere of acceptance and joy of them being on stage and getting that spotlight on them, having the solos and audience there cheering them on––it’s just an experience like no other,” Hearn said.

“I get out of it the learning experience, and then the joy of seeing them grow over time and knowing I’ve had an impact on their life. I did that,” she said. “I’ve changed them in some way.”

Some participants are so affected by Creative Expressions, it’s the highlight of their life. After moving away, one couple drives two hours to Georgia College every week, so their daughter can continue attending music therapy groups “like a university student.”

Shawn Greene, a 40-year-old man with cerebral palsy and limited motion, is recording his own album––thanks to innovative assistance from Whipple and Warren. Whipple discovered a circuit board used for STEM education that could be adjusted to help Greene play musical notes on an electronical circuit. Warren recently reprogrammed its chip––creating custom touch control that connects to Greene’s computer via Bluetooth. This allows him to play all kinds of musical sounds.

When you bring people together around music, magic happens. It lifts your spirits when you work in a helping field and see the people you serve succeed. When I see them meet their goals in life and reach what I call peak experiences, that’s the most fulfilling thing.
– Warren
Impacts like this on his clients “have been astounding,” Warren said. The partnership between the university and LEC broadens their experiences and widens their world, giving them a place where they play music among students as equals.

“When you bring people together around music, magic happens. It lifts your spirits when you work in a helping field and see the people you serve succeed,” Warren said. “When I see them meet their goals in life and reach what I call peak experiences, that’s the most fulfilling thing.”

Although it looks like a bunch of people having fun with music––Assistant Professor of Music Therapy and Graduate Coordinator Dr. Laurie Peebles said important non-musical work is being accomplished. Clients are practicing fine- and gross-motor abilities, cultivating academic skills and improving communication.

Sometimes our clients don’t even know they’re doing the work. They’re really just enjoying the musical experience.
– Dr. Laurie Peebles
“What we train our music therapy students to do is create these engaging interventions,” Peebles said, “so these students and clients are practicing skills through the guise of music––sometimes not even realizing they’re doing that.”

“Doing exercises over-and-over again in other therapies seems like work. In music therapy, it’s fun,” she said. “Sometimes our clients don’t even know they’re doing the work. They’re really just enjoying the musical experience.”

Students learn through this process of helping. They assess individual needs of actual clients, track their progress and witness transformation. After graduation, they get jobs in private practices, schools, hospitals and elder care settings.

A LEC participant and student learn dance steps together.
A LEC participant and student learn dance steps together.
Hearn’s not sure where she’ll work after graduation. But she’s confident Georgia College has prepared her for the role of therapist. She’s already emotional about leaving campus and saying goodbye to her friends at Creative Expressions.

Senior public health major Donovan Fraser of Jonesboro is grateful for the chance to work with people from LEC. He got involved with Creative Expressions this year to earn clinical service hours. He’s enjoying it so much, he joined four group sessions.

This involvement will help when he gets a job in public health working with children. Making music with LEC participants gives him real-world experience with a vulnerable population.

They shouldn’t think, ‘I can’t do this’ or we’re better than them. We’re all doing the same thing. We’re all on the same level. Their disabilities don’t deter them from seeing themselves as not equipped for this or being good enough. They are good enough. They’re learning they can do anything we can do.
– Donovan Fraser