By Jena Valenzuela
RENO, Nev. – His mother used to hold him close to her heart when he was crying. She said the sound of her heart would calm him down. The rhythm soothed him and he would stop crying.
Now 24-year-old Reno resident, Stephon VanDyke, takes music classes at Note-Able Music Therapy Services, an organization in Reno that offers music classes to people of all ages with intellectual and cognitive disabilities.
Even before Barbara VanDyke brought her newborn son Stephon home from the hospital, she knew that he didn’t act like a normal baby.
“Something was wrong with him from the beginning . . . He wasn’t bonding, he cried all the time. When he came home from the hospital, even in the hospital, I knew something was wrong,” she said.
At five years old, he was diagnosed with autism. After he graduated high school, his mother retired from her job to take care of him. That’s when they found Note-Able Music Therapy Services at the McKinley Arts and Culture Center.
The program’s coordinator and one of its music therapists, Sara Rosenow, sees each of the 100 students every week to assess and track their progress. After an initial assessment for each student, Rosenow and her co-workers complete a re-evaluation of each students at least every six months.
Out of the 100 other students, Stephon stands out with his talent for rhyming and hip-hop.
“Stephon is so creative in unbelievable ways, especially with words. He loves rap. . . . If you can get a good beat going and get him started, it’s just unbelievable the poetry that comes out,” Rosenow said.
But with only four qualified music therapists in Northern Nevada, many people with disabilities go untreated and unlike in many other states, music therapy is not covered through medical insurance in Nevada. The Note-Able organization does offer scholarships to help those who cannot afford $25 per month for group sessions or $80 per month for individual sessions. The organization also receives some funding through the Sierra Regional Center, a state-operated center for people with developmental disabilities.
Rosenow hopes that the program will grow enough to offer therapy to hospital patients. But for now, she focuses on helping the students in the program.
“For kids it’s more academic based . . . any ‘up’ that we can give them . . . anything we can give them to help them be more included and more interactive is a good thing. With our adults, it’s more about confidence and independent living skills.”
Stephon has made improvements in his confidence since enrolling in the organization’s classes, according to Manal Toppozada, founder and director of the Note-Able organization.
“The fact that he’s thinking about going on Oprah, whereas if you had met him a few years ago, he didn’t have any real faith in his own abilities to do something like that,” Toppozada said.
Along with offering its students help in the community, the organization also helps its students by encouraging “people-first language.” In referring to people with disabilities, the organization promotes the idea of saying “person” before naming his or her disability.
Even though the organization encourages inclusion, Stephon, like many of people with disabilities, has experienced poor treatment from others.
In middle school, he was not allowed to play his first choice of instrument because of his disability. The school told him that he had to start with the clarinet, so his mother took him to private lessons. After about four or five lessons, the private music instructor told his mother that he would no longer teach Stephon.
“He said, ‘Mrs. VanDyke, I’m giving you your money back and I’m encouraging you to know that your son is tone-deaf and won’t become a musician, so don’t waste your money,’” Barbara said.
In retrospect, she feels that the private instructor did not want to take the time to teach her son the way people with autism need to be taught.
Being told he was tone-deaf crushed Stephon’s confidence and he stopped playing music until he enrolled in music classes at Note-Able Music Therapy Services at age 18. After three years of classes, he was invited to join as a percussionist in the program’s band, the Note-Ables.
In addition to being discouraged from music by his school and private instructor, Stephon was also bullied in high school by a football player who nicknamed Stephon “Pudding.” But Stephon did not let this bother him. In fact, he adopted this nickname as his own when he volunteered at a radio station.
Music has helped Stephon hurdle many barriers like bullying.
“He takes it literally, ‘when somebody throws you lemons,’ he makes lemonade, he really does,” Barbara said.
Barbara remembered one year during a Reno community event called Artown, the Note-Ables band members were watching another band perform when a girl in a wheelchair started to dance. She said the girl was having the time of her life dancing to the music when her son walked up to her. He grabbed her hand and began to dance along with her.
The music moved both of them and this sight moved others to join in. Audience members, those with and without disabilities, got up and grabbed each other’s hands and began to dance with Stephon and the girl in the wheelchair.
“Disabled people, abled people, everybody was dancing together . . . and my son was responsible for it,” Barbara said.
Music has taught her son to accept all types of people.
“Had he not been disabled . . . I don’t know whether he would have learned that,” Barbara said. “We thank God for the disability because it has enabled us to be better human beings.”
One of Stephon’s fellow peers in the keyboard class, Jeff Bidwell, has also learned a lot from music. He was surrounded by music growing up in the 1950s in Buffalo, New York. His mother was a blues singer in the 1930s and he said that he loved to listen to Doo-wop and blues. He first saw the Note-Ables perform at Artown last year and it encouraged him to join the keyboard class.
“. . . you walk up and see them, and oh my goodness they’re amazing. . . . And I knew this was the thing for me to do.”
Since taking classes, Bidwell feels that he has learned so much that he could teach music himself. Instilling this kind of confidence in students is a goal of the organization’s instructors and volunteers.
The most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that one in 88 children in the United States had an autism spectrum disorder, which refers to the “spectrum” of symptoms caused by five disorders: Autistic disorder, Asperger’s disorder, Pervasive Developmental disorder, Rhett’s disorder and Childhood Disintegrative disorder. These findings showed a 78% increase compared to data from 2002. With autism on the rise, many people are looking toward music therapy as a way to improve the lives of people with autism.
A study performed in 2010 by the Cochrane Collaboration, an international group that organizes medical research information, showed that music therapy helps autistic children to improve their communication skills.
Along with the University of Nevada, Reno and a Reno opiate addiction clinic, Note-Able Music Therapy Services has recently submitted a grant to begin research comparing the effectiveness of music therapy to other types of treatment.
Since the organization’s beginning in 2003, music helped many of the Note-Able Music Therapy students with their communication skills. Sara Mueller, a student in the organization, becomes more verbal during her music classes.
“I watch her blossom,” said Nannette Mueller, Sara’s mother and the keyboard teacher for the Note-Able organization.
Nannette feels that music enables her daughter to express herself and it serves as an invaluable part of life.
“I feel that when I’m playing music . . . for me, I’m speaking in a language I can’t use words for,” she said.
For Stephon, he describes feeling like the color gold when he plays music. His mother clarified that playing music brings out the gold in him. He’s at his best when he plays music.
He likes to listen to Stevie Wonder. He agrees with his mother when she said that he likes Stevie Wonder because he is a great musician despite his blindness.
Music has always been a channel Stephon has used to express himself through. Just like when he was a baby, his mother still used rhythms and beats to get him to calm down when he got older too.
“We would have what I call ‘beat conversations,’” she said.
Pounding drums or clapping hands in repeated rhythms would redirect his focus away from his anger and enable him to speak to his mother about what was frustrating him.
During a Bible-study class, Barbara was asked whom she admired the most.
“I had to say my son He’s turned things around and made things happen and he’s doing pretty well with what life has thrown at him. I’m proud of him actually,” she said.
The Note-Able organization has improved the abilities of many students over the past 10 years. Barbara feels that music has given her son the ability to not only live with, but also thrive with his autism.
“I know it’s because he’s grabbed ahold of music. He’s embraced music and music has embraced him.”