Healing effects of music prompt TWU professor to launch new course

Langley, British Columbia—Watching Dr. Paul Hoelzley conduct Trinity Western University band and jazz ensemble performances is a familiar sight for Lower Mainland audiences. What many may not know is that Hoelzley, a professor of music at TWU, is also a credentialed music therapist. And the profound effects that he has witnessed in his private practice with autistic and conduct disordered children, as well as Alzheimer’s, blind and cerebral palsy patients, has prompted Hoelzley to offer a new course at TWU. The course, an introduction to concepts of music therapy in special education, will teach students basic principles that Hoelzley and other music therapists use to help enrich the lives of children who are exceptional.

“Music is a great motivator,” says Hoelzley, who is professionally certified by both the Canadian and American Associations for Music Therapy, and holds a Neurological Music Therapy Certificate from the Center for Biomedical Research in Music at Colorado State University. “Music can be a tool for rehabilitation and remediation—helping people compensate or in some cases even overcome specific deficits in learning or development.”

Since his arrival at TWU in 1990, Hoelzley has maintained a private practice in music therapy. His success stories include teaching an autistic girl to say her name for the first time in 13 years, enabling an autistic boy with an attention span of approximately three seconds to be attentive for 20 to 30 minutes, and helping a brain damaged girl overcome her tantrums and communicate in an amiable manner.

“What is happening in many places right now is that these exceptional children who have physiological, mental and sensory impairments, are, because of lack of funding, facilities or trained teachers, very frequently mainstreamed—put into the regular classroom,” says Hoelzley. “Because there are so many exceptional children going into public school, we have to do something to prepare our students to better meet the needs of these children.”

In the course, which is tailored for music teachers who teach in public or private schools, Hoelzley gives guidance on the causes and symptoms of various impairments, as well as how to use music to motivate and improve the life skills of exceptional children.

“Often, a teacher might be the only one who stands in the gap between the exceptional child and the chance for this child to feel better about him or herself—to teach this child to communicate better and to develop daily living skills,” says Hoelzley. “Music can be a powerful tool to bring about these positive changes.”

Hoelzley first observed music’s healing effects when he was 19 years old. As a tuba player in the U.S. Army Field Band of Washington, D.C., he and the band had the opportunity to perform for the patients of Philadelphia’s children’s hospital. After playing only four notes of The Star Spangled Banner, the children’s wailing sounds of distress and pain became silent. The children were totally focused on the music. Hoelzley was too overcome with emotion to continue playing.

“That was my first encounter with how music has power to work past physical and emotional pain,” he says.

Hoelzley went on to become a member of the award-winning Paris Arts Brass Quintet and principal tuba player with the famed Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. And after obtaining a master’s degree in music from the University of Michigan, he earned his PhD in education from the University of Alberta where he focused his research on children with autism.

“Autistic children don’t respond to the social cues that other people pick up on, like a mother’s voice or outstretched arms. They are often non-verbal and don’t like to be touched,” explains Hoelzley. “The low sounds of the tuba, or the tone quality of a bass clarinet may stimulate a response that the human voice cannot. The challenge is to find an instrumental sound to which the child will respond.”

Once Hoelzley isolates a particular instrument that causes a reaction, like a momentary pause in play or a quick glance in his direction, he begins the process of using that instrument to communicate with the child.

“Even something like the ability to hold a mallet to strike a triangle can be transferred to holding a spoon or a pencil or a toothbrush,” he says. “A music teacher teaching students rhythm to a song might want to teach an exceptional child balance, for example, through marching or walking to the song.”

It is this kind of transformational work that Hoelzley hopes to inspire in his students, many of whom will become teachers. “I think the type of students that are here have the kind of character that enables them to be transformers,” says Hoelzley. “Most have a sensitivity towards the needs of others, and you need that.”

He adds, “You can do all of the technical learning that you want, but you have to have that special something in your heart that demonstrates love to these exceptional children.”

Trinity Western University, located in Langley, B.C., is a privately funded Christian liberal arts university enrolling 2,850 students this year. With a broad-based, liberal arts and sciences curriculum, the University offers undergraduate degrees in 34 major areas ranging from business, education and computer science to biology and nursing, and 12 graduate degrees including counselling psychology, theology and administrative leadership.

Last Updated: 2012-08-21
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