Music with a message

By Josette Keelor

WINCHESTER — Music therapy class with Hakeem Leonard inspires billows of energy and sound from even small groups. But these lessons don’t stop with song.

Combining rhythm instruments and singing with picture responses and opportunities for sharing, the Shenandoah University assistant professor said he encourages shy young students into better relationships with each other.

“Basically I’m trying to do motivating activities, but embed social skills with them,” he said. He practices language within a natural context that motivates students to learn.

“As we continue, you know, my goal is to have them exhibit that behavior with less prompting by myself, and that will carry over to the classroom.”

Bussed to Winchester from Edinburg in Shenandoah County, young elementary-age students from Charterhouse School recently played a variety of instruments in Leonard’s second floor classroom in Ruebush Hall.

During a song about football, the five students rotated chances to play different drums, and in a campfire scenario with stringed and percussion instruments, they took turns on the dulcimer, ukulele, cabasa, rain stick and thunder tube.

“I think they love learning different songs,” Leonard said. “We always introduce new songs.”

Charterhouse recently divided the class into two groups of five that trade off weeks — the younger students in one class and the other ones in another.

But teaching the older children requires a different strategy, Leonard said.

“[It’s] more of a ‘let’s create a rock band,'” he said. “My goal with them is to do more. We’re going to create compositions; we’re going to be a band.”

So far, it’s been a great experience, said Charterhouse School teacher Sheila Hershey.

She’s noticed her math, science and social studies students enjoy the class and return to Edinburg talking about their lessons in Winchester.

“They remember the things that they’ve learned,” she said.

Charterhouse offers art and culinary art, but Hershey said this is their first music program since the elementary program began last February.

The school partnered with the university after Principal Tonya Salley-Goodwin talked with Leonard about how music therapy might help her students.

When he observed the students relating to each other, he noticed that their behavior would turn aggressive if they felt they needed to compete with each other for attention.

A main goal of his is to embed students with social skills for appropriate verbalization and expression.

“Music, number one is motivating. Right? Everybody enjoys it. Number two, you can structure anything within time, you know, if I’m working on motor skills or anything, I can structure it and work on it with music. A lot of times you can prompt things with music, you know? If I sing a song, ‘Gimme a break, gimme a break…,’ you can finish that, right?”

“And a lot of times, music is its own reward,” he said. He’s noticed students will pay better attention if they know a musical activity is coming up next.

But, he said, “It’s not enough just to have that experience. Let’s talk about, let’s say what somebody did well.”

At the end of Monday’s 50-minute lesson, students looking at pictures on a projection read attributes describing them: listening, sharing, helping, encouraging, paying attention and positive attitude.

Then they awarded their classmates and teachers traits that best described their behavior that morning.

The students love his class, said school therapist Stephanie Boehmler.

“This is something that’s very motivating for them,” she said.

“They learn to respect the instruments and it carries over into respecting each other and themselves. I think it really is a very broadly reaching dynamic, with music, as far as social skills, emotional development, language development.”

Contact staff writer Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137, ext. 176, or

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