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Overcoming life’s challenges with music

Monday, Dec. 22 | By Hannah Dellinger
Tom Sweitzer working with a group of students at A Place to Be Music Therapy in Middleburg.
Photo by Adam Goings
Tom Sweitzer and Kim Tapper have known the power of the performance arts for years. Together, they share their love of music and dance to improve the lives of area youth and adults, and increase awareness of the soothing strength.

Sweitzer and Tapper each say they had challenges of youth to overcome, to find their authentic voices. Now, using the very expressive arts therapy that helped them, separately, through the tough times, they're tapping the power of “what cannot be expressed” to help others do the same.

A Place to Be Music Therapy in Middleburg was founded by Sweitzer and Tapper in 2010 with the goal of helping people face, navigate and overcome life’s obstacles. It is a place where children and adults with a variety of disabilities and abilities can come together to create music and theater together.

“We’re not just a performance group for kids that are on the spectrum or don’t have anywhere else to go,” says Sweitzer. “We accept everybody. Our big thing here about disability is that we believe that a disability is anything that holds a person back from living life to its fullest.”

A Place to Be helps children dealing with anything from their parents getting divorced, to a not fitting in at school, to Down's syndrome.

Sweitzer and Tapper both offer private and group music and movement therapy to their clients.

A private session is geared towards the personal needs of the client. It can involve writing music, playing music, dancing and so much more.

Sweitzer says one example of a private session therapy involves using the keys on a piano to communicate to each other for a client who can't verbally speak.

A teenager with Asperger’s was having a problem connecting with girls his age. So Sweitzer picked a love song for them to sing together and then analyzed the lyrics’ meanings with him. He then had the boy write his own love song that expressed his own personal feelings.

Tapper says that she is working with a teenage girl who has a lot of problems going on at home. Sometimes she’ll have the girl go to the drum set and bang out her frustrations. She also does a mirror exercise with her in which the girl physically acts out her frustrations and Tapper mirrors her movements.

“There is so much clinical work that is being done,” he says. “We use music as a stimuli to help a person physically, emotionally, behaviorally and verbally.”
Sweitzer used music to help one girl who suffered from a stroke to speak once again.

“She couldn’t speak at all,” Sweitzer says. “All of the words that she has gained in the past year and a half are from songs. She remembers the Beatles, but she can’t remember what her name is. Music awakens a part of the brain that never dies.”

Greater than the sum of the parts

Sweitzer and Tapper take a holistic approach to their client’s lives. They work as a team with psychiatrists, therapists and other specialists that the clients with which they already have relationships.

While the work that A Place to Be does is clinical, it offers a therapeutic experience that is more fun and less cold than the average doctor’s office. Many disabled children have learned to be frustrated, according to Sweitzer, since they spend hours at the doctor's office in on a regular basis, with little change in their health and well-being.

“We are a place where they can come in and feel like they aren’t in everyday therapy,” he says. “We take an artistic approach into their life where they can express themselves in a new way, a fun way.”

Another benefit of A Place to Be is that children who have disabilities are seamlessly meshed together with those who don’t – it is a literally all-inclusive environment, according to Tapper.

“We are all going through challenges in life and we can all learn from each other,” she says. “We all have abilities and gifts and if we can change that consciousness a little bit we get rid of that separation and avoid an ‘us versus them’ society, because it's not working.”

Tapper said that the volunteers who come to A Place to Be often get as much out of it as the children they help.

“I think that the number one thing that current generations are not being taught is empathy,” she says. “The minute that you are having an intimate experience with someone who is different than you, you learn a different perspective and you increase your empathy quotient.”

This is important to Tapper, because she says that since we all share a space together in society, and we must learn to work together towards a common goal.

She said there is something that everyone can learn from each other. A child with Asperger’s has a different skill set than one without. They use different parts of their brain and she thinks that it is helpful to tap into their natural skill set for the good of society instead of pushing them to the periphery.

“Some of the most profound moments have been when we see somebody with Down's syndrome helping your ‘average’ teenager get through a day and offer advice or a smile,” she says.

A Place to Be offers an opportunity for privileged children to give back and learn about themselves in the process.

“We help people get outside of themselves,” Sweitzer says. “We help them find what is inside them that they are able to give. We want to be a place where we give you’re the opportunity to find out who you are by giving.”

The work being done at A Place to Be caught the attention of Emmy and Peabody award-winning documentary directory Susan Koch.

She heard about Forrest Stone Allen, a 21-year-old man from The Plains who suffered catastrophic brain trauma from a snow-boarding accident. Due to complications during a related surgery, Allen lost his ability to speak.

Sweitzer has been working with Allen more than two years. He now has the ability to speak and walk again and has improved his memory.

While filming Allen, Koch became intrigued with A Place to Be’s work and has broadened the scope of the film to include Sweitzer and Tapper’s non-profit and some other clients that they work with.

Wendy Thompson, the president and CEO of Onyx Media Group, is producing the film. It has been in the works for more than a year in a half, and according to Sweitzer, could take another year at least before it reaches completion.

On top of private and group sessions, A Place to Be also has summer camps and organizes productions for the community to enjoy.

For more information about A Place to be, visit http://www.aplacetobeva.org

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