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For challenged kids, music is therapy to their ears

With a lollipop dangling from his mouth, Derrick, 12, drags his feet into a recreation room at Little Flower Residential Treatment Center in Wading River. Music therapist Eric Fraser asks him if he wants to practice the drums. Derrick shyly shakes his head and collapses into a chair.

It doesn't take much prodding before Derrick picks up a pair of drumsticks. Soon he and Fraser are pounding away on opposing conga drums, maintaining constant eye contact as they synchronously bang out a tribal rhythm. As the drumming reaches a fevered pitch, Derrick and Fraser smile at each other.

When it comes to music therapy, Fraser said, sometimes lessons are learned without a word being spoken.

"The kids are learning things without someone lecturing them," he said. "They learn by doing the music. It tells their story."

Fraser has been doing music therapy at Little Flower since last year. Little Flower is a residential center for children with serious emotional disorders, said Bob Feldman, director of mental health services at the center. The kids - ranging in age from 8 to 18 - are often referred from social services and probation departments, he said.

Fraser meets with groups of four to six students in one of four sessions each week. Together they use a variety of instruments ranging from bells to a beat box to create melodies and even whole songs. Fraser also does music relaxation with the group, helping calm the kids with jam sessions using percussion instruments from around the world, such as South American rain sticks.

Feldman said Fraser relates well with the students. "He's very perceptive . . . he can really get to the core issues with the kids," he said.

According to the nonprofit American Music Therapy Association, music therapy has been known to produce numerous results in those with mental health issues including decreased anxiety, increased verbalization and enhanced interpersonal relationships.

At Little Flower, Feldman said music therapy has helped with self-esteem. Kids who once shrank in shyness now sing in front of a group of their peers, he said.

While music therapy shares the same tenets as most therapies, namely developing a relationship with the therapist, Fraser said he is not sitting students down on a couch. "Music is the first thing and everything comes after that," he said.

Together, the group develops a relationship to each other and the music, he said. "Here they get to explore their voice or they get to try many voices." The kids also experience leadership, listening and being listened to, he said.

Jacqueline Birnbaum, administrative coordinator at New York University's Nordoff-Robbins Center for Music Therapy said this can be key for emotionally disturbed kids.

"We have a lot of kids who are nonverbal . . . if they make a vocal sound and we sing back to them, they can feel understood for the first time, that somebody's listening," she said.

Fraser, who plays classical Indian flute, has been awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to develop a music therapy program at a school for developmentally disabled children in Kolkata, India. He said he has used classical Indian music techniques at Little Flower, but doesn't want to be confused with a music teacher.

"I'm not here to make the kids achieve musical goals," Fraser said. "I'm here to help them achieve personal goals and emotional goals and in the process, they end up learning to play."

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