Class teaches students with autism the language of music

Chester resident Julia Boltz, a Richmond native who’d recently returned to the area from Norfolk, was scanning employment ads online when she came across one that caught her eye.

Boltz, a mother of two and William and Mary graduate with a degree in music theory and composition, read an ad seeking an assistant for Da Capo Virginia’s Vivo program. According to Da Capo’s website, dacapova.org, Vivo is a custom-designed music immersion program for students with special needs, specifically students aged 5-10 and 11-19 with autism spectrum disorders.

“My son has autism, and I thought, ‘This is interesting,’” Boltz said. She read the ad, and devoured the whole Da Capo website before e-mailing co-founder Tracee Prillaman “in the middle of the night,” she said. Boltz was called in for an interview and has been with Da Capo since then.

“Vivo is so neat because it’s not a music therapy class,” Boltz said. The organization sees children with special needs as wanting to make music just as much as children without special needs, she said.

“We’re teaching these children music,” she said. “You have to figure out how to reach each child, whether they have special needs or not.”

Da Capo Virginia, an educational nonprofit registered in Virginia, “offers musical training in a community based, passion driven approach via choruses, private instruction, coaching, small ensembles and public performances directly to the Richmond … region and beyond,” its website says.

Students play and sing their pieces for each other, Boltz said, and they are able to give and receive feedback without the pressure of being graded.

“The kids aren’t allowed to just say, ‘I like it,’ or ‘It’s good,’” she said, but the comments have a positive outlook. And students notice when their peers improve their performance of a piece from one week to the next, she said.

The Vivo class recently performed with students in Da Capo’s Prima Volta class, which is for students in kindergarten through second grade, she said. All of the students were clad in Da Capo’s blue shirt, and “for me, it was just really cool to see,” Boltz said.

When they walk into the Vivo class, “those teachers are there prepared and ready for everything,” Prillamam said. The class always includes a picture schedule, Boltz said, and the board is full when the session begins. The class’ lead teacher, Heidi Thurmond, has a music therapy background and Boltz draws on experiences with her son, she said.

“A lot of times, we truly lead by example,” she said. “We’re singing, we’re doing every hand motion, everything they do.” They use a variety of techniques to teach the lessons: For example, when they worked with reading notes, the students were able to put felt circle “notes” on a large staff.

Parents are able to wait while their children are in class, Boltz said, and they are always dying to know how their students did. The Vivo parents are very involved and invested, Prillaman said.

“Vivo provides an opportunity for those kids where opportunities just don’t exist,” she said.

The sense of community is a big part of what makes Da Capo special, Boltz said. Students in the Vivo class work with students from other classes, and they “see that they are just as equally valuable as every other person in the group,” she said.

“They’re expected to do the same things” as typically-developing students, Prillaman said. “Does it have to be targeted at their level? Yes, but they are very capable. … They are capable of learning and mastering musical concepts.”

And, like their peers, the Vivo students are held to performance standards, Boltz said. If they’re not ready or are nervous, they don’t have to perform, she said.

“They are expected to learn it and to do it and they really rise to that occasion,” she said.

But, the class’ goal is not to have “our students look like everybody else,” she said.

“Just like anything, we want our students to put themselves into it,” she said. The goals “really see that child as an individual child who can learn that concept, but can express it differently.”

At a recent concert, Vivo students took turns improvising on a xylophone as Thurmond played a jazz chord progression on the guitar, Prillaman said. One student played an improvisation that followed the chord progression and had rhythmic and melodic intentionality, she said.

“It’s just unbelievable,” she said. “He could not sit and have a conversation, but the way he conversed was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever heard. And his face lit up as he was doing it.

“To give them that chance. It’s very exciting.”

Vivo is offered during three sessions during the year, including a 10-week summer session.

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