Kristin Veteto uses music to motivate students with disabilities

Monday, October 29, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 11:48 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, October 30, 2012

COLUMBIA — Music therapist Kristin Veteto smiled warmly at the boy sitting in front of her.

“Listen to Miss Kristin,” Veteto said in a cheerful, singsong voice.

She picked up a book called, "Rap a Tap Tap," and began singing the words to cue the child's attention.

"There once was a man who danced in the street! Rap a tap tap... ," she sang, then leaned forward to hear him finish the sentence.

"Think of that!" the boy said.

Veteto clapped her hands: “Very good!” she said. “Keep going, buddy. You’re doing a great job.” 

Veteto and the student were sitting in a classroom with whitewashed walls, blue tables and colorful drawings at Delmar A. Cobble, a state school in Columbia for students between the ages of 5 and 21 with severe mental and developmental disabilities.

Roughly 36 students from mid-Missouri attend the school; 26 of them spend time doing music therapy with Veteto.

Many of her students have vocal or developmental disabilities, such as autism or cerebral palsy. The boy she was singing to has echolalia, a speech disorder that causes him to automatically repeat words.

As a music therapist, Veteto helps him and others with communication, posture and behavior. She uses a variety of vocals and instruments — piano, guitar, drums — to work on specific skills such as finger dexterity, reaching, holding and grasping.

Veteto spends four days a week working with the students at Delmar Cobble as part of KNV Music Therapy, a service she started in August 2011.  On the other days and during the evenings, she teaches voice, piano and guitar lessons in her home.

Yet, her primary focus is providing musical experiences to help those with disabilities.

“They make you think about the world in a new way,” Veteto said. “We take communication for granted.”

For students to work with her, Veteto must demonstrate that music therapy will help them reach their program goals. If music proves effective during a month-long trial period, she will work with a student on a regular basis.

Kay Brejcha, the building administrator at Delmar Cobble, said she has seen children begin to accomplish what they normally cannot, and music is often the motivator.

Music therapy helps students work more productively in the classroom and improve their behavior, Veteto said.

She points to small successes during a recent day spent at the school.

  • A small boy who usually grabs her hands as she plays guitar managed to keep his hands to himself. Veteto said it was a big deal for him not to clutch her hands. 
  • An autistic girl gave her the most eye contact she’s ever seen during their time together, which Veteto said surprised her. Usually averse to others, the girl later initiated a big hug.

Gretchen Roberts, the mother of an 8-year-old, said her son is developmentally delayed and uses a wheelchair.

Since enrolling her son Blake at Delmar Cobble, she has seen him progress, and she credits this to Veteto's work.

“I can’t say enough how thankful we are to have somebody with such a wonderful gift like Kristin,” she said with emotion.

Roberts said her son loves music, and it gives her another way to communicate with him.

One goal is for him to improve his reaching and grabbing skills. His mother said it helps to try the instruments Veteto brings with her.

“I’ve seen Blake do things I never thought he could do,” Roberts said. “I never thought he could reach out and strum a guitar.”

Veteto comes from a musical family. Her father plays the piano and the guitar, and her grandfather was a music educator.

She grew up on a farm in Biggsville, Ill., earned a bachelor's degree from Drury University in Springfield., and is working toward a master's degree in music therapy through Colorado State University.

She calls music the “universal language.” In both her lessons and therapy sessions, she said she tries to make music interactive and use material that students like, whether it’s Tom Petty, Hannah Montana or Taylor Swift. 

She loves working with children, she said, especially watching them smile and engage with her.

“It takes a lot of energy to work with these individuals,” she said. “But it’s very worth it.”

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