Fit for Life

Press play on music therapy for wellness and enjoyment


Music teacher Phyllis Mitchell shows children how to play a note on the recorder during a free music program at Christ Episcopal Church in Pottstown on Tuesday. Michilea Patterson — Digital First Media

By Michilea Patterson, The Mercury

The sound of music is more than a movie with actress Julie Andrews. It’s the musical notes created through singing or instruments. It’s also a form of therapy that can be of benefit in a variety of ways from helping people relax to decreasing physical pain.

Music therapy is using the sounds created through vocals or instruments to cause positive changes in individuals, said Jerry O’Leary, the director of music therapy at MusicWorks in Havertown.


Edie Shean-Hammond, on the left, ask children participating in a free music program in Pottstown to lift their boomwhacker percussion tubes in the air. Different lengths of the hollow, color-coded tubes have different musical pitches.

Jerry and his wife Lori O’Leary founded the music center in 2002 and help clients of all ages struggling with different challenges.

“We are the first music therapy service provider in the country to be credentialed by Magellan Behavioral Health. That gives us the opportunity to provide services for children and adolescents up to the age of 21 that have medical assistance for their challenges,” said Lori, MusicWorks executive director.

The music center is a network provider for several communities in Delaware and Montgomery counties. Jerry, a board certified music therapist, said music can be used to overcome psychological, developmental and physical obstacles. He said music can also help people in general to find direction in their lives or deal with everyday stressors.

“Music has an inherit quality that just bypasses many other potential therapies and everybody can relate to it in one way or another,” he said. “You can write it. You can sing it. You can make it. You can listen to it. There are all kinds of ways to enjoy music and to use music to improve your life.”

Some of the music therapy sessions at the center are done in small groups. Participants of MusicWorks range in ages from 1 to 87. The sessions involve singing and using hands-on instruments like drums, maracas, the piano, guitar and more.

The center also uses adaptive instruments for individuals that have physical difficulties with holding or grabbing a traditional instrument. In such cases, the clients can use a musical product by Apple called a Skoog. The cubed object has music programmed into it which can be played simply by touching it.

“A lot of people we deal with have the attitude ‘I can’t do this, I can’t do that.’ We’re here to tell them you can do this, you can do that. Hopefully that can-do attitude will transfer to other walks of their lives,” Jerry said.

Lori said more than 70 percent of the children they work with are autistic and music aids in their learning process and how they communicate with others. Children develop socialization skills, motor skills and learn to focus, she said.

Jerry said all types of beneficial uses are being discovered for music therapy through research including its impact on the brain. He said music involves the entire brain which controls the rest of the body including feelings of relaxation or stress.

“When somebody is playing a song or singing a song, their neurons in their brain are lighting up like a Christmas tree especially if they’re playing an instrument,” Jerry said.

MusicWorks also has adult and senior clients that use music to help with challenges such as depression, Alzheimer’s disease, mental health issues, neurological impairments, pain management and more.

A trial experiment published in a 2010 edition of the International Journal of Nursing Studies found that people experienced less pain when listening to soft music that they liked. Fooyin University in Taiwan did a randomized controlled trial of 126 hospitalized cancer patients that had pain. The report concluded that music provided more relief to patients than with just drugs.

Phyllis Mitchell is a private music teacher that has been giving lessons for more than 30 years. A few years ago, she had a woman come to her requesting piano lessons. The woman had attempted to learn to play before but hadn’t succeeded. Mitchell later found out that the woman was dying of cancer but Mitchell didn’t focus on the diagnosis but only on the music. She said the woman improved her skills and started playing solos at church.

“It was a blessing for her,” Mitchell said.

After the woman passed, her husband came to Mitchell and said playing the piano helped ease her pain.

“It (music) just makes all the difference,” she said. “When music can do that, it does everything.”

In addition to her private lessons, Mitchell also teaches for a free children’s music program in Pottstown. The free program is offered every Tuesday from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. at the Christ Episcopal Church. During the one-hour activity, the kids sing, learn about rhythm and play different instruments. Mitchell said the kids are using fun, hands-on instruments like the recorder and color-coded percussion tubes called boomwhackers.


About 10 children sit down to learn how to play the recorder during a free music program at the Christ Episcopal Church in Pottstown on Tuesday.

Mitchell has worked with students that have emotional issues and children with special needs. She said music is something that can be enjoyed by everyone and all ages.

“I think music can be an answer to really every walk of life,” she said.

Edie Shean-Hammond, director of education at Christ Episcopal Church, said the music class helps give the children a sense of pride and accomplishment. She said the kids are more focused and the sounds being played have a calming effect on them.

“It creates a filter,” she said adding that it helps the children to sort out emotions going on inside of them.

Candace Woessner, a member of Christ Episcopal Church and a volunteer of the children’s music program, said she took music lessons as a child and that it brings people joy.

“I know that it really helps to learn music and play music. Music is a happy place,” she said.

For more information about the free children’s music program in Pottstown, email Shean-Hammond at or visit the church in person at 316 High St. The entrance to the music program is located in the back of the church near the parking lot.

For more information about MusicWorks in Havertown, call 610-449-9669 or visit the website at

There are additional music and music therapy programs in the region. For example:

  • The Community Music School has offices in Allentown and Reading. The school is a non-profit music education organization. The Community Music School teaches hundreds of students with private and group lessons. The school is also involved in outreach programs throughout the area for public, charter and independent schools. For more information, visit the website at
  • Makin’ Music Rockin’ Rhythms is a music and movement enrichment program located in West Chester. The program offers music classes for families. A teacher leads the class as families create a circle and make music. The class includes singing, playing instruments and using props to keep children engaged. For more information, visit the website at
  • Tempo offers music therapy services and has locations in West Chester, King of Prussia, Media and New Jersey. Board certified music therapists lead the music programs. Tempo offers individual and group therapy music sessions as well as individual instructions. For more information, visit the website at


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