How Hattie Larlham's Developmentally Disabled Musicians Became Composers

Aug 11, 2016

Adults with developmental disabilities at a residential facility in Mantua are composing music.

They've found a means of creative expression thanks to the student musicians who've been helping them.

Zach is confined to a wheelchair.  Like many of the 128 people with developmental disabilities receiving services at the Hattie Larlham Center in Mantua, he needs 24-hour intensive medical care.

Zach worked with Meredith Golias to write a piece for piano.
Credit HATTIE LARLHAM / Hattie Larlham

Zach’s joyous reaction to music indicates he needs that, too.

“He really tunes in when he hears music that he recognizes,” notes Sarah Weirich. She is a musician and composer who’s given Zach and others like him a special gift: a way to convey what they feel.

Musician on a mission
For Weirich it’s been a calling.  “My passion throughout music school was bringing music to these groups that otherwise maybe would not have access to it.”   

Weirich founded a community service organization called Music in Action while she was still studying saxophone, harp, and music psychology at Hiram College.  Today, she plays a key role in Hattie Larlham’s Creative Arts program.

Hattie Larlham spokeswoman Tania Santos says the program gives residents something many of us take for granted. “The opportunity to express themselves creatively. We’re able to do that not only through our music program but also through painting and sculpting, and videography and photography.”  

Artists helping other artists
To help Hattie’s aspiring composers Sarah Weirich functions as a tracker.

“Like a blind person might need a seeing-eye dog, artists with disabilities need a tracker. But just like a dog doesn’t tell the person where to go, we do not tell the artists here to go. We just help them get there.” 

Sarah Weirich is a music tracker with Hattie Larlham's Creative Arts Program as well as a recent graduate of Hiram College.
Credit VIVIAN GOODMAN / WKSU

The interaction is often therapeutic, but unlike music therapy there are no set outcomes. Weirich says a tracker’s work is more like art for art’s sake. “We’re not therapists and we’re not educators. We’re really just artists assisting other artists.” 

Weirich designed a pilot project last fall to bring her alma mater into her new life’s work. Since December, two Hiram music students have been helping three Hattie Larlham residents create original compositions.

Variety of processes
They work together in several different ways, including the use of computer-aided devices. Zach, however, is old school. He composes at the keyboard.

“Can you show her how you play?” Weirich asks. He does, and she approves.  “Good job, Zach!” 

Zach just plays whatever he feels, and Sara tracks it. It takes time and patience, but eventually an original melody or at least a phrase will emerge.

“And then,” she says, “Zach will say yes or no.”  

Communicating wordlessly

Jessica is non-verbal but can let her tracker know her musical decisions by tilting her head to the left.
Credit HATTIE LARLHAM

Composing is different for Jessica, though. Because she can’t talk.

“Is it OK,’ Weirich asks, “if I tell them about how you compose some music? Is that OK, Jessica? So, Jessica just turned her head to the left, which is her yes signal.”  

Weirich helps Jessica make her musical decisions with the aid of a machine called a Quintet. It’s a mini synthesizer with song fragments pre-programmed into it, and cords dangling out of it attached to red, yellow, blue, purple and green buttons.

Signaling, by tilting her head, Jessica chooses which buttons gets pushed in which order. Weirich pushes the green button.

“You turned your head left, Jessica.  Does that mean you definitely want to use that one? Yes?  OK. So that’s what it sounds like with that green button at the end. Do you like how that sounds?”  Jessica turns her head left.

Jessica’s bassoon solo
Using the same assistive music technology, Meredith Golias, a Hiram sophomore and bassoonist, helped Jessica compose a solo for her instrument.

“Even though Jessica isn’t verbal,” says Golias, “Even though it was a challenge, it was still amazing to see they can express everything that they feel.” 

Meredith performed Jessica's bassoon piece at a spring recital at Hiram College.
Credit HATTIE LARLHAM

What impressed Meredith most was how freely Jessica expressed herself in her music. “It inspired me to do different things with mine and try different things that I usually wouldn’t try.”

Mark’s guitar piece
Mark’s song is for two guitars. It had its premiere at a recital in May at Hiram College. Mark wears a perpetual smile, but Sarah Weirich says he really came alive when he heard it played. She says the other Hattie’s composers did, too, when they heard their pieces performed. “You could just tell that they recognized that it was their music.” 

The guitar duet required many months of work. Weirich points out that Mark is also non-verbal.  “His ‘yes’ signal is a little bit more subtle than Jessica’s, so sometimes it can be a little bit challenging.” 

Weirich may have given Hiram senior Cullen Davis the toughest tracker job in working with Mark. But he loved it. “I would normally just play notes within a chord. He would just make the decision what he wanted to play. A lot of them were very unique, but when it came together he was just completely ecstatic. I was very proud for him.”  

Trackers benefit, too
Davis says now that he has graduated from Hiram, what he learned working with Mark will further his own career as a musician and composer. “How to be more patient, and how to not always go with the normal.” 

Mark and Cullen worked for six months on a guitar duet.
Credit HATTIE LARLHAM / Hattie Larlham

Sarah Weirich says collaborations between music students and disabled musicians will continue. “We hope that it can be something that we can offer to students and people at Hattie Larlham every school semester.”

Tania Santos says it gives the Hattie’s composers a chance to not only be creative, but also to be included. “To connect with our community. We’re connecting them with these students, and they are now playing a greater role in our community through their music, and showing people what they can do.” 

Hattie’s composers and their Hiram colleagues will perform next week in Akron. The public is invited to a recital Wednesday afternoon at Summit Artspace