Amanda Latham, Music Therapist – Special Needs School of NJ

Making Connections with Music Therapy

According to the American Music Therapy Association, music therapy is the clinical and evidence-based use of music interventions to accomplish individualized goals within a therapeutic relationship by a credentialed professional who has completed an approved music therapy program. Music therapy is an established health profession which is used to address physical, emotional, cognitive, and social needs of individuals.

This two-part interview/article will introduce our readers to the phenomenal work being done by Amanda Latham, Music Teacher/Therapist at Harbor and Alpha Schools, where she uses music to address goals such as increasing socialization skills, communication, and self-expression. 

amanda latham music therapist nj

Meet Amanda Latham

Amanda received her BA in Music Therapy, with a minor in Psychology, from Montclair State University. However, her commitment to connecting with special needs individuals through music is lifelong. Amanda’s brother, who is four years younger than her, went to Harbor School for fifteen years. He graduated from Harbor School in 2014. Despite being severely autistic and requiring around the clock care, Amanda’s brother would sing songs with his big sister, when he was not even able to use words. 

“I would sing a song from Part of Your World from The Little Mermaid, and he would finish the lyric for me. In that way, I was making connections with him wherein every other aspect of his life, I couldn’t make those types of connections with him.”

Our mission at Harbor School:
Provide a safe and nurturing educational environment dedicated to the vision that individuals with disabling conditions are entitled to a full and meaningful life.

That feeling of connection would not end there. Amanda would go on to volunteer at the schools. She would attend sibling groups. The exposure to other students made her realize that her brother was not the only one that responded to music. She grew up performing, playing piano and singing. Initially, she went to Montclair intending to focus on music performance, but she ended up switching her major to Music Therapy.

“It didn’t feel right to me. I feel like I was missing something.”

At Harbor and Alpha, Amanda primarily plays guitar and piano. However, her work with her students incorporates a wide assortment of percussion instruments, such as drums, bells, maracas, and rhythm sticks. Rhythm sticks are a pair of plain or notched wood sticks that are struck or rubbed together to produce various percussive sounds. Rhythm sticks are primarily used by young children in rhythm bands. Amanda, however, has found her own unique way of incorporating them into her music therapy program. 

“If I have a student that’s running all around the classroom, I give him a pair of rhythm sticks. Then, I take a drum and some rhythm sticks so that I can be grounding for him. I began playing the beat to his rhythm. I allow them to move around the classroom with the rhythm sticks and I try to engage with them in that way. Instead of forcing them to come to me and making the music feel like work, I’m kind of going to them and following what they’re doing and making connections in that sense.”

Amanda’s breakthrough approach is based on matching instruments to behavior. It continues to be about the connection for her. You might say she has found her rhythm in life.

“A lot of our guys here are very rhythmic with their walking patterns. Even some of them who have OCD tendencies, they tend to be rhythmic in the things they do.”

When asked about success stories, Amanda was quick to offer two of her favorites. One student, in his late teens, was receiving private music therapy and taking adaptive piano lessons for a little over a year. He would look at the letters, which indicate notes, and play simple melodies on the piano. His chief limitation, however, would be that he could only play them with his pointer fingers. Anyone forced to sit for piano lessons as a child would be happy to be able to do that. Yet, Amanda knew her pupil could do better. After a full year of pointer fingers, she decided to place numbers on the student’s fingers and then place those corresponding numbers above the notes. Within ten minutes, the approach she initiated had the student playing with all of his fingers.

“That was my miracle moment of this year.”

The other story that Amanda proudly recalled involved a student who was nonverbal. Rather than use his voice, he would express himself using his I-Pad. Each day, Amanda leads the students in a “Hello” song. It is highly motivating and incorporates a call and response where students can say “hello” or wave. Normally, this student would turn to his device. Recently, the youngster used his voice and said “Hi” when it came to his turn.

“It’s moments like that that keep me motivated.”

We look forward to continuing with the second part of this fantastic interview with Amanda Latham, the music therapist at Harbor School and Alpha School.

Harbor School a private special education school in Monmouth County, New Jersey

Our mission at Harbor School is to help all of our special needs students with learning, social, language, behavioral, and other disabilities. Our highly skilled staff are committed daily to helping each student reach their full potential.

We would be more than happy to discuss your child's specific needs and challenges, so please call us at 732.544.9394, or request a tour at Harbor School in Eatontown, NJ. We are located just minutes off of the Garden State Parkway at exit 105 and conveniently located off of Route 35 and Route 36 in Monmouth County, NJ.

Anne Gunteski,
     Principal-Harbor School, Eatontown, NJ