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Tanya Barker (left) works with Sarah during a recent music session at Epic Opportunities’ St. Boniface location.

Music has been a big part of Sarah’s life for some time. It’s not uncommon to find her singing one of her favourite tunes or playing along on a piano or guitar.

“I like music. It makes me happy. I’m happy when I’m playing music,” Sarah says, smiling.

Sarah is one of nine people currently served by Epic Opportunities taking part in a music therapy service offered by the non-profit agency in conjunction with Motivating Sounds Music Therapy Services. Motivating Sounds is operated by Tanya Barker, a music therapist certified by the Canadian Association of Music Therapists.

Nearly two dozen people have taken part in the music sessions since they were first offered in 1999. The service has since been expanded to include each of Epic Opportunities’ current day service sites as well as a handful of homes.

The primary focus of the sessions is to enhance the quality of life of participants through music. This can take the form of anything from teaching music skills to exploring different genres of music and even helping people who don’t communicate verbally to create playlists of music they want to hear.

Barker says the service uses music as a tool to support people to achieve non-musical goals. What sets the sessions at Epic Opportunities apart from traditional music therapy, she says, is the way they have evolved with strong support from Epic Opportunities staff. Individuals achieve foundational skills during sessions and staff support those skills throughout the person’s daily life.

“Those non-musical goals, I hope, will extend people’s successes beyond just the music therapy sessions,” Barker says. “Anything that an individual accomplishes is shared with staff …so that it can be transferred to a daily experience rather than just a half hour, weekly experience. It is very much a team-driven service rather than isolated to just the sessions.”

This service has helped Sarah to be successful in many different areas of her life. In addition to enhancing her musical abilities, it has enabled her to form social connections with other people through music and feel more confident. One-on-one song-writing sessions have also helped her to express herself better verbally.

Senior Manager Charlene Pruden says one of the keys to the success of the service is Barker’s ability to tailor it to the individual needs of the people she works with. Sessions are often organic and loosely structured and can vary widely depending on a person’s musical tastes and personal interests.

“Tanya really interacts with people to get to know them and what they want to do and achieve. She’s very good at reading people,” Pruden says. “She also talks to the managers, coordinators and staff to get to know the person better.”

Pruden adds that some of the skills people have acquired through the music therapy sessions have helped them in other aspects of their lives. In one instance, a person enjoyed working with Barker so much they decided to enrol in a Zumba fitness class that combines music and dance. In other cases, the service has helped people to better connect with support staff and reduce some of the anxiousness they feel when dealing with stressful situations.

Barker says she constantly reviews materials to make sure they are meeting the needs of the people being served and says coordinators, managers and support staff play an essential role in the process. About five years ago, it was observed that individuals for whom music therapy was initially their only community outing were now enjoying many community connections. With this goal achieved, she closed Motivating Sounds’ downtown clinic and began providing services to people at their homes and Epic Opportunities locations to enhance services and make it easier for people to attend.

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