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UWEC Students Bring Adaptive Music Skills from the Classroom to the Juvenile Detention Center

| Rachel Mueller, Theatre Arts & English, '22

In between her various teaching duties at the university, professor and music therapist Lee Anna Rasar spends her free time and holidays providing music services at the regional juvenile detention center, a local hospital, multiple long term care centers, a group home, and the local jail.

“When I came into college teaching, I told myself that my first semester, I wouldn't do anything in the community in terms of volunteer work until I got a feel for what teaching classes was like, because I needed to make my time be budgeted in a way that would work out for everybody,” Rasar says. “By the time I was here for 6 weeks, I was missing music therapy so much I had to do something! So, I actually heard on the radio that they needed a guitar player in the adult jail and I responded to that and I started going in there and that’s how I was told about the juveniles.”

Rasar brings college students from her Adaptive Music class into the field to teach both group and individual lessons at a local juvenile detention center. Senior psychology major with a topical minor in the therapeutic applications of music, Abbie Sonstegard, is one of those students.

After getting in touch with Rasar her freshman year, Sonstegard began taking classes in Adaptive Music and accompanying Rasar on her trips to the juvenile detention center. Since the pandemic, she has been leading the class in person while Rasar and other student teachers phone in on video calls. 

Sonstegard says that her experiences in the field have prepared her for her future career in counseling and hopes to use music therapy strategies in treatments. “I think that it has really given me the confidence that I needed. I never thought I wanted to be any kind of educator, but I think everybody finds throughout college that you’re gonna be doing a lot more public speaking than you think you are, or leading things more so than you thought you were, so this gave me the confidence to do that.”

Juvenile detention center students in the 180 Program have the opportunity to take private music lessons, perform concerts in the community, and even earn their own instruments. “It’s so amazing to see the difference between the juveniles who aren’t in the 180 Program and who are, who get that added time to focus on something they’re interested in, whether that be learning piano or learning guitar,” Sonstegard says. “I love volunteering and just seeing the juveniles get excited about doing something - excited about setting their own goals and accomplishing them, and I just hope that that can translate to everything else in their life once they’re able to leave the juvenile detention center.”

 Music therapy programs focus on using music for therapeutic changes in the arenas of motor, cognitive, language, social/emotional functioning. Therefore, it can be transformative for many different aspects of a person’s life. Sonstegard says, “What I’ve learned from Lee Anna and my experiences with her is music therapy is phenomenal at physical, emotional, and mental healing.”

One juvenile Rasar worked with discovered a passion for the steel pan drum. After extenuating circumstances kept him at the juvenile detention center for longer than expected, she invited him to play with her and fellow professor Nobu Yasuda at a banquet at Florian Gardens. The keynote speaker that night was a former resident of both the juvenile detention center and of the adult jail, and the student had the opportunity to meet him, as well as play for an audience of hundreds of people. “He had that opportunity that he never would have had in the detention center,” Rasar says. It was about so much more than the music itself – it was the opportunity he had to perform and be heard. “The music is a metaphor,” Rasar explains. “It goes beyond music education, definitely. But educating them about music is what is the door into their lives.”

Music Education students at UW-Eau Claire are required to take Adaptive Music. “When I took the first group of music education students there, that’s not part of what they’re used to dealing with. My course is the first time they’ve ever needed to deal with some of those issues in a classroom with music,” Rasar says. “If you would have asked me after that first time, I probably would have told you it’s never going to work with music ed. We just can’t do it…  But I’m so glad I didn’t do that. I’m so glad we kept on looking at how we could make adaptations because it seems like everything is against you. You’re in this big room, the telephone’s ringing, people are coming in and out of the room, it’s being disrupted - how are the kids going to pay attention to you? How are they going to focus? But it’s amazing, because there can be all kinds of noises… and it’s like nothing was going on, the kids were totally focused and it didn’t bother them. It's because they live there 24/7 and they tune it out, they get used to doing that, that’s how they survive. But you know, if you look at it from a teaching standpoint, everything in the environment is contraindicated.”

No matter how unlikely it may seem, music therapy at the juvenile detention center appears to work. Students in one Adaptive Music class wrote reflections about their experiences over the course of the semester. Rasar explains, “Every single student who had been there had written information about those students that I don't think anyone else would say about those students. I shared it with the staff there, because I know they don’t usually hear that about their people. They said these are the most motivated students that we’ve ever seen… they said we’ve never seen students who were so well-behaved. Well, you definitely don’t hear that about them!”

Rasar says, “We can use music to change their emotions. If they’re depressed and sad and not responding a lot, by the time we leave they might be very happy. If they’re off the wall and need to be contained and calmed down, we can do that. So we can use the properties of music to redirect them emotionally and bring them to a more neutral state. A safer state. A more healthy state… Nothing changes about the environment - we can’t do that. But in the middle of an environment that can’t be changed, they change and respond in a different way. And I just think that’s a beautiful thing, to be able to do that.”

To learn more about Adaptive Music at UWEC, check out the Adaptive Music Certificate program https://www.uwec.edu/academics/programs/undergraduate/adaptive-music/ or contact Dr. Rasar.