Student Profile: Amanda Maestro-Scherer
At Berklee, it's easy to spot the great performers. Most any night of the week you can find them on stage somewhere, moving audience members to tears or inspiring them to get up and dance.
Outstanding music therapy students, though, might escape your notice. There is no public showcase for their accomplishments. No one stops them in the halls and says, "Hey, I caught your geriatrics practicum yesterday. You rocked!"
Which is a shame, because some of the most impressive, innovative, and truly moving work being done at Berklee, is being done by music therapy majors.
Amanda Maestro-Scherer, for instance, has written songs that help improve the cognitive and motor function of special needs children. She's helped Alzheimer's patients cope with the frustration and despair of their failing memories. She's conducted research into her fellow students' perception of eating disorders, and whether music therapy would be an effective tool in treating such illnesses. And, she's currently orchestrating a Berklee trip to Africa, to help children living with and orphaned by AIDS.
She also sings and plays guitar beautifully. At the end of a performance, though, she's not looking for a round of applause. She is looking for a sign that she has connected with her clients and managed to help them somehow.
Just as Berklee student performers test their skills in front of a live audience, music therapy majors develop their skills by working with live patients. All majors participate in hands-on, clinical practica at educational and medical facilities throughout Boston. During Maestro-Scherer's first practicum with special needs children at Perkins School for the Blind, her goal was "to help them learn motor and social skills, and help them with spatial reasoning. So that, for instance, when they dance, they know where their friend is next to them."
Drawing upon theories of child development and special education practices she learned in her music therapy coursework, Maestro-Scherer wrote original songs for her students, with specific clinical goals in mind, Sometimes she would write a "motor song" to get them moving, or a "cognitive song" that required them to choose rhyming words or pick words in a sequence.
"I wrote a song about the zoo and had the kids acting out the different animals," she says. "Which was interesting, because most of the kids had never seen those animals before. They would have to use their imagination. But they loved that song. They asked me to play it every week."
Working with Alzheimer's patients presented a different set of challenges, clinically and personally. Her own grandmother has been living with the disease for several years. Even before Maestro-Scherer knew she wanted to study music therapy, she had seen the positive effect music can have on individuals whose brains are deteriorating from the illness.
"My grandmother used to play organ. So, when I visited her I would play piano, and we would sing some old church songs. We would sing for hours and she would remember the words," Maestro-Scherer says. Such mental clarity is remarkable, considering that her grandmother often failed to recognize family members or recall their names.
While the clinical and academic demands of the music therapy major are rigorous, requiring mastery of advanced concepts in psychology, medicine, and education, the emotional learning curve can be just as steep. Working directly with clients requires maturity and professional composure, in the face of great pain and loss.
"It's really difficult. you see glimpses of who these people used to be, and then it's gone. It's hard to know how to deal with that," Maestro-Scherer says. "You're not trying to cure them or give them new skills, because they aren't going to get better. You're trying to help them maintain what functioning they have left, and improve their quality of life."
Despite the difficulties, Maestro-Scherer truly enjoyed the time she spent with her elderly clients. The experience affirmed her belief in the power of music to combat illness and ease suffering.
Therapy on the Road
Before long, she was looking for an even greater challenge, and this past January, she found one when she traveled to Africa with a group called Musicians for World Harmony. The group (based in her hometown of Ithaca, New York) visited orphanages in Kenya and Tanzania, playing music for children who had been orphaned by AIDS or were themselves afflicted with the disease.
"A lot of theses kids are dying, or have been abandoned by their parents. But what astonished me was how hopeful they were. Some of them would latch on to me-they were so willing to give their love. And so willing to receive it," she says.
It was more of a "musical exchange" than clinical music therapy. Still, Maestro-Scherer could see the positive effect the group's visits had on these children, who have been ostracized by their community and receive precious little in the way of social services.
Maestro-Scherer played guitar and sang with the kids. She also helped them write songs that expressed what they were going through. "Some of them would come forward, really shyly, and say, 'I have a song that I wrote. Can I play it for you?' So we would record them playing and give them the recording."
Currently, Maestro-Scherer and music therapy faculty member Karen Wacks are organizing a Berklee trip to Africa. They plan to return next year to the orphanages Maestro-Scherer visited in January.
"I want other students to experience the awakening that I experienced when I was there," she says. "It's really important to realize that we can do so much more with what we're given at Berklee."
Some Berklee students make their mark with great chops. Others, like Maestro-Scherer, with great compassion.
Amanda's Top Five Albums
• Live at Louisville Palace — Alison Krauss and Union Station
• Impossible Dream — Patty Griffin
• Blue — Joni Mitchell
• O — Damien Rice
• Not All Who Wander Are Lost — Alison Krauss and Union Station