When you think of a choir composed of students with disabilities, do you have an “Aw, shucks” Hallmark movie moment of weepy, can-do inspiration? Well, music therapists Victor Lissabet and David Jurs will have none of those pity parties when they work with the Sunshine Singers, a group of teens and young adults with an astonishing array of disabilities, including autism, seizure disorders, Down syndrome and cerebral palsy.
Every Monday night in a classroom at Cal State University Northridge, Lissabet and Jurs do the unthinkable: They get these students not only to warble a few tunes but to articulate, duet, harmonize, modulate and follow choreography.
To wit: Tonight the choir is learning to stroke the backs of their heads in the style of hip-hop dance as they coolly slide across the room suggestively sing-talking the lyric “I'm fresh,” from Lil Wayne's “My Dougie.” Lissabet calculates how many “I'm fresh-es” are needed to nail that old-school flow. Jurs brainstorms about how to get less-focused members to deliver a pumped-up party atmosphere. “Should everyone echo the lead singer's 'Everyone like my Dougie'?” he asks. “Or should everyone join in on the chorus?” They try both. The former wins.
Lissabet and Jurs steer the direction of the class but make sure each member has input. “I want to do songs from Grease,” says one teenage girl as she begins screeching “Hopelessly Devoted to You.” Jurs feigns a wince. “Cup one hand over your ear and you can hear yourself better,” he says. “You should be one step up.”
Another, wearing a tiara, suggests a song that sounds like the title is “Tractor.” “Huh? Track-ther? Shrack-ter?” Lissabet is struggling. After several tries, a mumble-savvy student interprets: “Shrek the Third!” Everyone cracks up.
A rapper wannabe wearing his cap backward stands up with a crumpled paper in his fist. “I wrote a rap song. You want to hear?” He begins, furiously locking and popping, but with his intense focus on movement, the lyrics get lost.
Jurs squarely looks him in the eye. “Naw, man, do it again. Focus on what you're saying. I want you to really feel the words this time.” He does. And the applause that follows is deserved. It's that kind of honest feedback — gracefully infused with shenanigans — that makes the program work.
As the evening progresses, Lissabet and Jurs alternate as conductor and guitar/piano accompanist to “Love Me Tender,” “Imagine,” “She Loves You” and “It's My Party.” The pair's methods echo the instructional goals both learned while earning board certification at the Music Therapy Wellness Clinic at CSUN. But their success is due to their careful consideration of each student's limitations and strengths.
“Music makes it cook,” says Lissabet, the choir's director. “It promotes positive relationships and provides self-knowledge, self-expression and self-gratification.”
While Jurs is technically a volunteer, the title does not do him justice. A music therapist at a psychiatric hospital during the day, he has a gift for instinctively connecting with each singer. “They have a contagious energy,” he says. “I also get love. It's a weekly affirmation.”
At the end of each class, the instructors are showered with bear hugs and high fives. Lissabet and Jurs have provided these students with much more than social interaction and vocal activities. They've given them a voice.