Jocelyn Stovall's little sister was four years old when she needed open-heart surgery, traveling from Prattville to a Boston hospital to undergo the procedure.
Stovall, a music performance major at Huntingdon College at the time, went with for the operation, not knowing the trip would change the trajectory of her life's work.
After the operation, Stovall's sister was irritable, refusing to leave her bed. Her doctors called in the hospital's music therapist to help. Singing songs about standing up and walking — instructions sang with melody rather than ordered directly — made the difference.
The experience inspired Stovall to switch her major to music therapy, and recently she opened her own business in the River Region.
"Just the way she engaged (with the therapist) and we were able to get her out of the bed and she began to walk down the hall — that inspired me to see the true benefits of music. Because you can enjoy it, but to see it in real action."
Stovall, after receiving her bachelor's from University of Alabama and masters in music therapy from Georgia College & State University, went on to become a national board certified music therapist and has been working as a music teacher at a Prattville elementary since 2010.
In April, after years of serving students she felt would benefit from music therapy sessions, she decided to start Evolve — a music therapy company that offers sessions to people with a variety of diagnoses, including postpartum depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, developmental disabilities, Alzheimer's, dementia and cerebral palsy.
"Music is very good for everybody and it's very therapeutic," Stovall said, explaining there is a difference between simply singing as a way to be therapeutic, and music therapy, which helps clients achieve their personal goals.
In a recent visit to STAAR, a Montgomery nonprofit that hosts a summer program for young people with disabilities, Stovall guided a group therapy session that was focused on teaching the teens to express themselves and increase their abilities to socialize and make eye contact.
Playing a guitar in the center of the group of seven, Stovall started with an upbeat song that she sang to each teen individually — making direct eye contact ask she'd ask each for their name and how they were doing. When someone averted their gaze, she'd ask to see their eyes. The teens would tap together a pair of claves — a wooden percussion instrument — as they waited their turn to answer Stovall.
The session continued with the teens writing a one word about how they were feeling — with the words ranging from "talented" to "awesome," ''funny" and "grumpy" — while beating a drum to the way they felt as they formed a dance routine that incorporated memorization.
The main goal of STAAR — the Skills Transition Academic Achievement Readiness program — is to provide the participants, age 14 to 21, with the skills necessary to be prepared for life after high school. With six of the eight youth participating this year on the autism spectrum, program founder Stacey Varner wanted to expose them to activities that might help with their different "exceptionalities," such as avoiding eye-contact or touching.
"I just know that as a teacher of students with disabilities, we try different things to get in, to get past those layers," Varner said. "Different activities help them."
"We're trained to engage. So I make sure I look at them. I may call their name if they look away or sing their name then see if they will sing it back," Stovall said. "In a group setting, passing an instrument around, playing alone and playing together shows the difference of being in a group and being by myself."
Music therapy can be utilized by people with all different sets of issues and goals, Stovall said.
"It's for everybody, young and old ... You tailor it to whatever the client needs at the moment or whatever the client's ultimate goal is," she said. For seniors with dementia, a session can help with memory and movement. For seniors with Alzheimer's, it can help with feelings of irritability.
Some neonatal intensive care units have hired music therapists after studies that show singing to a premature baby can expedite their growth as the synopsis of their brains light up at the sound of music.
"It's very clinical and it's research based and there are treatment plans that have to be in place and progress reports," Stovall said of the profession. "Music therapists are knowledgeable in understanding different diagnosis and working with different populations."
Music therapy educational programs started to emerge in the 1940s, according to the American Music Therapy Association. In Alabama, there are fewer than 60 music therapists listed, although that does not mean all are still practicing in the state.
The challenge right now, Stovall said, is educating people on what music therapy is.
"I want to show people the power of this profession," she said. "I'm hoping to help people of all ages in the River Region to reach their goals through music."