‘A WHOLE NEW WORLD OF CREATIVITY’: Music instructor thrives on teaching kids with disabilities

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Pictured: Gabriel Ashley strums his guitar as he works with Alec Harter during his lesson at Greenfield Music. Alec has been using his musical skill and talent to help inspire the same love he has for music by giving lessons to kids with disabilities. Wednesday, March 23, 2022.

Tom Russo | Daily Reporter

GREENFIELD — With a silver ring in his nose and a collection of colorful tattoos running up both arms, Alec Harter looks every bit the rock star.

But he’s a big softie when teaching music to children with disabilities.

On Wednesday, he gently guided 9-year-old Gabriel Ashley through a 15-minute ukulele lesson at the Greenfield Music Center, where Harter has been teaching for two months now.

The 27-year-old musician plays guitar, bass, ukulele, banjo, piano and drums, and loves sharing his love of music with kids.

He has a special place in his heart for kids like Gabriel, who need a little extra guidance and support.

The lifelong Greenfield resident said the sentiment goes back to when he was a young boy learning to play guitar. He witnessed an instructor at the Greenfield Music Center showing an abundance of patience with a relative of Harter’s who is autistic.

“Seeing how our instructor handled him, I thought that was the coolest thing,” he said.

That was about 20 years ago, and the student has since become the teacher.

“I think it’s really cool to teach kids with special needs,” Harter said.

He said it doesn’t phase him when a child needs to be repeatedly redirected or has a meltdown in the middle of a lesson. He simply redirects and gently perseveres.

Before becoming a music teacher, Harter worked at an autism center in Warsaw, Ind., where he worked with both foster kids and kids with disabilities. He found a great way to connect with them was through music.

He would later teach music to children with disabilities at the Pendleton Music Academy before joining the staff at the Greenfield Music Center.

“I’ve seen firsthand the impact music has in the life of someone with special needs versus those who are never introduced to music,” said Harter.

Music has a way of touching a person’s soul unlike anything else, he said.

“People with autism or sensory disorders react differently to smells and textures,” he said. “When I play guitar with an amp, I can give them something new to experience. Those sounds are textures for their ears. That’s not something they come across every day.”

Teaching them to play an instrument gives students with disabilities some control over the sound, and opens up a whole new world of creativity, he said.

Gabriel’s mom, Lora Ashley, said her son looks forward to his lesson with Harter each week.

She and her husband, Graham, got Gabriel and his 7-year-old brother, Colin, involved with music to give them something fun to do in addition to Cub Scouts.

“Gabriel really wanted to do guitar, but he’s very small,” said his mom.

Tony Seiler, who owns Greenfield Music Center, suggested he try the baritone ukulele instead.

“It’s smaller than a guitar but can play the same chords,” Ashley said.

The music lessons aren’t only good for her son’s communication and verbal skills; they’re also good for developing his fine motor skills, which is essential, she said.

Gabriel takes both speech and occupational therapy at Weston Elementary School, where he’s in the third grade.

“With moving his fingers properly, putting them in the right place, it’s building up that strength he needs. He’s going to get fine motor skills without realizing it,” she said.

In addition to ADHD and a sensory processing disorder, Gabriel also has apraxia, a condition caused by brain disease or damage which makes the brain unable to make and deliver correct movement instructions to the body. In Gabriel’s case, it affects his speech.

“Alec has been able to work really well with him,” said Ashley. “He knows the tricks of the trade to work with a kid like Gabriel, especially with his ADHD.”

On Wednesday, Gabriel started to get restless about 10 minutes into his 15-minute lesson.

Harter patiently coaxed him back to attention, saying “Come on, buddy,” redirecting him to focus his attention to the ukulele on his lap.

Ashley said she no longer has to go back into the music room with Gabriel as she once did to keep him focused.

“The fact that I don’t have to go back there anymore has been great for teaching Gabriel independence, which is huge with a special needs child,” she said.

“Being able to know I can send him back there with Alec really helps me because I know he’s going to go back there and learn the material and have fun while doing it.”

The proud mom said taking music lessons has also taught her oldest son responsibility.

“He’ll practice his instrument through the week, and when it’s time for his lesson, he’ll make sure his ukulele is in its case, and he grabs it and puts it in the car. He gets excited about going,” she said.

Ashley encourages other parents of disabled kids to give music lessons a try.

“New things can be very scary when you have a child who you’re not sure how they’re going to act,” but the Greenfield Music Center is a welcoming space, she said.

“When Gabriel at first didn’t want to go back there without me and I had to go back and sit with him, it wasn’t looked down upon,” said Ashley. “It was, ‘Whatever we need to do we’ll do so he can enjoy music.’ As a parent, it makes my heart glad.”

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