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Article updated: 2/25/2014 11:34 AM

Music therapy helps troubled teens connect

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After a long day at school, a half-dozen teenage girls, all carrying developmental disabilities, mental illnesses and horrendous childhood emotional baggage, trudge through the snow and cold in Bartlett, lured by the promise that Dalphne Sommario is going to add some joy to their lives.

Embracing the pressure, the 32-year-old Sommario unpacks a powerful force -- her laptop with old portable speakers and a diverse library of songs.

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"Music," Sommario says, "is amazing."

A board-certified music therapist, Sommario can't erase the abuse, the sexual attacks or the difficulties endured by the teens and young women who are wards of the state and live at Maryville's Eisenberg campus. But for the next hour, "music takes all that away," Sommario says.

"They're a little riled up," Sommario says as members of this afternoon's group, all with IQs under 70, file into the meeting room that features a table and a few chairs. A couple of the girls immediately pepper Sommario with song suggestions. Two more sit sullenly, and one apologizes for swearing.

"I use music to help with their mood," Sommario says, explaining how songs can pick people up or calm them down. "I want them to get outside of their heads and into their bodies."

A classically trained clarinetist who graduated from Indiana University with degrees in psychology and music performance, the Alabama native received a master's degree in music therapy from Florida State University. She regularly works with adult psychiatric patients at Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center. But for almost a year, Sommario also has been working with the Maryville residents, ages 14 to 21, all with mental illnesses. Maryville just extended Sommario's contract through March 2015, thanks to a $25,000 grant from the Hanover Township Mental Health Board.

Before the music therapist can get to the music part, she needs to apply some therapy.

"Oh, my goodness, look at you," she says to one girl who brought in a paper from school. "This is excellent."

The girl smiles, and proclaims, "I ain't slow."

The girls have been looking forward to this session and come with their own song lists. Sommario punches up the "Nae Nae" song, the recent hip hop dance craze created by WeAreToonz.

"I'm really excited to learn what that's about," Sommario says as she mirrors the girls' dance moves. "I feel so old."

Two girls who decline to dance join in when Sommario asks everyone to write down some thoughts as they listen to gospel singer Tamela Mann's poignant "Take Me to the King."

One girl scribbles a note and hands it to Sommario.

"Does that bring up some stuff for you?" Sommario says as she reads the note privately. "I'm sorry, but I'm glad you brought it out."

The girls compete for prizes by counting the number of times they hear the phrase "real love" in Mary J. Blige's 1992 song by the same name. "American Idol" winner Jordin Sparks' "One Step At A Time" gives another girl who doesn't want to dance a chance to express herself by writing about the lyrics.

"I'll take a step when I am leaving Maryville soon and I made progress," she writes.

"Music is part of everybody's lives," says Shafaq Javaid, clinical manager for Maryville's Bartlett campus. "The music you played as a teen is what you remember."

Mixing the songs from her teen years with songs of today, and moving across genres from hip-hop and rap to pop and country to gospel and rhythm and blues, helps these girls learn empathy for other people, Sommario says.

"Music is universal. It reaches everyone," she says.

Today's session seems to pass quickly and without any disturbances. While the American Music Therapy Association offers a clinical definition, Sommario defines music therapy as "using music to get to the goal you want."

Facing a long commute, Sommario says she'll play music in her car to help her reach her goal of arriving safely home in Chicago.

"I listen to a lot of hip-hop on the ride home," Sommario says. "Classical gets me too excited."

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