Chat with... Karen Nisenson, founder and clinical director of Arts for Healing in New Canaan
Published 12:40 pm, Thursday, January 12, 2017
NEW CANAAN — Karen Nisenson took an unusual route for a Juilliard School graduate.
Rather than making a name for herself on stage, the musician opted instead to use her talents to help others, forming Arts for Healing in New Canaan in 2000.
The Grove Street-based integrated art and music therapy program serves children and adults with autism spectrum disorder, as well as those with neurological issues, processing disorders, developmental disabilities, physical and emotional impairments. For example, some participants fall on the autism spectrum disorder or suffer from Alzheimer’s disease or post-traumatic stress disorder.
Together with the help of board of directors’ Chairwoman Susan Nisinzweig, Nisenson has grown the Arts for Healing program and continues to help children and adults with communications disorders better connect with the world around them.
Q: What is the background of Arts for Healing?
A: I am a musician by background. I grew up in New York and went to Juilliard. After I got a master’s (degree) in performance from Juilliard, I was introduced to Paul Nordoff and Clive Robbins, who started music therapy in Europe. So that brought me to (New York University) in the late 1970s to get another master’s in creative arts therapy. I taught at NYU for 25 years and worked at the Nordoff-Robbins Therapy Center.
I moved to New Canaan in 1983 and have been here since. In the late 1990s, after teaching at NYU, I realized that the world of special needs was not being recognized in this area in terms of arts and special education. And I knew music and arts therapy to be helpful to this population. I wanted to start something that would bring the arts to the special education world. So I decided to create a nonprofit in 2000.
Q: How has Arts for Healing grown in the time since?
A: It was slow to start, but the work spoke for itself. I started getting referrals and we got busier. We came to this building in 2002. Since then our programs have been growing.
The awareness of special needs is very different now than it was in 2000. Sixteen years later we’re working in Norwalk, New Canaan, Westport and Fairfield school systems. We’re in a lot of different developmental centers. And we’ve been given space from Grace Farms so we can expand groups.
We just keep growing. We have a wonderful staff of eight people and we offer programs in music, art, dance and theater to special-needs children, adolescents, adults and those with Alzheimer’s and dementia.
Q: How have the fields of art and music therapy grown since your time at NYU?
A: The field was just really beginning to be known. The program at NYU was just starting, so I kind of designed my own master’s. But by the time I finished teaching there, it was a very established program and now the field is widely known.
A lot of people look at it as an important, growing field because of the way integrated music and art really help academics and learning, self-awareness and self-expression. People are realizing there’s power in that.
Q: What do these therapies offer people?
A: It taps into a place inside of you that has no disability. Everyone in this world can respond to music; it goes in like water. You don’t have to be cognitively able to process it, like with reading or math. It’s that power used in music, in rhythm, harmony and improvisation with a child that helps build a relationship with the child.
You get to the healthy part of the child, you get to the inner being of that person through the arts because it goes right into the depth of the soul of a person.
It’s a power to reach and connect with somebody in a very unconscious, kind of non-cognitive way that will help them see themselves and reflect themselves symbolically in music or art. Then they become more able to do things and it goes on from there to help speech and language, singing and vocalizing. All of that goes hand-in-hand with being able to establish connection and a relationship through nonverbal means.
Q: What has your experience been working with seniors suffering from Alzheimer’s and dementia?
A: We have people who go into places like Waveny (Care Center) and Brighton Gardens in Stamford. It’s about getting the people to open up, getting the people to use their voice, to connect to another person and connect to themselves. So there’s a lot of vocalizing, there are a lot of songs, there are a lot of rhythmic activities, because rhythm is a great body motivator.
There are so many stories about going into these places and touching these people.
One woman, for instance, I had years ago at Waveny named Taffy. Her husband didn’t know she had this beautiful operatic voice. She knew every Broadway show since 1920. Ultimately I got her to sing and it became this big thing at Waveny: the Taffy Hour. After the singing she would kind of retreat again back to that place. But during that hour it was incredible. She became more of who she was. That was a beautiful thing to see.
It’s a great population to watch because you can really see the effects. They are so apparent and they are so real.
Q: Do you ever experience hesitance on the part of parents who may lean toward more traditional means of therapy?
A: The parents come for consultations and a lot of people don’t quite understand. If they don’t, fine. But if they do and they stay they realize how good it is.
One mother was very nervous in a consultation. She asked me as she was leaving, ‘What are the side effects of this?’ I said, ‘Joy and happiness.’
Just fun — It’s fun. A lot of these kids are so burdened with therapies that when they come here it has to be fun, because they don’t have a lot of fun. So this is a way for them to get help and have a good time.
It’s not work. That’s the very important component of these kids’ lives. They have to know what fun is, and happiness and laughing.