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FACES AND PLACES: Emily Wangen

Emily Wangen gently places Nathan Biederman's fingers on the strings of her pink guitar and as he begins strumming it, a smile lights up his face. Moving around the room, Wangen holds out the guitar to other students, encouraging them to try thei...

Wangen
A board certified musical therapist, Emily Wangen worked with 200 Grand Forks School District students last year. (Jackie Lorentz)

Emily Wangen gently places Nathan Biederman's fingers on the strings of her pink guitar and as he begins strumming it, a smile lights up his face. Moving around the room, Wangen holds out the guitar to other students, encouraging them to try their hands at strumming.

"It's so nice to see you today," she sings as they plunk the guitar strings.

Soon the entire circle of Red River High School pre-vocational program students also are wearing smiles, tapping their toes and bobbing their heads in time with the music. After the song is finished, Wangen directs a bell choir with the students, then pulls out a brightly colored parachute and practices range of motion exercises with them.

"That was great," Wangen said. "You guys are awesome,"

"She is so good," said Kathy Ashe, the students' special education teacher as she watches Wangen. "The kids love it. It's something they can relate to."

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Music Therapy in Motion

Ashe's class is one of about a half dozen Wangen visits several times a week. A board certified musical therapist, Wangen worked with 200 Grand Forks School District students last year. She also does musical therapy with patients at Altru Health Rehabilitation Center and with residents of Valley Eldercare in Grand Forks.

Besides commuting to Grand Forks from the Larimore, N.D., home she shares with her husband and son, Wangen also travels up and down the Red River Valley. This year she is working with special education students in Crookston and Fargo and also practices musical therapy in Valley City and Moorhead. Some weeks she logs as many as 850 miles, traveling to towns and cities across northwest Minnesota and northeast North Dakota with her musical therapy practice, called Music Therapy in Motion.

For Wangen the job is a perfect way to combine her love of music and of children with special needs. A trained vocalist who plays several instruments, including piano, guitar, clarinet and drums, she uses her musical talent to help children with physical and mental challenges.

"I've always been musical. I've always had an incredible love for children with special needs," Wangen said.

Musical background

Wangen, who has an associate of arts degree from Cottey College in Nevada, Mo., and a bachelor of arts in musical therapy from UND, started using her guitar and voice to help children with special needs when she was a paraprofessional at Kelly Elementary School in Grand Forks. She was working with students who were diagnosed with autism and some parents asked her if she could practice musical therapy with their children outside of the classroom.

Music Therapy in Motion grew from serving about 50 children that first year to now serving several hundred children, teens and adults. While Wangen's clients love singing and enjoy the music, it also teaches verbal, social and physical skills.

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"We're working on gross motor, turn taking, social interaction, impulse control, communication," Wangen said. If the therapy she's doing isn't working of if students are having a bad day, she shifts gears.

"Sometimes I'll go in the session with a great plan... I kibosh that plan and make music in the moment."

Wangen uses a variety of instruments including, African-style drums, bells, and of course, her pink guitar when she works with clients.

In the pink

Her husband, who knows her love for the color pink, gave Wangen her first guitar as a Valentine Day gift a few years ago.

"Most people get roses. I got my pink guitar," Wangen said. The guitar has been a huge hit with her students.

"Kids that have not spoken, except in minute utterances, have said the word 'pink,'" she said.

One girl loved the guitar so much her mother asked Wangen if she could buy it for her child. Wangen, autographed it and sold it to her, and the mother told her that she ranked above Hannah Montana, Wangen said.

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Hearing those kinds of stories and seeing the difference music therapy makes in her students' lives makes her job rewarding, Wangen said.

"It's amazing. I love my job. I feel like I am constantly blessed on a daily basis to touch the children's lives. I'm constantly reminded in each child, no matter how great the disability, there is ability.

"Music can bring out the best in everyone."

Bailey writes for special features sections. Reach her at (701) 787-6753; (800) 477-6572, ext. 753; or send e-mail to abailey@gfherald.com .

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