Rutgers alumni develops music program for special needs children


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Photo by Ankita Veta |

Learning music is considered by many to not only be a study technique, but more importantly, an emotional expression and the feeling of participation.

Located on Bayard Street in New Brunswick, Octopus Music School’s Special Needs Music Lessons provides a program that satisfies this need for both children and adults with special needs by studying instruments.

Owner Joseph Fekete opened Octopus Musical School after his graduation from Rutgers in 2008, and created special needs lessons in November 2010.

As a French cultural studies and political science double major, Fekete has played guitar for almost 20 years and worked his way through college by teaching guitar off campus.

“Six years ago, I saw New Brunswick as a growing and diverse community with no place to learn music, and I wanted to serve that need,” Fekete said. “Our school has a broad base of students, everyone from beginner children and adults to individuals with special needs to advanced students seeking admission from a university to study music on a professional level.”

Octopus Musical School specializes in guitar, bass, piano, violin, voice and drum lessons, Fekete said. With its convenient location, students come from Edison, Highland Park, Somerset, Woodbridge, North Brunswick, South Brunswick and East Brunswick.

The school teaches students how to understand music, instead of how to play it, he said.

Teaching a special needs student is no different than teaching any other student, and every student is unique in how he or she learns, Fekete said.

“Learning to play a musical instrument can be a valuable experience to anyone,” Fekete said. “For very young students, it provides reinforcement in areas such as language and mathematics. For older students, it can be a means to relieve stress or express emotions.”

Music learning facilitates an individual’s creativity, and spurs collaboration and inspires self-confidence when played in a group setting, he said.

Depending on a student’s particular special needs, in addition to all of the rewards reaped by Octopus Musical School’s typical students, they may benefit from the additional development of fine and gross motor skills, coordination and the structure of an intensive, individualized one-on-one lesson, he said.

“For our school’s annual showcase, our special needs students perform in the same groups as our typical students. Our aim is to provide everyone with as close to the same experience as possible,” Fekete said.

Octopus staff also believes that learning an instrument provides people with a mode of self-expression. For individuals with special needs, it provides them with a skill that is on par with their typical peers.

Music is the only expressive outlet for people who have special needs, making it more important to them, said Ariella Gizzi, a special needs lesson instructor at Octopus.

“Music provides students with implicit structures that require them to make inferences, decisions and apply them to something,” Gizzi said. “It serves as a bridge between the conceptual and physical worlds of learning.”

As a Rutgers graduate with a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and an education master's degree in Special Education, Gizzi teaches music to individuals with autism, as well as younger children. She served as a group leader at Camp Hope, a camp that serves children and adults with developmental disabilities. She is now working as a teacher for autistic students in a public school.

Gizzi draws upon her experience as a former worker at the Douglass Developmental Disabilities Center in order to apply instructional techniques to her music lessons.

“The benefits of learning to play an instrument can and should be made available to people off all ages and skill levels,” Gizzi said.

Donna Fennell, a mother whose son joined Octopus Musical School six years ago and a student herself, shared her experience at the music school.

“I was walking on Cook campus one day and saw a flyer hanging on the bulletin board with their numbers on it,” Fennell said. “I was thinking about getting my son into a music lesson, so we found Octopus.”

Fennell’s son has been playing guitar for six years, and is now playing drums at a jazz band as an after-school activity. She has also learned guitar for about four years. Both of them are in one-on-one lesson with Fekete.

“The thing that me and my son love about being part of the music school is being part of something bigger. And the other thing I love about is staying with something like music makes you discipline yourself — you love it, and you want to practice it. Then you build on all of the things you accomplished,” Fennell said.


Christine Lee

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