The Paducah Sun via AP, Kat Russell
In this photo taken July 23, 2015, Blane Brown, 6, who was diagnosed with autism before he turned 1, beats on a drum with music therapy instructor Madison Whelan at Harmony Road Music School on Broadway. Whelan, a music therapy student at University of Louisville, has been teaching summer sessions at the music school that are designed to help special needs children learn skills such as impulse control and communication.

PADUCAH, Ky. — The two boys at Harmony Road Music School banged on the drums, shook rain sticks and rattles, and tried to pick out tunes on the piano.

If it didn't resemble a typical music lesson, that's because it wasn't. Instructor Madison Whelan's musical games were meant to help the students develop skills that can be used outside of music, such as impulse control and communication.

"They don't know they're working on anything other than just playing for fun," Whelan said recently.

Whelan is entering her senior year as an undergraduate music therapy student at the University of Louisville. She has been putting her training to use by holding music classes for students with special needs this summer. Her 12 students range in age from 4 to 18, and live with conditions such as autism, Down syndrome, ADHD and blindness. Such conditions, Whelan said, respond well to music therapy.

"A lot of people think that music therapy is singing 'Kumbaya' or church songs, and it's way more than that," Whelan said. "It's a whole process and a whole field within itself."

The American Music Therapy Association defines music therapy as "the clinical and evidence-based use of music interventions to accomplish individualized goals within a therapeutic relationship by a credentialed professional."

Examples of music therapy's goals include improving sleep patterns in infants, lessening the effects of dementia in adults, and helping improve motor function in patients with Parkinson's, according to the AMTA.

"One of the biggest misconceptions is that music listening is music therapy," Whelan said. "It's not just, 'I'm going to go play at the hospital today to make people feel better,' although that is an excellent goal."

Music therapists assess patient's goals and work with them and other health professionals to develop a treatment plan. Whelan admits it's usually more work than can be accomplished over one summer, but the classes have served as a good starting point for local parents.

Stephanie Brown, mother of 6-year-old Blane Brown, said she brought her son to the classes in order to give him an introduction to various musical instruments. Blane, who enjoys the drums and piano, was diagnosed with autism before the age of 1.

"People who have autism, they might have a meltdown ... and get really frustrated," she said. "Maybe (Blane) can turn to music, and it might be a good coping mechanism."

One of Whelan's recent classes began with an activity called "keep the beat," where kids played rhythms on the drum together. Each child would then take a turn introducing himself and playing a solo.

"That (solo) is working on creativity and self-expression, but for everyone else, it's self-control, because they have to wait their turn," Whelan said. "It's challenging to set a drum in front of a child and say, 'Don't play yet.'"

Harmony Road Music School owner Amy Allen said she's heard "glowing reports" about the classes from parents, many of whom have requested such classes in the past.

Whelan will be available for classes during the first two weeks of August before she returns to school. To find out more, call Harmony Road at 270-444-3669.