Co-op Sets Communication Major on Path to Becoming a Music Therapist
By Sarah Hojsak
January 24, 2023
Music has always been an important part of Ryan Shaw’s life. The senior communication major, who is in the accelerated BA+MS in Strategic and Digital Communication (MS-SDC) program, knew he wanted to pursue something unique for his first co-op. When he learned about Keep Music Alive, he was immediately intrigued.
The national nonprofit based in the Philadelphia area partners with schools, music stores and other organizations to offer music lessons to students of all ages and hold events that celebrate the therapeutic qualities of playing music.
The co-op not only allowed Shaw, who plays guitar and keyboard, to explore his passion for music, but also gave him the opportunity to try out teaching—something he hadn’t done before but soon found he has a natural talent for.
“I discovered through this co-op that I'm equally as passionate about educating as I am about music,” Shaw explained. “Through teaching instruments and music, I was able to explore a love for teaching that I didn’t know I had.”
Vincent James and Joann Pierdomenico founded Keep Music Alive in 2014 on the belief that every child and adult should have the opportunity to learn how to play music. The husband-and-wife team are the small nonprofit’s only staff members—that’s where Shaw stepped in, taking initiative on a variety of projects.
"Every day was a little bit different,” he said. “It kept me on my toes. For my first co-op, it was good to always be doing something new.”
Day-to-day, Shaw created content including email newsletters, social media and graphic design, and worked on grants to secure funding for Keep Music Alive to continue its mission of promoting the value of music.
Shaw also prepared for Make Music Philly, an annual “do-it-yourself” music festival organized by Keep Music Alive that features free music around Philadelphia. Shaw’s main responsibility was securing performers and venues.
“Working with Keep Music Alive, and Vincent and Joann specifically, made me realize that you can find fulfillment in the management of a nonprofit organization,” Shaw said. “Sending hundreds of emails in a day can be monotonous, but you know it’s all in service of a larger cause.”
While he was able to complete much of his work remotely, Shaw’s favorite parts of the co-op were Keep Music Alive’s in-person events, which provided children with hands-on musical experiences.
"For our musical instrument ‘petting zoos,’ we set up lots of percussion instruments for children to interact with. They learned about the instruments, played them and heard what they sounded like.”
For Shaw, the ‘petting zoos’ were not just a welcome break from emails and Zoom meetings, but they also provided an opportunity for him to discover how much he enjoys working with kids.
“Watching a kid shake an instrument and discover a sound that they never heard before—well, that's really cool,” he said. “It's surreal to help a person discover something as fundamental as music.”
It was while teaching a student how to properly hold a guitar during an event at The Pathway School, a special education school serving students with autism spectrum disorder and other intellectual and learning disabilities, that Shaw saw the therapeutic impact music can have.
“One student who was nonverbal picked up an electric guitar, and I was trying to teach him how to form a chord and how to strum, and he just didn’t care at all,” Shaw recalled. “He played the guitar his own way, and it was kind of groovy. He didn’t listen to me, and I’m glad he didn’t. To see somebody who struggles to communicate find a different avenue to express himself and do it in a unique way made me realize that anybody really can do anything.”
Shaw said that experience was a “watershed” moment that led him to consider how he can incorporate the therapeutic aspects of teaching and learning music into his future career.
“I realized that joy and fulfillment can be brought to people through music, and not just in the performance of music,” he explained. “An individual can express themselves and even release trauma or process emotion or complex thoughts through music. It’s fulfilling as a teacher to inspire that and facilitate that happening again.”
Shaw credits his time in the Department of Communication with helping him build a well-rounded skillset that could transfer to a wide range of careers. He plans to pursue a career as a music therapist after he graduates from the MS-SDC program and would like to keep working with children. Continuing his education at Drexel is an option, as the College of Nursing and Health Professions offers a Master of Arts in Music Therapy and Counseling degree.
According to Shaw, his time with Keep Music Alive was formative—and just the beginning of his journey. He always knew music was powerful, but seeing how other groups can benefit from its therapeutic qualities has inspired him to continue to use music for good.
“I got to see firsthand some of the joy, happiness and good that can come out of music therapy or even just playing music. Whether it's somebody who's nonverbal making a cool beat on a guitar, someone at risk or kids with behavioral disorders, to see them discover the world through music and the motivation to better their life through the development of a skill like playing an instrument is just so great.”