Jamie Sacca Dostal '08 plays guitar for her students.

By Sherrie Negrea | Photo by Keith Walters ’11

Jamie Sacca Dostal ’08 blends science and music to help children with disabilities.

Watch a video of Jamie at work.

Jamie Sacca Dostal ’08 was playing musical instruments with a group of children in her preschool classroom last spring when she heard a child diagnosed with autism utter his first intelligible word. As she cued the students with “Ready, set,” the 5-year-old boy suddenly said, “Go.

“The first time he said it, we thought it was another student,” remembers Dostal. “And then he said it louder, and everybody’s heads turned, and we said, ‘Wow, did he just say that?’ ”

For Dostal, such moments confirm that music therapy is the right choice for her. For eight years, she has helped children find their own voices and learn to play cooperatively with their classmates.

“Music therapy is a perfect combination of science and music,” she says. “I love that I can combine my seemingly disparate interests within this complex field.”

It was Dostal’s Geneseo journey that set her on her path.

Dostal planned to major in biology and head to medical school. Then during her freshman year, lecturer in music William Leyerle heard her sing in a Musical Theatre Club performance and suggested she consider majoring in voice performance. Dostal, who had sung and played clarinet in high school, compromised: She double-majored in biology and voice.

“I wasn’t sure what I would do with it,” she says. “I just knew I wanted to learn more about how to use my voice.”

Medical school was still on Dostal’s mind when Pamela Kurau, associate professor of music and coordinator of the voice program, suggested she meet with a music therapist colleague in Rochester. That therapist connected Dostal with other music therapists — and she was hooked.

Dostal earned a master’s degree in creative arts therapy from Nazareth College in Rochester and has worked as a music therapist at the Brookville Center for Children’s Services, a preschool for children with developmental disabilities in Woodbury, N.Y., since 2013. Working with children from ages 2 to 5, Dostal uses singing and instrumental play to help them improve their speech, language, and social and gross motor skills, such as jumping.

“These are all skill sets for kindergarten and school readiness that they are working toward in their time with us,” she says. “Music therapy is one way to learn and reinforce these skills.”

Because music is processed bilaterally in the brain, children who have difficulty with verbal communication can often access their brain’s speech center through music, Dostal says. Music-making is also a social activity that helps children learn to play with their peers and take turns.

Each day, she sees how science and music weave their way into her work.

“I think the ability to connect the pieces between different things I learned allowed me to become a music therapist and be able to think on my feet, adapt and see things from different perspectives,” she says.

Dostal also sees the power music has to transform people.

“I love that everyone has a relationship to music and can explore it in a way that is meaningful for them,” she says. “It can really shape who you are.”