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Hearts for Music: Children with special needs flourish with first-of-its-kind orchestra in Akron

'There is no condemnation, there is no judgement on how they play, and I’m a firm believer that if they love what they do, the music will come through.'

AKRON, Ohio — Kitrael Chin is giving special needs children a beautiful gift: The chance to make music, building their self-esteem along the way.

"For me, I think the biggest accomplishment is seeing disabilities transformed into abilities, because that's the motto for Hearts for Music," Chin said. "With patience, with a lot of love, and a little bit of music, you can show that disabilities can be transformed into abilities. In the world of kids with disabilities, choice is often taken away from them. So that’s a big goal for me, to give them that sense of freedom and control."

Hearts for Music is an orchestra for people with special needs -- the first of its kind in Ohio. Everyone is welcome, regardless of their own unique challenges.

"They do simplified orchestral works. And they’ll use a combination of acoustic instruments, iPads, and keyboards. And kids have a preference. They’re allowed to have a preference for what instrument to play, it’s whatever gets them going. There’s no age limit, there’s no gender limit, there’s no disability limit."

The music, Chin said, is not the most important lesson his students will learn.

"There is no condemnation, there is no judgement on how they play, and I’m a firm believer that if they love what they do, the music will come through. The perfection will come through, the music is secondary. What I want is the elevation of self-esteem."

A professional music therapist for more than 20 years, but there's a reason why Chin has a special bond with his students.

"For me, it makes me proud, as a person of disability. Because I am disabled myself in that I am half deaf and I have ADHD, and I've lived with it and struggled for years. So, I know what it's like to have limited attention, coupled with difficulty in hearing, it makes things [difficult]. So, when I see them play and see them perform and see the smile, it sparks a lot of joy in me."

Once a week, the students meet up to practice with the goal of coming together to perform full orchestral arrangements. The mission is flourishing. One group was even asked to perform for the Willoughby Rotary Club.

"And, the kids gave their, essentially, their first full-blown performance. They performed, I believe, eight songs in front of a crowd of, about, I believe I’ll say 50, 60 people at the Willoughby Rotary Club fundraiser up at the country club, Pineridge Country Club Golf Course. It was their first concert, and I can’t tell you how excited they were to actually have a huge group of people that they can perform, and they did beautifully."

We had the chance to witness the magic of Hearts for Music for ourselves, at the Wings of Change Therapy Center in Akron. Some had trouble focusing, but when the music started, their spirits took over. 

Chin says he wants his orchestra to be elevated to give the kids the sense of inclusion, they so deserve.

"I would love to see a special needs orchestra in most cities. Not just in Ohio, but throughout the states, and empowering those kids with or without disabilities. My goal is to show that they can participate irregardless of whether they are disabled, whether they are in a hospital bed and they can only move a single finger or they have limited movement, they can still create and be part of something. There is no reason that they cannot play beautiful music the same as everybody else."

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