by Roanna Forman
Lois Lane, the North Shore R&B, funk/soul singer and band leader of the Daily Planets, has another gig in Lynn that people may not know about.
For the past five years, Lois has led the “Sing Along with Lois Lane” Music Therapy class at the Lynn campus of North Shore Community College. It is part of the enrichment program “Project Access” for intellectually and developmentally disabled students. As someone who’s worked with developmentally disabled folks for eight years, and has been a professional singer for over twenty, the class is a perfect fit for Lois and her students.
How Lois began teaching the class is a classic Lynn story in itself.
She was a Meter Maid in Lynn, therefore highly visible. “I couldn’t buy a cup of coffee in that city, because everybody wants to give it to you so you don’t give them a ticket,” she remembers. Changing jobs to work in a group home, she liked the work, although the residents had complicated disabilities.
In her next job at a day program, Lois learned about the Developmental Disabilities Direct Support Certificate which led to the Associate Degree at NSCC that she is now pursuing.
At the Direct Support Certificate Program, she met Maggie LaBella when she enrolled in one of Ms. LaBella’s classes. “I saw her as a creative, energetic person,” Ms. LaBella recalls. When she heard Lois sing at the Red Rock in Swampscott she was convinced that Lois could bring music into the disabilities classroom. “I felt she could use singing and entertaining to bring joy to students with intellectual disabilities and help them express themselves through music,” Ms. LaBella says. The “Sing Along with Lois Lane” class began in 2008 and has continued every year since. Presently, the class is coordinated by Maureen McDonald. Cynthia O’Donnell, Senior Special Program Coordinator, oversees the grant for the program.
With a maximum co-ed adult class size of 20, Lois’s Spring 2013 semester class has 13 students. While students have a wide range of diagnoses, Ms. LaBella, now NSCC Developmental Disabilities Program Coordinator, notes that the emphasis is on the person, not the disability. “We don’t like labels,” she says.
Students and their individual caregivers attend each of the nine classes, which follow a carefully structured syllabus that leads up to a concert. In the first class, everyone wears a nametag and is asked questions like “Can you say your name?” and “What’s your favorite song?” These questions fill a dual function. Besides measuring students’ level of enthusiasm and willingness to respond, they gauge students’ verbal, cognitive, and interactive skills. While many are shy or have language problems, often severe, others are ready, willing and able to tell Lois who their favorite singer is, she says, “like the guy who burst out, ‘Elvis, of course!’”
During the second class, she’ll teach the major scale, the musical staffs and proper breathing for singing. But again, the aim is deeper. Building self-esteem and affirming success are always more important. When students get a test of 10 questions on this basic music theory, Lois says, “Everybody passes.” She makes sure everyone participates and “gets to have their moment”, from the first day of class to the semester concert at the end. “That’s the magic of it when you get going.”
A professional singer, “people person”, and an experienced worker in Developmental and Intellectual Disabilities, Lois attributes her ability to reach her students to her sincere love of music and singing. She sees how much her clients benefit from the class. “This is not a sad place. When you’re singing, ‘If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands’, it’s hard to be depressed. You kind of forget your troubles. You forget that you’re in a wheelchair” or that you may have other disabilities. “What I get back,” she says, “is a sense of satisfaction, of course.”
This year’s Spring concert on May 6 at 6:30 pm in the McGee Building of the NSCC Lynn campus at 300 Broad Street will include favorites like “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” and “America”. With audiences of 75-100 people, including families, housemates, students, and friends, the concerts showcase what the students, and Lois, have accomplished in nine weeks, Ms. LaBella, NSCC Developmental Disabilities Program Coordinator, says. “I’ve gone to most of her end-of-semester concerts. She is incredibly professional. She never takes center stage. She goes to each singer and encourages them to perform.” The psychological benefits, Ms. LaBella feels, are profound. “It raises their self-esteem and self-worth to be performing.”
Plans for the Future
Lois, who appears with the Daily Planets at clubs in the eastern New England area and is working on her first CD, wants to expand the idea of music for people with developmental disabilities into a regularly offered educational program through her own organization. She hopes to acquire an empty 5,000 square foot building that abuts her home and convert it into a studio that would offer some recording time to people with these disabilities. The end product: a CD of them singing, backed up by musicians who dedicate two hours of playing in exchange for discount rates on their own studio time. Lois has sent a proposal to fund the project, which she calls the Grayback Developmental Disabilities Program, to the Mayor of Lynn.