Just days after performing to a packed house, acclaimed jazz musicians Jack Mouse and Janice Borla returned to the Granada Theatre for an exclusive musical improvisation workshop with a special group of participants Tuesday.

Mouse, an Emporia native, and Borla had expressed interest in giving back to the community as part of their performance in Emporia. The couple regularly works with individuals on the autism spectrum at home in Naperville, Illinois, and wanted to do something similar in Emporia. Soon, they were connected with board-certified Music Therapist Katie Just, who worked with the couple to create the workshop for some of her special education students from Emporia Public Schools, Madison-Virgil and patrons from Hetlinger Developmental Services, Journeys Inc. and Stepping Stones Unlimited.

“There is so much research that shows that the brain can process music in different ways, so even if somebody has some neurological deficit, music can still be accessible,” Just said. “Music is used in so many places and in so many settings. A lot of people are really receptive to it, and it’s something that most everyone enjoys, because it’s something that everyone can access.”

Just said a rhythm can invoke the basic concept of communication — even for those who have delayed or disordered speech.

With Mouse on drums, Gary Ziek on the keyboards and Borla using her voice, the trio led Just’s students on an improvisational exercise. Mouse set the beat, Ziek set a melody and Borla led the students in vocal jazz — where it wasn’t necessary to have words or lyrics. The students warmed to the concept quickly, each taking turns with Borla as if having a conversation.

“In music therapy, we talk about ‘entrainment,’ which is basically when your brain latches onto a beat naturally,” she said. “It’s basically why you find yourself starting to tap your toe to the beat naturally. Using what [Mouse and Borla] are doing, they are jazz musicians, but they are keeping the beat and they are helping to facilitate communication and what should happen. I like with music, how there’s an expectation of something to come.”

Mouse and Borla said they were both pleasantly surprised at how quickly the groups opened up and participated in the exercises throughout the day.

“It’s the power of the arts,” Mouse said. “It’s a matter of finding new ways to express yourself. The more ways people have to express themselves, the more whole they are.”

“I think that it’s just a matter of creating a welcoming or friendly environment,” Borla added. “They aren’t feeling unwelcome or judged, and after that it all sort of flows out of that. The other operative piece is, there’s no right way or wrong way to do this.”

Borla was impressed with one non-verbal student who played off of her melodies with a series of rhythmic sounds. It was wonderful, she said, to see someone feeling the music so completely.

“We’re always astonished at what we can get going, but it’s like setting the catalyst in place,” she said.

Mouse agreed, noting how incredible it was to see their regular students improve with each session.

“We just love to watch it grow,” he said. “Every new group is a garden. Sometimes you just go, ‘holy cow.’”

Granada Theatre Interim Director Rebeca Herrera said the workshop was a great reminder that the theater belongs to the entire community.

“It’s a lot of fun today,” she said. “It’s just beautiful and it’s about giving back. We are everybody’s venue, everybody in the community.”

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