ALUMNA USES MUSIC AND OT TO UNLOCK THE GENIUS IN CHILDREN
One of the giants of literature, Russia’s Leo Tolstoy, said that music is the shorthand of emotion. Maybe that’s why Russian-born child music prodigy Olesya Sypchenko drawn to using psychology, occupational therapy and music as tools to help children with developmental challenges. Using her credentials in all three areas to teach piano lessons to children on the autism spectrum, she’s come to believe that there may well be a dose of musical genius in every child.
Olesya Sypchenko, a native of Ufa, Russia, in the Ural Mountains that serve as the natural boundary between Europe and Asia, teaches piano at Sound of Music school in Buford,Georgia. She earned her master’s degree in occupational therapy after attending classesat Brenau’s North Atlanta campus in Norcross, Georgia, fulfilling a desire to help students with developmental disabilities.
“All I’ve ever really wanted to do was to help people,” she says. “Everything I’ve done in my life has brought me to this point. I feel like all of my training and talents have come together to allow me to help people in a special way.”
Throughout her life, Sypchenko’s belief in the power of music has been continually reinforced. Through music lessons with special-needs children, she has witnessed first-hand the breakthroughs that music therapy can provide in ways that other approaches may not.
Her basic English-language education was an immediate hurdle in the occupational therapy program, however, and she felt inadequately prepared for master’s-level instruction. “I was better with the written language than the spoken,” she says. “Taking in a lot of new information in a different language on a different subject was very challenging.”
One day, some of her classmates were telling her how difficult they found the subject matter. Sypchenko let them know, “If I can do this while learning this language, surely you can as a native speaker. If you work hard, you can overcome every difficulty.”
Part of her occupational therapy fieldwork prepared her to work with children, while another placed her at Health and Rehabilitation Center, an assisted-living and rehab facility in Atlanta. There she discovered a passion to help people maintain and regain their mobility as they age. She also found a new sense of community for which she had been longing since arriving in America.
Less than a year after graduating from Brenau in 2016, and following a brief period working at an outpatient clinic with children and adults, Sypchenko was offered a job at Ability Rehab, where she works during the week. On the weekend, though, she continues to teach music.
“One of the benefits of my OT training is that now I am a much better piano teacher for these special children, because I now understand the physical machinations involved,” she says. “It is so exciting to see their improvement through piano and to see how appreciative they and their parents are. This is such important work that I would do it for free.”
Olesya Sypchenko teaches a music lesson to a student with autism at Sound of Music school in Buford, Ga. (AJ Reynolds/Brenau University)
LIFE IN AMERICA
The daughter of a musician mother and a soldier father, Sypchenko began her musical education at age 6 in an art boarding school for gifted children, which she attended for three years. After returning home, she continued her education and, in 1994, graduated from a musical college that specializes in teaching pianists.
Her parents encouraged her to have a career in music, but she wanted to pursue a degree in psychology. Over the next few years, she earned a master’s in psychology and worked as a counselor for a police department during the First and Second Russian-Chechen Wars, rebellions fought on and off from 1994 to 2009.
She served in this role for six years, during which time she also earned a Ph.D. in psychology from Moscow Psycho-Social University.
Sypchenko’s hands hold and help guide the hands of a student on the piano keyboard.(AJ Reynolds/Brenau University) “This work kept me quite busy and stimulated, as many police officers were also soldiers who served in Chechnya during the war there,” she recalls. “Between the stress of police work and their military time in Chechnya, many suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.”
In 2007, Sypchenko made the bold decision to move to America. She calls it the hardest decision of her life, yet the American dream of working hard and being rewarded for those efforts was a powerful draw. She arrived in America with her 13-year-old daughter, Maria. Neither of them spoke English, so they found refuge in Atlanta’s Russian community. “The only work I could find was in home care,” she says. “I was confused and scared.”
While Maria picked up English quickly in the public school system, Sypchenko was content to remain in the Russian community, supplementing her home-care work with piano lessons for Russian-speaking children. In 2014, she realized that she needed to learn English to function fully in America, so she enrolled in an English as a second language program at Kennesaw State University.
As her English improved, her passions and skills intersected, and she began offering piano lessons and Russian-language lessons to English-speaking children. “I learned then that music is a universal language,” she says.
Sypchenko and her daughter are “loving life” in the United States, and they have a goal to visit every national park. They are about a third of the way to their goal and are planning more trips this summer.
“For the first time in my life, I feel whole, more complete, like the pieces of a puzzle have finally come together,” she says. “I can work with people, see the change and know I have helped. I am so happy.