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Canadian musician practises music therapy in Israel

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Tal Naor, left, is a participant in Musequality, an Israeli music education program for people with disabilities. Beside him, from left, are program founder Ruthy Reinich, accordionist Yoav Gross and intern Caleb Elias, and in front on keyboards is Roee Ginant.

Caleb Elias is a Canadian guitarist who’s currently doing an internship in music therapy at Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv, where he works with music students who have developmental disabilities.

After finishing Acadia University’s music therapy program last year, Elias needed to complete 1,000 hours as an intern before becoming an accredited music therapist.

His internship with Musequality, a music education program for people with disabilities, began last September. Musequality is a joint project of Bar-Ilan and Akim Israel, which provides services for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Students enrolled in Musequality, which was founded by music therapist Ruthy Reinich two years ago, play piano or guitar and sing in a choir. “We work with adults who range between 20 years old and 50 years old. Most of them have severe autism or Down syndrome,” Elias said.

The goal of Musequality is to give the students the skills they need to assimilate into the working world, he added.

Playing a musical instrument is a workout for the brain. Playing music affects us cognitively because we use our brain to sort out the spatial relationships between notes, Elias said.

“When you play an instrument, you’re using your entire brain to remember the song and tell your body how to play it,” he said. “So this can be very powerful for people who are able-bodied or disabled. But specifically with these people, we are working to improve their sense of self-esteem and self-worth and give them something they can do, because a lot of times in society, people with these kinds of disabilities are told what they can’t do.”

Elias said the students he works with are musically inclined, or at least passionate about music, and many of them are highly intelligent and creative. One student, Roee Ginat, who’s blind and autistic, is a fantastic piano player, Elias said. “He hears something once and knows it and can play it.”

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Elias said he decided to become a music therapist because it’s one of the best ways he can use music to make a difference. And, as a profession, it has more job security than the average musician has.

In “Pressure,” a song on Elias’ YouTube channel, he raps about financial insecurity. “Making a living as a creative person is hard these days, even though it’s easier than ever to get your music out there,” Elias said.

On and off for five years, he played clubs in Malaysia and the United Arab Emirates. “It was a good life, but it gets tiring and sometimes doesn’t lead to other work,” he said. “And I was finding it’s all the same rate of pay and it’s really hard to get above that and stay there, even when you do get some gigs going.”

Elias, 31, who’s descended from two guitarists – his father and grandfather – is a graduate of the music program at Humber College in Toronto, where he specialized in contemporary guitar performance.

A singer and songwriter, he described his style as funky R&B with hip-hop beats and a lot of guitar. His musical influences range from James Brown, the Beatles and Eric Clapton, to Drake.

He’s also produced Arenye, a singer who blends Afrobeat and hip-hop, and singer-songwriter Avery Dakin. “I’m really pleased with the stuff I did with both of them,” Elias said.

His internship ends in July, when he will head back to Toronto. “Right now, I’m focused on getting certified as a music therapist, but I’m practicing a lot, playing guitar and singing and getting my chops together for when I get back to Toronto,” he said.

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