Music inspires, motivates master’s student

Kim Headlee

Music has always been a part of Kimberlee Headlee’s life. “As a child, I’d make up songs and improvise on the piano, discovering for myself all the qualities of music that continue to inspire me today,” she says.

During her undergraduate studies at ASU, she continued to sing and compose but found herself searching for a way to integrate her music studies with her interests in health care, psychology and computer science.  

Her passions began to converge when she joined the School of Arts, Media and Engineering (AME) as a graduate student and discovered a new creative path.

“I want to develop ways that technology can be applied in music therapy,” she says. “AME offers me an incredible opportunity to live, learn and grow in an interdisciplinary environment.”  

AME, a collaboration between Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts and the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, combines arts and technology by bringing together students, faculty and professionals from many different backgrounds, such as bioengineering, psychology, dance, theatre and computer science, to search for new rehabilitation and learning systems.

“More than anything, AME has helped me understand the importance of intellectual diversity for creative development,” Headlee says.

In a burst of innovative approaches to music therapy, Headlee created a unique interactive system in which users can create music by moving their bodies through physical space. In essence, bodies can be used as musical instruments. The system has several therapeutic effects, including increased spatial and body awareness and auditory discrimination. It helps motivates physical movement, providing a boost in endurance, muscle tone, balance and synchronized movement.

Developed as a therapy for children with mild to moderate developmental disabilities, Headlee hopes to make the system available for pediatric hospitals and music therapy clinics.

“The most rewarding aspect of this project is getting to see people's reactions when they first experience the system,” Headlee says. “Everyone inevitably finds something magical about the fact that their body movements create sound out of thin air. Even adults have facial expressions of child-like excitement at the apparent magic.”

Working at AME revealed many ways in which music can be used in powerful, innovative ways. Researchers introduced her to the possibilities of using music as audio feedback for stroke rehabilitation, communication in aphasia, and motivation for movement with autistic children as just a few of the potentialities.

Headlee has been busy with a number of projects, including working as a teaching assistant in ASU’s new Digital Culture initiative and volunteering for Rosie's House, a Music Academy for Children that offers free music lessons to underprivileged children in the Valley.

With two AME doctoral students, she helped launch an online community called “The Route Sixty-Kicks Composition Project” that encourages collaborative musical composition for both non-musicians and musicians.

She co-authored a paper presented at the 2010 conference for New Interfaces in Musical Expression (NIME) and presented a poster on her research at the American Music Therapy Association Conference in 2011.

Living with the auto-immune disease Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE) – characterized by joint pain, fever, fatigue, skin rash and chronic inflammation – has not slowed Headlee down or induced any self-pity.

“Instead it caused me to re-evaluate my life's priorities and see the value of living each moment to its potential,” she says. “I learned that it takes dedication and perseverance to accomplish a goal. I also learned when it's important to not take life too seriously.

“One of my life goals is to coach others with chronic illnesses, especially young and newly diagnosed individuals, on coping strategies and the importance of optimism.”

Headlee recently accepted a position teaching music to kindergarten and first- and second-graders in a Phoenix school. “I started already and love it! My love of music as an art will never diminish but neither will my love of finding innovative, functional ways to add music to others’ lives.”

This December Headlee receives a master’s degree in music composition with a concentration in interdisciplinary digital arts media and performance.

Michele St George
Publications, Graduate College