Vocal Vocations Juggling two full-time careers sounds exhausting, but SLP and soul-jazz vocalist Rhonda Thomas finds using her voice in these two different ways vastly rewarding. In the Limelight
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In the Limelight  |   November 01, 2016
Vocal Vocations
Author Notes
  • Shelley D. Hutchins is content producer/editor for The ASHA Leader. shutchins@asha.org
    Shelley D. Hutchins is content producer/editor for The ASHA Leader. shutchins@asha.org×
Article Information
Speech, Voice & Prosody / In the Limelight
In the Limelight   |   November 01, 2016
Vocal Vocations
The ASHA Leader, November 2016, Vol. 21, 24-25. doi:10.1044/leader.LML.21112016.24
The ASHA Leader, November 2016, Vol. 21, 24-25. doi:10.1044/leader.LML.21112016.24
Name: Rhonda Thomas, MS, CCC-SLP
Title: Feeding specialist, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta; founder, Communikids private practice
Hometown: Smyrna, Georgia
A well-known, albeit misquoted line, says music soothes the savage beast. Speech-language pathologist Rhonda Thomas believes music also soothes a newborn baby with feeding issues. The hospital-based SLP and professional singer uses her voice to calm her youngest clients.
“I sing softly to infants during sessions and not only does it relax them, but their breathing starts to change in rhythm with the music, which helps them form a sucking pattern,” Thomas says.
As an undergrad studying jazz at Hampton University in Virginia, Thomas discovered speech-language pathology and saw it as an alternate profession for using her voice to help others. She switched majors and schools, taking courses in the field at Long Island University Post. Continuing on at Southern Connecticut State University for grad school, Thomas credits professor and mentor Sandra Holley—1988 ASHA president—for providing the primary motivation to become an SLP. Yet when Thomas finished school, Holley hired her to sing at commencement ceremonies, which encouraged her to also persist with her music.
Double time
Now working as a feeding specialist at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta (CHOA), Thomas still puts Holley’s guidance—focus on being an SLP, but continue with music—into practice. In fact, she quickly had to figure out how to balance both passions. Thomas was offered a gig as a backup singer for Isaac Hayes in 1997, less than a year after she accepted her job at CHOA. The iconic soul singer was about to depart on a European tour, so Thomas initially turned down the chance.
“My mom said I was crazy to pass on this opportunity, so I went to my new boss and she said I had to go!” Thomas says. “I don’t think any other job would have let me do that, but they made it easy for me.”
She kept the gig with Hayes until his death in 2008, and recently celebrated her 20th anniversary in the outpatient department at CHOA. She also runs a private practice, Communikids.
How does she keep up with not one, but three jobs? Thomas sticks to a practically unchanging schedule, which helps her give complete attention to her clients as well as to her audiences. Mondays and Wednesdays, Thomas works with CHOA patients who have feeding or swallowing disorders. She spends Tuesdays and Thursdays providing treatment to her eight private clients, who have a variety of speech-language issues. Then she devotes weekends to performing and recording jazz, soul, and rhythm and blues, including her original songs. Thomas plays clubs, festivals and concerts, and has found the time to create five solo albums—so far.
Soothing sounds
Viewing music and speech-language pathology as harmonious careers makes devoting equal energy to both work for Thomas. In addition to serenading her youngest patients, she infuses most other sessions with music in some way. She motivates and relates to older students by creating language or articulation activities based on song lyrics they like or by watching favorite bands on YouTube. Musical movement also engages clients. Thomas asks them to do a favorite dance move or tap a beat as part of working toward target goals.
One client, for example, achieved her reading and articulation goals, but could replicate them only in an environment with absolutely no distractions. In several sessions, Thomas hula-hooped and tapped a beat while the client read. This exercise required so much focus that the client learned to ignore all distractions and can now generalize her reading success in other settings.
“I don’t know if many people realize how therapeutic music is,” says Thomas. “And it keeps treatment from getting too mundane—we have to get creative when coming up with ways to impact the lives of these children.”
Her musical approach not only helps clients’ progress, but Thomas says it also helps caregivers relax. Most people take the ability to eat for granted, she explains, but for some of her clients, it’s life or death. These issues make parents understandably tense and hearing music during sessions gives them a sense of calm. And when a child eats from a bottle or spoon for the first time, the joy and relief on parents’ faces can surpass even the thrill of an appreciative audience.
“These two intertwined professions let me heal people through my music and speech-language pathology,” Thomas says. “I always share with student SLPs how important it is to follow their dreams. It sounds cliché, but it worked so well for me.”
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November 2016
Volume 21, Issue 11