“Who am I deep down?
When times get tough do I smile or do I frown?
Do I lift my head up high, lift my hands up to the sky
And say I’m a winner?”
– Lyrics from “Tap Roots” by Karla Perretta
Crammed into an extended closet space, a group of bright-eyed students are starting their day by imagining themselves on the cover of a comic book.
“Come on now!” A woman in the back cheers them on. “Stretch waaaaaaaay up, hit your pose and think of the best thing you can think of!”
A tiny girl stretches her arms to the sky and closes her eyes. Her face tightens as she searches for that one perfect thought. When it hits, she can barely contain her excitement, and blurts it out for the group to hear:
The students finish their power poses and smiling, they get ready to start their session with Tap Root, a program designed to use therapeutic music to help them through their school day.
The encouraging voice in the back of the room, Karla Perretta started Tap Root as she started a new phase in her life. Perretta retired as a business owner, selling her Lancaster Jimmy John’s franchise and going back to school. Combining her love of singing and writing songs with her desire to serve the community, she walked into Tallmadge Elementary school unsure of what lay ahead.
“It was supposed to be me showing up, singing a couple songs and engaging with the kids,” Perretta said, “and it turned into this project.”
“If I keep on asking and I keep on growing,
Soon I’ll know who I am,
And my roots will run deeper.”
The project uses therapeutic music (note: there is a significant difference between music therapy and therapeutic music) and literacy practices to give students a boost in their attitudes and reading levels.
“The goal is to create songs that create opportunities for reading comprehension,” Perretta explains. “Music engages both the left side and right side of the brain. It’s a multi-sensory way of learning.”
Perretta’s partner Jon Slater provides the guitar and offers another crucial second set of hands, eyes, and ears needed when working with children. The name Slater carries a certain weight and familiarity in Lancaster. Generations of Slaters run the well-known Slaters Hardware on Memorial Drive, and Melodi Slater is an award-winning Title 1 teacher at Tallmadge Elementary. When Jon was offered the chance to work alongside Perretta to help his mother’s students, it was an easy choice.
“(My mom) asked me if I wanted to play guitar for kids and help them learn how to read, I couldn’t say no to that opportunity,” Jon said. “It’s giving back to your community: using your natural talents and abilities to help better the community that you live in.”
“Do I have a grateful heart?
Do I sit on the side? Or do I finish what I start?”
Music comes naturally to Slater. The Lancaster High School graduate is a performing musician with an independent album that he recorded while living in San Francisco.
While Lancaster may not have the cultural gravitas of Haight-Ashbury, Slater realizes the opportunity he has to do good work here.
“I honestly couldn’t think of a place where I could have more of an impact,” Slater said. “I could still be living in San Francisco, but I’d be one out of 3-million like-minded people. Instead, I can sort of stand out here and hopefully influence the world around me more.”
That influence is clear with the first strum of his guitar in that tiny space.
“I get a lot of joy out of this,” Slater said. “It is really gratifying to see the smiles on their faces when they’re singing along, and you get to a silly part of the song and they’re all laughing.
“It’s just a lot of joy.”
“Joy” is only slightly underselling the impact. The students involved with Tap Root have received extra small-group instruction, learned to look for meaning in lyrics and poetry, and have even designed their own instruments with which to play along.The music also helps give kids a sense of self-worth. When you find a song and connect with it, it helps cement your place in the world. This is when the big picture of these sessions starts to come together. The power poses, the sight word drills, singing along with a song written especially for them: they all play a role in giving the kids something of value to stick in the ground and grow from.
“So let the storms blow because my roots run deeper.
My colors shine brighter even in the darkest night.
And though I might be young, I have choices to make.
You won’t find me on my knees because I believe,
That my roots run deeper.”