Vickie Kissinger and voice

Singing student Shaun Sitkowski sits at the piano with his voice teacher, Vickie Kissinger.

Shaun Sitkowski has no qualms about breaking into song in the middle of Yoder’s Market in New Holland or getting up before a crowd at a Lancaster Barnstormers game to sing the national anthem.

And why should he?

With his deep baritone voice and perfect pitch, he has a rare talent that voice teacher Vickie Kissinger has been nurturing since he was a little boy.

Now 25, Sitkowski is a talented singer who could easily star in a Broadway show. He is also blind and has been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder.

He is one of more than 15 special needs students with whom Kissinger has worked over the years. For the young man, music is at the core of his life. It gives him a sense of purpose.

“Singing makes me feel happy inside,” says Sitkowski, who sings everything from “If I Were a Rich Man” from “Fiddler on the Roof” to “Music of the Night” from “Phantom of the Opera.” His voice is filled with emotion that seems to come from deep within him.

Kissinger is hoping to reach out to other special needs students who have an interest in singing or playing the piano, or both. An open house is planned for Saturday at the Lancaster Conservatory of Music.

Kissinger recently joined the staff of the conservatory, with an emphasis on special needs students. She has been teaching music for more than 25 years, and has some 17 years of experience with special needs students.

Kissinger received her degree in music education from Millersville University and studied with Anita Renfroe and the late Don Trostle.

She is a classically trained mezzo soprano who has won numerous awards, including the 2012 Pennsylvania State Senior Idol competition. She is also a pianist and organist, who serves as organist at Ephrata Church of the Brethren and St. John Center Lutheran Church in East Earl.

“I discovered that I could reach out to special needs students of all ages, with visual impairment, intellectual disabilities, developmental disorders and learning disabilities,” says Kissinger. “Every student has a different way of reaching them.”

A natural talent

Kissinger has seen young people blossom as they uncover a natural talent for music. One young man, Ethan Burkholder, who is 24, blind and has a developmental disorder, is not much for conversation. He prefers to let his music speak for him. Another student, Caitlin Musser, 22, has an intellectual disability. When she was just 10, she somehow knew all the chords to “Deck the Halls” and played them on the piano.

“I was astounded,” says Kissinger, who is always amazed at the gifts her students have for music.

She sees it as her mission to bring out that talent, and help them discover their inner Pavarotti or Chopin.

As she explains, teaching a special needs student music takes extra patience and an understanding of how to reach that student. Every student learns in a different way and you have to find that pathway. She discovers how to help them stay focused, avoid distractions and fight frustration.

“I can’t tell you what it means to the students. This is a way they can express themselves, and feel strong and confident,” says Kissinger.

Parents can’t thank her enough. Musser was always a very shy youngster, but her piano playing has given her greater confidence. Sitkowski continues to amaze with his professional caliber voice. Since he is blind, his hearing and memory are highly developed. He can recognize the make and model of a car by the sound of its horn.

He memorizes the notes and words of a song almost immediately. He can mimic the voice of performers such as Robin Williams as the genie in “Aladdin.”

When he breaks into song in public, he may not be able to see the crowd that gathers, but he can hear the applause. “They love it!” he says.

“Some of these students have wonderful gifts and that’s what music can mean to them. It can be a life-changing event,” says Kissinger. “Not only is it fulfilling for them, but it is immensely gratifying for me.”¶

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