#CLEative Groove: Meet Lisa Ligus, founder of Songbirds Music Therapy Services

Our #CLEative Groove series features Q&A profiles on our city’s creative makers and shakers! Read on for our next installment with music therapist Lisa Ligus, founder of Songbirds Music Therapy Services.

Lisa Ligus at the Cleveland sign in Tremont. How long have you lived in Cleveland, and where do you currently live? I have lived in Cleveland my entire life. I grew up in Parma and now live in Parma Heights with my husband Jim and our sons, Charlie, William, and Andrew.

Name something local that helped to shape your creativity as a kid: Many of my childhood memories revolve around enjoying Slovenian food and dancing the polka at Slovenian National Home in Cleveland or SNPJ Farm Kirtland. (My grandparents were immigrants from Slovenia; I quickly became aware of how the traditions brought so much joy to them.) Singing in a Slovenian youth chorus helped me learn many of the Slovenian folk songs, and some of my fondest family memories from my youth revolve around singing those songs with my grandparents during our visits. It’s quite nostalgic to attend the Annual Button Box Bash or Thanksgiving Polka Weekend events. 

What do you do for work? Share a bit about your professional path to date. I have been a Board-Certified Music Therapist since 1996. In 2008, I started my own business called Songbirds Music Therapy Services. I started this community-based program for two reasons: 1) There was a huge need for adapted music programs—or really any programs—specifically designed for adults with developmental disabilities and 2) I had just given birth to my third child and wanted a better work-life balance. 

Initially, all of my programs took place at the Cuyahoga County Board of Developmental Disabilities Adult Activity Centers. One of my favorite offerings was an integrated music program at a senior center. Together we learned the sign language for about 10 different songs, played rhythm instruments, did improvisation on hand drums and tone chimes, played various musical games, moved to music, and discussed lyrics and what songs meant to us. It was a great experience.  

When the County Board of Developmental Disabilities closed their day program doors, this required me to find new places to provide services. Adult day programs were now to be offered in the community by private providers, putting an unfortunate end to the senior center partnership. I started providing services at various private day programs and group homes, and I also added school-aged children with Autism Spectrum Disorder and other learning differences to the people I served.

Everything came to a screeching halt in March 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic began. Like all of us, the individuals I served were stuck at home—social distancing with no place to go and not much to do.  About a month into the pandemic, a group home manager asked me if we could try to do virtual sessions.  This was completely foreign to me, and I wasn’t sure how it would work out. But the Music Therapy community is resourceful and adaptive—there were many music therapists nationwide offering how-to videos and various training. It was some quick learning, but we did it and it went well.

Lisa Ligus with guitar leading the 2nd graders in a music and movement activity at JB Schools Westlake.By the end of April 2020, I was seeing two group homes separately via Zoom. I quickly became aware that while what I had to offer was something, it wasn’t enough. I collaborated with the home managers on the idea of creating a virtual music group that could be more cost-efficient and also create a feeling of community, even if we were in our own homes. We decided that having a materials kit would be beneficial, providing everyone with the same instruments and movement props to use during class. And thus Virtual Songbirds was hatched. 

Virtual Songbirds is a 10-week adapted music enrichment experience for adults with developmental disabilities that happens 2-3 times a year. The goal of the program is to cultivate community, creativity, movement, and fun through music. Currently, there are about 20 participants, and our next session is set to start on March 12, 2022. (Prospective participants who want to join our flock can click here for information.) I am open to offering additional virtual classes if there is interest in a different day or time. 

As COVID numbers diminish, I will continue to offer Virtual Songbirds as long as there is an interest. My hope is to also grow my in-person community-based program. I have some free offerings called Community Songbirds at a few of the Cuyahoga County Library Branches starting in March. I’m also hoping to connect with other arts facilities in the community to offer some programs there. 

In addition to my personal business, I was excited to join the staff of Julie Billiart School as their Music Therapist at their new Westlake campus this past fall. Since everyone is new to the school—students and staff alike—it feels like a once-in-a-lifetime experience. We all are learning and developing side-by-side. 

In your opinion, what are Cleveland’s best-kept cultural and creative secrets? As a family, we love the theater. The best ticket in town, in my opinion, is the season subscription to Cassidy Theatre. Their tagline “Great theatre, close to home!” is no exaggeration for us, as it is literally down the street from our home in Parma Heights. Their season this year includes Harvey, Sister Act, Rent, The Drowsy Chaperone, Elf The Musical, as well as selections from local playwrights; last year, they featured Matt’s First (Real) Thanksgiving by Stow native Brandi Eaton.

Lisa Ligus assisting a woman in playing the maracas at Community Based SongBirds in Medicore Achievement Centers. I also try to catch any productions the Music Theater department at Baldwin Wallace is doing. Their program is one of the top-ranked programs in the nation, so you are seeing future Broadway talent right before they head off to New York. If you walk the halls of their conservatory, you’ll find a hallway that is covered with posters of Broadway Shows signed by alumni. 

For those who like improv comedy, I recommend Scriptless in Seattle. (Don’t worry, you don’t have to go to Seattle to see them!) They mainly perform around the Akron area and make it up to Cleveland on occasion. They are a relatively young improv troupe with great timing and creative ideas; their performances are in the stylings of Something Dada and Whose Line Is It Anyway?

Finally, my favorite event of the year is One World Day at the Cleveland Cultural Gardens. Held in August, it is a celebration of the diverse cultures that make up Cleveland. It’s a great opportunity to enjoy the beauty of the Cultural Gardens and experience food, dance, costumes, and music from all over the world. 

When not doing music therapy, what are some of your other creative passions and how do you indulge them locally? Paper crafting has become one of my favorite at-home activities, along with floral shadow boxes and various 3D picture frames. Any opportunity to make one-of-a-kind gifts for people is never lost on me. I love shopping at Hollo’s Papercraft in Brunswick—there are often unique finds at wholesale prices. When it comes to vinyl creations, my favorite place to go is Crafter’s Wholesale Superstore in Parma. The prices and selection cannot be beaten.

Another creative venture I enjoy is volunteering with youth theaters around town. Prior to the pandemic, I assisted with a few productions a year. I am an amateur choreographer and costumer, at best, but it’s a creative outlet I enjoy and I love working with the kids! I’m hoping to get back to volunteering in this way again in the future.

If you were a Cleveland landmark, which one would you be and why? Of all of the amazing local landmarks, I think I would be the Old Arcade. When you are outside of it, it looks ordinary, just like any other façade, but when you enter through the doors, it is extraordinary. On a sunny day, it is so bright in there, and even on gloomy days, it seems to be brighter than it should be. It’s as if it makes its own sunshine.  

Favorite Cleveland mural/piece of art and why? I’m delighted by all the art around Cleveland. There seems to be more and more murals every day enhancing our beautiful city. My favorite is the bird mural on W. 11th created by Dave Witzke. It is full of color, whimsy, and BIRDS! 

A typical day in my life might include... Morning journaling. I’ve adopted this practice as it is a great way to clear some headspace and focus for the day, and I try to do it at least five days out of the week.  

If it is a traditional workday, I head off pretty early to Julie Billiart School Westlake and get ready to greet my students. While at JB Westlake, I teach K-4 music with a therapeutic approach. This means there’s a lot of checking in with emotions and using the music activities as an opportunity to learn about ourselves and others. On days when I am not physically going into work, I use that time to plan for my classes and market my Songbirds programs. I do my best to stay up to date with training in order to maintain my Music Therapy Board Certification status. 

While working, I also spend some time with our pet birds. We have three small parrots, and they each have a place to hang out in my office for some time out of their cages. I also like to make it out to In A Pickle Parrot Shop to find some treats to spoil our feathered family members and also to visit with the parrots at the shop. (The parrot named "Jimmy" is my favorite!) If weather permits, I will head out to the Metroparks for a walk with my dog, Chaplin.

In the time leading up to dinner, our house sounds like a music school. From the upstairs, you can hear my oldest son, Charlie, on piano. Since he’s finished with his college auditions, he is busy working on music for “Mamma Mia,” in which he will be playing in the pit for the production. My office usually gets taken over by my youngest son, Andrew, who has been working hard on his saxophone and also the banjo. (Bluegrass music is his new favorite.) From the basement, you can hear my middle son, William. He’s usually playing the mandolin or the accordion, but also plays the harmonica, clarinet, saxophone, and sousaphone in the marching band.

While they are practicing their instruments, they act as my body double to motivate me to practice guitar, flute, or piano.  But sometimes it’s just nice to sit and listen—it’s kind of a dream that my children have grown to be such amazing musicians. They even started a polka band at Normandy High School and had their first performance in December. I love that they have found their way back to our family’s roots all on their own!

Anything else you want us to know about you? I am a fan of Gretchen Rubin’s Happier Podcast. One of her segments is a “try this at home” segment in which she and her sister Elizabeth, guests, and even listeners share ideas to make life simpler, better, and/or happier.  

I have a "try this" suggestion for people who are budding entrepreneurs: If an opportunity presents itself and sounds interesting to you, but it’s kind of scary, say “yes!” even if it’s just slightly in your wheelhouse. These opportunities are what will help you grow the most. Say “yes,”  and figure it out as you go. 

Learn more about Lisa and Virtual Songbirds here, and stay tuned for more #CLEative Groove profiles! You can also follow @CLEativeGroove on Instagram here, or send suggestions for people to profile here.

Read more articles by Jen Jones Donatelli.

As an enthusiastic CLE-vangelist, Jen Jones Donatelli enjoys diving headfirst into her work with FreshWater Cleveland. Upon moving back to Cleveland after 16 years in Los Angeles, Jen served as FreshWater's managing editor for two years (2017-2019) and continues her work with the publication as a contributing editor and host of the FreshFaces podcast. When not typing the day away at her laptop, she teaches writing and creativity classes through her small business Creative Groove, as well as Literary Cleveland, Cleveland State University, and more. Jen is a proud graduate of Ohio University's E.W. Scripps School of Journalism.