Music is extremely powerful. From the time we are in our mother's womb, it molds and shapes us, affecting our development and mood. Later in life, music reflects and alters our emotions in a way nothing else can. One real way that music changes lives is by helping to heal past trauma and even cope with mental and emotional disabilities.
Therapists and teachers from all over are experiencing the lasting positive effects music has on their clients and students. We've interviewed several passionate professionals from all over the country who are in the field of changing lives through music. Here are some of their stories.
Dancing To Her Own Drumbeat
Kat Fulton interviews every client before a session to make sure their care is specific to their needs. She emphasizes that there is no need to have any musical talent or experience ahead of time. One thing she tells her patients over and over is, "There is no wrong way to play!"
We had a woman join our drumming group at an older adult wellness group. At the beginning of the session, she said with a sad tone, “Well, I just suffered a stroke and I can hardly move like I used to. It's very disheartening.” By the end of the session, she unveiled her hidden tap-dancing talent, and had us all dancing and drumming to her favorite beat!
Kat has been a board-certified music therapist for nearly a decade, and her music therapy program, Rhythm For Good, uses mainly percussion instruments to help people tune in their own personal heartbeat. The clients that attend Fulton's session are often healthcare professionals or corporate employees. She also works with older adults recovering from medical incidents.
Turning Disability to Ability
When helping clients with disabilities, Rachel See often works alongside other healthcare professionals such as occupational therapists and speech-language pathologists. The outcome of therapy sessions typically include specific physical, behavioral and emotional goals. Rachel's music therapy program is truly helping those with a disability to reach their full potential. One family which attended Music Therapy Services shared how her program changed their son's life:
We've used Music Therapy Services of Austin for the past 2 years with both of my sons- one who has limited verbal skills and one who has focus and attention issues. Rachel has been a tremendous gift to our family with her education, experience, compassion and energy! She continues to bring the latest breakthroughs in music therapy to us through her involvement in her industry, attending conferences, and educating parents and teachers.
With over 25 years of experience playing piano and violin, music has always been a central part of Rachel’s life: she received an M.A. in Music Therapy from the University of Iowa, and started Music Therapy Services in Austin, Texas. Rachel's clients often are children and adults with disabilities such as Autism, Down's Syndrome or Cerebral Palsy.
Healing Sounds to Comfort Grieving
Having the sensitivity to relax a dying client and help their family grieve, is an important quality for one to have if going into the field of Music Wellness. Jessica Ryan knows this too well.
Last year I accompanied the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra’s Principal Flute, Lorna McGhee, on a visit to the local VA and followed her as she traveled from room to room and offered to play some tunes for the veterans. At one point during the visit, she encountered an actively dying veteran who was surrounded by family. Lorna gently and quietly serenaded the group by playing “Danny Boy” and “Sunset on the Somme” on her alto flute.
One of the VA’s music therapists, Ginger Dougherty, provided feedback after the visit. She said: This family had someone doing a vigil around the clock for a day or so before Lorna’s visit. The music was really soothing to them as they went through anticipatory grief and the stress associated with this. Lorna showered them with healing music, which was really good. One or two of the family members cried, which was good because they let their guard down. It was cathartic; not painful. The music was a healthy conduit for feeling grief. You could see the tension release.
Jessica, a violinist with a BA in Music, is currently the Manager of Education and Community Programs at the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.
Music For Neurological Health
For Angie Kosphy, it’s important that she considers the needs of her clients in every moment of therapy, and that she is flexible no matter what she had already planned for treatment. If she is able to lift them up from where they are emotionally, then it's all worth it. She uses her songwriting talent to write songs with or for some of her clients, like one little girl who needed some comfort.
One of my clients hurt herself at home and could only be soothed by listening to a relaxation recording I made for her. During our sessions, I try to get my clients to sing along and provide space for breathing so that they can ultimately use this technique to self-soothe outside of our sessions. It was so great to hear about this little four year old using this technique at home!
Angie runs a music therapy studio in Southwest Portland that specializes in neurological impairments. Her clients vary from adults suffering with dementia, to children on the autism spectrum.
Singing To Hospitalized Children
Matt Logan tries to keep his patients as active participants in the music. Often they will sing and dance, writing and arranging songs with him. There is no need for anyone to have a musical background, because according to Matt, everyone is born musical.
As a music therapist, I get daily reminders of how powerful music truly is. I've seen children with brain injuries regain speaking abilities through singing, and have sang distressed premature infants to sleep. We are musical from the moment we are born until the day we die. Music therapists are trained to leverage people's responses to music in ways that support their overall health and well-being.
Matt is a Music Therapist that mainly works with children in a pediatric hospital in Oakland, CA. He has seen some amazing progress and recovery in the patients he works with. Music therapy is combined with these kid's medical treatment to focus on their physical and emotional well-being.
Working With Psychiatric Diagnoses
Natalie Mullis has seen a lot of positive changes in her patient's lives, including improving social skills and fine motor ability. When asked about her technique in reaching her patients, she replied,
We utilize a variety of music based interventions such as playing music together, listening to music, movement to music, and music based games and activities. The type of music used varies by the client with whom we are working. We tailor the music to meet their preference.
Natalie runs Key Changes Music Therapy Services in Columbia, South Carolina, where she primarily works with children and adults with psychiatric diagnoses. Her work is changing their lives for the better.
Instruments For Muscle Rehabilitation
When asked about a great success story in her 18 years of work, Janice Lindstrom shared one about a boy with a spinal cord injury.
His occupational therapist was trying to get him to use a "sip-n-puff" device so that he could propel his wheelchair using his breath. However, he was fearful of the device and he did not speak English, so he did not understand what the therapist wanted him to do. I had been working with him for a while, and he had a special song that he liked to sing. I played that song on a recorder...and brought another recorder for him to play. I turned the mouthpiece of that recorder around so that I could finger the notes while he blew into the instrument to make the music to play his favorite song.
We were able to use this technique to work on the muscles and coordination needed to use the wheelchair device and transfer the skills to the wheelchair in one 30 minute music therapy session. Music helped him to learn the skills he needed, develop the musculature required, calm his fears and confusion, so that he could successfully propel his wheelchair.
Janice has provided music therapy in rehabilitation centers, assisted living communities, psychiatric settings private homes, and many other places. Janice currently lives in Dallas, Texas where supervises Southern Methodist University music therapy students during their clinical training.
That "A-Ha!" Moment
Internationally known Music Therapist Dr. Barbara Reuer has over 35 years of expertise. When asked how she knows when she's been successful with a client, Dr. Reuer said,
All you need to watch is their body language, facial expressions, and listen to what they say. We are successful when we get the "a-ha!" expression, smile, sparkle in their eyes, decrease in pain, stress, anxiety, the ability to communicate when one couldn't communicate.
Dr. Reuer is the founder and director of Musicworx, a consulting agency based in San Diego, California. She has authored several books and has been interviewed by print media and television many times. Dr. Reuer's newest project is a non-profit to music therapy program helping people with special needs or who are home bound. The organization, Resounding Joy, Inc. has impacted the lives of many families.
Drumming For Mental Health
Mike Veny, the man behind Transforming Stigma, told us a story of how one boy challenged the way he thought about behavior.
I once facilitated a mental health drum circle activity for kids for several weeks. One of the participants was being incredibly disruptive and acting out. Instead of reprimanding him, I had a talk with him and asked him to take over as the leader. He did a phenomenal job - better than me. It made me wonder - was he having behavior problems or unexpressed talent?
Mike's passion to use music to help people with mental health issues stems from a very personal experience. As a child, Mike was expelled from three schools and put in a psychiatric hospital several times to deal with his behavioral outbursts. After Mike suffered a mental breakdown as an adult in 2011, he decided he needed to help others with similar challenges. Mike uses his talents for drumming to facilitate drum circle workshops at mental health conferences throughout the United States.
A Student of Music Therapy
Student Bobbi Jo Vandal is passionate about her chosen field, and has already worked in day programs for children with disabilities, in nursing homes and in psychiatric units. When interviewed, she shared how she saw music therapy change people for the better.
Some participants who are stigmatized because of their disabilities can participate in music therapy and feel empowered because of the supportive, nonjudgmental space and the free expression that occurs with music.
Bobbi Jo is studying to be a Music Therapist at the elite Berklee College of Music. As the field becomes more popular, it is hoped that more people like Bobbi Jo will study how make a difference in people's lives through music.
More Than Words
Music Therapy works because music has the ability to portray the human condition beyond language barriers. Music can reflect heartbreak and joy, and it has the power to energize and to soothe. As the actor Johnny Depp once said, “Music touches us emotionally, where words alone can't.” These stories profoundly illustrate just how true that is.