Updated: Feb 22, 2022
Since April 2020, I, and a whole team of professional health care workers, community caregivers and community volunteers have been devoting our free time towards our community seniors and their extended families who have fallen through the cracks during the COVID pandemic lockdown. We have each brought to the table our professional expertise and were forced to find solutions to potential life and death health care realities under unusual and difficult circumstances. I, as a music therapist, am one of the professionals who adapted normal music therapy interventions to become online sessions. There were times when I wanted to pull my hair out and although it may sound simple to make the switch from on-site to online, it really hasn’t been.
I suspect if you are on this site, you have probably seen excerpts from a few sessions in the video clips. I am assuming what you are seeing are me with my guitar and the participants talking back and forth or smiling and singing along with some moment of music, moving and swaying as a result of what's being heard. When you look at the video clips are you thinking to yourself "Oh, that’s nice, look they are happy!" These are the effect to the cause and the cause is specific actions on the part of the music therapist to create a particular atmosphere, or provoke a particular response. All of this is done by the music and the music therapist is the facilitator and not the performer.
Each time I look at the video clips , I find myself, yet again, thinking something along the lines of what people who know nothing about music therapy are most likely seeing in the clips‘ and hearing what they might even be saying such as: Oh, how nice, she is playing and singing for those people.’ When this does occur, and believe me it has, a lot, they generally follow-up with these next questions:
‘What is Music Therapy? How does it work? or ‘What do you do in music therapy?
There’s that feeling again. The one that leaves me with a slight sense of panic as I try to use words to describe a non-verbal intervention process. When people say, and they almost always do "Oh, you sing and play the guitar for people” I positively cringe, so I thought this might be a good opportunity to try to explain a non-verbal intervention with words. Wish me luck!
What is music therapy?
Music Therapy is the professional use of music and its elements a an intervention in medical, educational, and everyday environment with individuals, groups, families, or communities who seek to optimize their quality of life and improve their physical, social, communicative, emotional, intellectual and spiritual health and well-being. Research ,practice, education, and clinical training in music therapy are based upon professional standards to cultural, social and political contexts
Music therapy is a non-verbal intervention which anyone can participate in. That which transpires in a session to the untrained ear can seem like noise; sounds going askew or chaotic at times. To music therapists, we see, and hear the sound of the soul in the production of each and every note, silence, strike of a baton, or uttering of a word. The therapy lies within the music and not through the spoken word. Yes, of course we use both, but the music as the sound environment created in a session is what defines the therapy in action. For example, the therapeutic environment can be created through instrumental improvisation, singing, toning, composing songs, discussing, and analyzing lyrics, listening, and sharing musical preferences or the active experience of silence. Each sound has a color, and all are a part of the sound/human complex I know as music therapy. This is not a forum for performance perfection. No, not at all. Therefore, its important to understand that one does NOT require any musical training to participate and benefit from music therapy sessions. What matters is their needs be addressed effectively.
Improvising can create an environment where the spoken word is not needed. Sound and silence are used as the therapeutic tool for communication and self-expression. Anyone can improvise, and the best part is the authenticity of the experience; that is to say within the musical experience the participants recognize the uniqueness and healing power of being present in the ‘musical moment’ and that their presence in the moment permits awareness on a bio-psycho-social level. Improvising often stimulates discussion that provides for the opportunity to be heard in real time, and is authentic to the state of the individual.
The level of engagement, be it “active” or “passive” provides the opportunity for living a sense of freedom for a mind, body, and spirit, experience. It can lead to a transcendental experience as well. As a result, the physical or emotional responses are very often impossible to be effectively described in words, hence why we say as an intervention it is non-verbal. The movement of the musical moment has given voice to the participants' inner experience via the color, sound, force, rhythm, or other element of the music. As often as possible, which is nearly all the time, once the improvisation has come to its natural end, the benefits to the players psyche is priceless.
Although Improvisation is only one of the techniques used to establish the therapeutic “bridge” between the client, the music, and the therapist it is the technique generally preferred and effective when the client presents with communication barriers stemming from cognitive, physical, or emotional health issues. Improvisation in this form of intervention provides the client the opportunity to explore a variety of instruments and/or to create and hear the associated sounds through their senses which are responding to the resonance and changing timbres (colors of the music)with the improvisation. In most cases, although not always a verbal return is added to deepen the therapeutic experience. Improvisation is often followed by a sense of pride and accomplishment for the client but the best part is that as a treatment intervention, it's fun.
Improvisation can be done anywhere and at any time. As an example, Have you ever sat in front of a piano or keyboard, taken your hand, and slid it up and down the keys just to hear the sound? If you haven’t, well, it’s time you did! I guarantee it will give you a giggle. That’s it, that’s how to begin improvising and you don’t need a piano. It can be a whistle, humming a tune, tapping our wooden spoon on the countertop, tapping a rhythm on your knees with your hands… the sky's the limit. Music and improvisation are everywhere, all the time.
Other methods in music therapy include singing and its components, such as song composition and lyric analysis. This touches on so many facets of the human experience, and it's why music therapists use these methods so frequently. Everyone has a song to sing. Have you ever asked yourself what yours is? If not, then try now, go ahead. What is the title of your song?
From the clinical perspective, singing helps with our cognitive skills. Memory is required to remember words, to feel our emotional responses about the people, time and places in our lives and this occurs consciously or unconsciously when we sing or hear a song.
Active and engaged participation in music listening is a very important element of music therapy interventions.. We can measure responses, record the data, and determine progress such as when an Individual is recovering from a stroke or other neurocognitive disorder. Observing, developing the global and specific objectives and then data recording (as in the number of times the required behaviour is spontaneously given) can identify the degree and level of progress. When a non-verbal stroke victim sings a song, you can imagine the magic everyone involved can feel. We see this often in music therapy interventions because musical memory and cognitive memory are not located in the same area of the brain.