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Sing, Dance, Drum, Hum

Music therapy as a natural way to manage health challenges

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Itâ??s Wednesday afternoon, time for the weekly recreational music session for mentally disabled adults at the Parkinson R.

It’s Wednesday afternoon, time for the weekly recreational music session for mentally disabled adults at the Parkinson Recreation Centre in Kelowna. The session begins with a welcome song, followed by drumming. Participants spend the rest of the hour listening to a variety of tunes, then close with a goodbye song. Three women get up to dance; others cannot dance, but drum and hum, tap feet, sing, and smile.

Recreational music like this is not true music therapy, but its benefits are obvious. Michelle Satanove, music therapist and leader of the PRC group, explains, “I use a lot of music therapy techniques in here; it is certainly therapeutic. [But] I’m not setting individual goals and objectives. I’m basically...getting them out, getting them interacting.”

So what is music therapy? The Canadian Association for Music Therapy definition is “the skillful use of music and music elements by an accredited music therapist to promote, maintain, and restore mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual health.” Controlled experiments on the effects of music on the mind and body have been going on for decades and are well-documented in many professional journals. Music therapy has been proven time and again as an effective tool for managing a wide variety of long-term physical and mental disorders including autism, learning disabilities, cerebral palsy, and hearing impairment. It is also commonly used for people with terminal illness and chronic pain, for geriatric care, and for short-term illness and psychological problems. Few treatments in the world can be so broadly applied. Ashley Tait, a Vancouver music therapist says, “I haven’t really found anything it doesn’t work on.”

This is not to say that music therapy can take away illness or completely heal pain. Its power lies in managing health problems and alleviating symptoms. For this, its effects are amazing and, best of all, natural.

Supportive Role

Although widely used, music therapy is still not widely understood by the public. Sarah Anderson, music therapist and violinist for the Kelowna Symphony Orchestra, says, “One of the biggest misconceptions about music therapy is that my clients just lay on a sofa and I play my violin for them.” In fact, music therapists do a whole lot more. Initially, they conduct interviews with clients, make assessments, and create plans for short- or long-term goals. During sessions, therapists play a supportive role, guiding their clients in writing songs, creating tunes and rhythms, and listening to or discussing music. Progress for some clients can be very slow, sometimes only noticeable after several years of regular sessions.

Mentally disabled children and adults benefit a great deal from music therapy. Although the techniques and methods vary according to clients’ abilities, the goal of therapists is relatively consistent: to help clients cope day-to-day and improve their general quality of life. For some, this may mean developing a more regular routine; music can bring focus and order to what may be an otherwise chaotic lifestyle and may help in remembering simple tasks such as brushing teeth. For others, this may mean increasing socialization and improving social skills. Leanne Farynycz is a support worker for mentally disabled adults and regularly attends the music group at Parkinson Recreation Centre. For one young woman she works with, the group has helped most in learning to take turns and share.

Music is also commonly used in elderly populations to cope with age-related physical and mental difficulties, including Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Singing and dancing can increase general physical strength, vocal strength, and motor control. Listening to songs from the past can improve long-term and short-term memory and may bring about happy thoughts, thus a more positive outlook on life.

Many people think music therapy is a branch of psychology. In fact, it is a profession all its own that requires extensive training. In Canada, practitioners must have a bachelor’s degree, which takes four years to complete. Graduates must then complete 1,000 hours of work experience before applying for accreditation with the Canadian Association of Music Therapy (CAMT). Most music therapists have many years of musical training and often know how to play more than one instrument.

Finding a music therapist in big cities isn’t difficult. Look in the phone book, call a hospital or extended care facility or get a referral from your family health-care provider. Finding a therapist in rural areas may be more difficult. A need certainly exists for graduates to relocate to smaller towns.

Music affects all of us, regardless of age, ability or culture. No matter who you are or where you live, sad songs can make you cry and upbeat tunes can make you want to dance. Today, music therapy is a powerful natural health tool. With continued research and patients’ willingness to participate, it can only grow stronger.

Origins of Music Therapy

According to the CAMT Web site musictherapy.ca, the use of music to treat pain can be traced back to pre-Christian Greece. However, music therapy as we know it today has its roots in 18th century Britain, when Richard Browne wrote Medicina Musica. Otherwise known as A Mechanical Essay on the Effects of Singing, Musick, and Dancing on Human Bodies, this ground breaking work contains several principles that form the foundation of modern music therapy. It includes the ideas that music has effects on mood and physiological processes and that music can be used therapeutically and as preventive medicine.

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