Gear Talk As a music therapist I can do something no drugs can do
As a music therapist I can do something no drugs can do
‘When a parent says they given up hope after receiving a diagnosis for their child, I know music therapy can have a role to play.’ Photograph: Howard Sayer/Alamy
I first encountered music therapy at a day centre for older adults in Hackney, east London. I was shadowing a music therapist for the afternoon and helping her run a group for older adults with severe dementia.
Each person’s dementia was different. One woman spoke and sang every spiritual song known to her; she was on her journey to meet her maker, she kept saying. Another woman was quiet and polite; it was difficult to know if she knew what was happening around her. There was one man in the group. He was nodding off but every now and again would startle himself, say something and then close his eyes. There was another woman in the group whose eyes sparkled when we looked at each other. She tried to speak – she opened and closed her mouth but no words came out.
As the therapist initiated the beginning of the session, taking her lead from the lady singing spiritual songs, I watched something miraculous happen. All four of the adults began to come alive – vacant gazes transformed into laser-sharp eye contact and they began to say hello to each other.
The music was lively and invigorating, yet at times it was reflective, poignant and sincere. It brought them to life and enabled them to connect with themselves and others.
As the session went on, the music picked up pace. People were getting up on their feet, dancing and singing. The woman with sparkling eyes couldn’t stand unaided. She reached out her hand to me and before I knew it, we were dancing together with everyone else. As I leaned into her and thought I heard her sing a little. As the singing and dancing continued, her voice grew stronger and her gentle “la la la” started to become beginnings of other words. She was beaming the biggest smile at me as the song came to an end. After the music had stopped, she held my hand and said a few words to me. I felt she was trying to thank me.
Later, the music therapist told me that was the first time anyone had heard her say anything in years. It was also the moment that I knew I wanted to train as a music therapist. Playing a role in this profound experience changed my understanding and relationship with music. Six years later, I am still working as a music therapist with people of all ages who have a diverse range of needs. From adults with severe and enduring mental health conditions, to young children with profound and multiple learning disabilities.
I can’t cure the children I work with of their autism, or reverse their congenital condition or learning disability. Not even drugs can do that. But I can do something drugs can’t do, which is help them communicate and, in turn, support their quality of life, relationships with their families and their experience and understanding of the world around them.
When a parent tells me that they have given up hope after receiving a diagnosis for their child and feel their world has caved in, I know that music therapy can have a role to play.
I finished working with a boy at the end of last summer. He had been referred to music therapy for emotional issues. The first time we met, when I tried to play music with him, he simply said no and wouldn’t let me play a note. His grandmother looked anxious and alarmed, worried that the music therapy wouldn’t work. No means no surely?
After six weeks, when it came to our last session together, he sang for 30 minutes about what his music meant to him: “It’s my music time, it’s all about the music, the music, it’s all about the music.” Offering time each week for this little boy to play and explore enabled him to express himself. He had found his voice. At the end of the session, his tearful grandmother wrapped her arms around him and said, “I love you”.
Music really does have the power to transform lives.
Author: Grace Watts