Musician, Heal Thyself

Publication: Grammy Magazine

Author / Writer: Laurel Fishman


Three-year-old Nick had never spoken a word. In his early childhood class, he cried or jumped and spun around the room. The autistic boy refused to sit and avoided eye contact. Nick’s symptoms were typical of autism victim’s self-absorption, inability to interact, repetitive behaviors and language dysfunction. But whenever he heard the school’s music therapist sing, Nick would look at her momentarily. Gradually, he began to gravitate toward the therapist, plunking on piano keys, playing a paddle drum or stroking guitar strings while she sang. Soon he was able to sit longer, anticipating his turn to play an instrument. One day as the therapist sang, Nick peered deep into her mouth, as if to search for the source of the sound.

Then Nick pronounced his first word, singing the word “great” in a familiar song. And after two years of weekly music therapy, Nick has learned to make music, wait his turn, share instruments, complete lines of familiar songs and follow simple directions. He even smiles with joy at other children.

“The ancient world knew well the many powers of music and used it in healing and ritual on a daily basis,” says Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart. Yet even now, he points out in his book, Spirit Into Sound: The Magic of Music, “(W)e don’t fully comprehend the power of music and probably never will.”

But we’re working on it. Studies show music listening can lower blood pressure, basal metabolism and respiration rates. It’s now widely accepted that exposure to music—whether playing or listening—relaxes, triggers the release of endorphins, reduces anxiety and pain, and gives people a sense of control and an emotional outlet.

Even more miraculously, because of music’s “unique capacity to organize or reorganize cerebral function when it has been damaged,” observes neurologist Oliver Sacks, patients with neurological disorders like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s who cannot talk or move can nonetheless sometimes sing and dance to music.

Working with Dr. Sacks, Hart started the Rhythm for Life Project to break through to Alzheimer’s patients. “Music brings Alzheimer’s patients out of the darkness, if only for a short time,” says Hart. “I saw it in my grandma. She had Alzheimer’s and hadn’t talked for a long time. But when I drummed for her, she started calling my name.”

Over the last 10 years, Hart has been working to raise awareness of the healing value of music. In 1991 (the same year Hart’s percussion ensemble, Planet Drum, won the first Grammy for Best World Music Album), he addressed the Senate Committee on Aging about the healing effects of drumming and rhythm on afflictions associated with aging.

He has visited homes for the elderly, giving drums to people who could hardly hold a utensil. By creating a sound on their own, says Hart, “they created something powerful from absolutely nothing.”

Eddie Tuduri knows that power well. Touring with the Beach Boys, Rick Nelson and Jimmy Messina had provided the drummer some intense experiences. But the most meaningful part of Tuduri’s life came when his ability to play was taken away altogether.

Smashing his head on the ocean floor in a 1997 bodysurfing accident, the man who had been a drummer for close to 40 years found himself paralyzed from the neck down. After spinal surgery at the Rehabilitation Institute at Santa Barbara, Tuduri’s own “rhythm therapy” began. Though he didn’t know if he would walk again or to what extent he could use his hands, he began drumming with one stick on whatever surface he could reach from his bed.

Other nearly paralyzed patients joined in, and thus was formed Tuduri’s first “rehab drum circle. The results were extraordinary. “For a half-hour, we all did things we didn’t think we could do!” one patient recalls.

Once he recovered, Tuduri returned to the Institute to conduct a rhythm therapy program. A staff director noted that patients who were usually expressionless were smiling and laughing. Added a nurse, “I got goose bumps as even the most complacent patients picked up instruments and started to play—with a twinkle in their eyes and a smile on their face.”

As a profession, music therapy has been attaining gradual recognition over the past 50 years. It incorporates many elements: music making, song writing, improvisation, music-listening and guided imagery, to help patients of all ages with physical, emotional, social and cognitive problems. Music therapists are a special breed of multi-instrumentalists who must be competent in both music (including composition, theory, history, arranging and conducting) and therapy, and they also study human behavior, anatomy and physiology.

The Recording Academy has long supported the growth and expansion of music therapy services. “Music therapy builds on the power of music, using music in a focused and concentrated way,” Recording Academy President/CEO Michael Greene, who functions as spokesman for the American Music Therapy Association (AMTA), has commented. “The power of music therapy is realized every day in hospitals, schools, clinics and communities throughout the world.”

“Music therapy does not impinge upon the work of medicine, but enhances it,” says New York music therapist Joanne Loewy. “Now that the medical community is seriously considering complementary medicine, and since medical journals reflect that nearly 70% of the general public is seeking out nontraditional services, it seems now is the time to advance (the field of music therapy).”

At Beth Israel Medical Center, Loewy’s work involves providing individual, family and group music psychotherapy sessions. “We use music to help doctors and nurses integrate their patient care plan,” she says. “Patients seem to trust staff more after a musical improvisation takes place, (and that trust) is central to a patient’s ability to accept medical treatments.

“A child may need to cry the day before surgery to release tension and anxiety, but perhaps the family has denied the child that self-expression. A song or creative musical improvisation can provide the vehicle for the child to emote.” Loewy may also provide a mastery experience involving rhythm, where the child can feel power and energy through creating strong rhythms.

She recently worked with a 43-year-old woman who was dying of breast cancer. “Dorthea has so much life, and she wanted to use music to live until she died,” Loewy says. Though her right arm had been fractured, Dorthea was able to drum complex rhythms with it.

During the last week of her life, Christmas week, Dorthea used music to “visit” the Virgin Islands with her two young boys. Loewy explains, Dorthea had loved to dance and had a colorful island dancing dress brought to the hospital. “She draped the dress over herself,” Loewy recounts, “and we sang island Christmas songs as her sons, seven and 14, played the drums and sang. There was joy and celebration in the room.”

Just before she died, during Dorthea’s last session alone with Loewy, she explored her transition of what was to come. Playing bongos and chanting in what Loewy calls “an expressive ritual rite-of-passage experience,” Dorthea “drummed herself up to the highest mountain to contemplate her life and what she needed to do before dying.”

“It was very moving,” Loewy says, “This reminds me of how profound music is, serving the essence of the moments of life while venturing forward, providing gentle strength for the unknowns that lie ahead.”

“Many hospice programs are interested in starting music therapy programs,” says Robert E. Krout, who works with terminally ill patients and their families at Hospice of Palm Beach County, Florida, which has the largest full-time music therapy hospice program in the U.S. “The holistic hospice concept is a model for many other health care settings as well, with its bringing together of complementary mind-body approaches. It is a recognition of the importance of music in our lives, even for those who are dying.”

Krout uses music therapy to reduce pain and suffering, bring solace to dying patients and their families, help them express emotions and facilitate a purposeful transition. Krout’s work also includes bereavement programs for children who are anticipating or have experienced the death of a loved one, using music therapy to help children positively memorialize and integrate memories of loved ones into their lives as they move forward without them.

“The most meaningful aspect of my work is getting to use live and original music experiences to help bring comfort to patients and their families during the difficult end-of-life passage,” Krout says. “I write songs, particularly for grief work, and the rewards from using original music in this way far surpass any amount of applause from an audience or sales of an album.”

Music therapist Fran Goldberg applies and teaches the Bonny Method of Guided Imagery and Music (GIM) around the world, helping those who suffer from depression, anxiety, abuse and physical problems. “GIM is a depth-oriented psychotherapy which uses specially designed programs of classical music to elicit mental imagery in all sensory modes, not just visual,” Goldberg says. “GIM is very different from guided imagery in that in GIM, the images come straight from the unconscious and are generated by the music, not the therapist. It works through earlier wounding or trauma to existential and spiritual areas that help people cope with unpredictable life issues. “GIM helps individuals develop their own spirituality, whatever form it takes, as a basis for living life to its fullest, says Goldberg. “The process is like a waking dream, which the client tells me as it unfolds. My job is to provide reflection and emotional support, and help him or her stay with the experience during the music process. The theory is that whatever is at the top of his or her emotional hierarchy is what comes up in the imagery.”

After 45 years practicing music therapy, Goldberg is still amazed how music carries people through pain to healing and transformation during the GIM process. “To me, music is more than a therapeutic tool,” she says. “It is an awesome means of connecting people to their own inner wisdom and helping them to move on and transform their lives.”

Treating post-traumatic stress disorder is part of Ron Borczon’s music therapy work at his California State University at Northridge clinic. “My clients are offered a unique way to express emotions, hear the manifestation of the emotion, and work on effectively finding its meaning to work toward hope for the future,” he says.

Borczon often starts with drums and basic percussion. “We begin with active improvisation, which in itself is cathartic. We compose together, listen, imagine and explore the aspects of our human existence through sound.”

One of his clients had been kidnapped and sexually assaulted. “Through the music sessions, she began to find different aspects of her voice that empowered her to face the world again,” Borczon says. “We would record these songs, and at one point, I had her listen to her song as if she were a child, which was very powerful for her. By (therapy’s) end, she was improvising songs about a future.”

Nick, the autistic child profiled earlier, was helped by Cathy Knoll. She has worked for 22 years contracting music therapy services to Texas public school special education programs and homes for adults with developmental disabilities. Knoll enjoys sharing music-making with people aged two to 62 and witnessing “daily miracles,” like seeing the pride of an adult with Down’s Syndrome completing a simple piano performance at a party.

“Though music therapy is not a magic pill,” Knoll states, “it often captures the attention of even extremely isolated people and encourages them to participate in active music-making. This has proven to be a critical first step, as people discover their abilities and learn to compensate for their disabilities.”

San Diego-based Barbara Reuer serves as a music therapist and consultant. She says two important developments have been the creation of a board certification process at the national level, and the recent unification of the two music therapy associations (American Association of Music Therapy and National Association for Music Therapy) into the American Music Therapy Association, of which Reuer is a past president. “Now we have more clout and are speaking with one voice, particularly to managed care and government agencies.”

Many of the people Reuer treats are Spanish speaking, and “the music is often the only way we can communicate,” she says. “Sometimes those therapy sessions are the most profound we have, because language does not get in the way.”

Reuer’s work includes conducting a large music therapy group with substance abusers. Recently a patient commented, “I haven’t felt this good in weeks. It doesn’t come from drugs or alcohol. That’s cool! There’s still something inside of me that makes me feel good.”

“People can really get high on music,” Reuer says. “(And they) can come down without any side effects. Music is so diversified that there are many ways we can touch and treat people, and in a humane and dignified manner. The important lesson here is that you don’t have to be a skilled and trained musician to make music and experience its power.”

At Chapman University in Orange, California, Kay Roskam is a teacher and director of the bachelor’s degree program in music therapy, and treats at-risk adolescents. “I have seen kids who are out of control, defiant and sullen begin to play drums, guitars and keyboards, and gradually behave in an acceptable way,” Roskam says. “One of the best things I can say about the field of music therapy is that it tends to draw the best people, people who combine the passion for music with the gratification of helping others.”

When music therapists convened at the World Congress of Music Therapy held in Washington, D.C., last fall, they shared a wealth of information about using music for patients from the neonatal to hospice. Musical instrument manufacturers Yamaha and Remo were primary sponsors of the convention. Remo also actively sponsors drum circles around the US and lends support to artists involved in music and healing, such as Robert L. Gottfried, known as Rob the Drummer. He combines drumming with a strong anti-substance abuse message to audiences in schools and prisons.

“(Drum) with everything you’ve got, and you will change the way you feel,” he promises. “‘Changing the way you feel is why you wanted to do drugs in the first place. If you need to be addicted to something, be addicted to the music inside you.”

Remo artist Alessandra Belloni is one of only a handful of tambourine virtuosos in the world and has spent 20 years learning and preserving the traditions of her culture. With her line of signature Remo frame drum-style tambourines, Belloni blends dance and ancient percussive techniques for healing in her Rhythm Is the Cure workshops and performances, often in collaboration with Grammy-winning drummer Glen Velez.

Yamaha is spreading the word about the Music Making and Wellness Project, a three-year study from the late ‘90s, which measured the effects of music making on the physical and emotional wellness of healthy, active older adults. Major funding for the study was provided by the NAMM International Music Products Association, music retailers and manufacturers, and the Recording Academy. Karl Bruhn (advisor to AMTA and to the music products industry), who coordinated the project, explains, “The students were given exercises on using music to deal with stress each week.” And the results? “Significant quality-of-life changes were discovered” with that keyboard group, says Bruhn, while no change occurred in the control group. The study also found the keyboard lessons helped increase levels of human growth hormone.

Science is just beginning to substantiate what many have believed since time immemorial: that music provides real benefits for our psychological well-being. Meanwhile, music continues to work its magic. “Music is about transformation,” says Mickey Hart. “It leads us to the sacred dimension.”   [ end ]




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