Program teaches healing with music

Emma Carew

Music can be defined as the art or science of combining vocal or instrumental sounds to produce beauty of form, harmony and expression of emotion.

The University’s music therapy program, which is one of only two in the state and the only one that offers graduate degrees, is working to help people experience that harmony and emotion in a positive aspect of life.

“Music therapy is using music to help ill people become well,” said Paul Haack, music education professor. “There is a great deal of overlap with music ed., which is about helping well people get even better.”

The University program includes a four-semester curriculum that pairs students with classroom work and field work, said Meagan Hughes, a music therapy senior.

Hughes, along with music therapy junior Melissa Dutcher and music therapy senior Rebecca Borchers, chose to pursue a therapy degree as a means to combine her interest in both psychology and music.

The students are trained in a primary instrument but must also show proficiency in guitar, keyboards and voice, Hughes said. These instruments allow for better interaction with patients, she said.

Class topics include the anatomy of the brain, functions of music in society and human psychology, according to the class description. Most classes combine the topics to teach the full effect of music on the human psyche.

“Music is universal to all societies,” Haack said, who teaches a psychology of music course. “Music is something that humans do to and for one another.”

Beyond the textual topics, students must also find compassion and empathy, said Annie Heiderscheit, adjunct faculty in the music therapy department.

“The students need to have the heart to be with patients during some of the most critical and difficult times of their lives,” she said.

Music therapists work with a variety of clients, Heiderscheit said. Therapists might work in a school district with special education, in geriatric mental health day programs, or in hospice care, she said.

To prepare students for working with an assortment of clientele, the University’s program sends each student into the field for a practicum with a practicing music therapist each semester.

The practicum sites vary. Some are local school districts, the Veterans Affairs Medical Center and private practice, Heiderscheit said. In all instances, the student is observing and working with a professional twice a week.

The practicum “gets the students out into a variety of community settings,” Haack said. “It helps them realize they may be working in a variety of institutions or environments.”

In addition to the practicum, students utilize the school’s music therapy lab, which allows six to eight people to observe a student conducting a therapy session either with a client or simulated with a peer. The lab also allows instructors to use a wireless earpiece to communicate with the student in the lab, offering advice and feedback.

“It’s an evidence-based program,” said music therapy professor Charles Furman. “We show progress through evidence, observation and feedback from clients.”

Students can also socialize through the Music Therapy Student Association, of which Borchers is president. The group meets monthly and brings in guest speakers and clinicians to offer students practical advice, she said.

“It’s a small program,” Dutcher said. “It’s very intimate, and I am very close to my peers.”

Following four semesters in the music therapy program, students take a fifth semester for a six-month internship, and then they may take the clinical board exams, Heiderscheit said.

Furman said he hopes his students come away from the program with the mind-set that they are “a therapist first, and music is what they use because it’s what they know best.”