Music for the body and mind

by Douglas Rojas

Seventy-eight year-old Ray has been playing the violin since childhood. As an adult, he turned his talent into a career and performed professionally.
These days, he has trouble remembering who his wife is, but his violin playing hasn’t suffered a bit.
Ray, whose last name is being withheld at his family’s request, suffers from a form of dementia, probably Alzheimer’s disease. But he still performs for crowds at Martin Luther Manor’s Hope Adult Day Center in Richfield, Minn.
Without realizing it, Ray is participating in the center’s music therapy program.
“Over two years, (Ray) maintained his violin-playing skills while his skills in other areas declined,” said Carol Pilgram, a music therapist at the center. “He was even able to learn new melodies and transpose songs, which for his level of dementia is really something.”
The idea of music as a healing instrument is nothing new. References to the healing properties of music can be found in the writings of Plato and Aristotle. It evolved from there and after World War II the first music degree program in the world was founded. Since 1972, the University has been a leader in education and research exploring the benefits of music as an alternative form of therapy.
Pilgram, a 1991 graduate of the University’s music therapy program, said the effects of music on participants have been nothing short of amazing.
“Music is used to connect, socialize, and it is good exercise,” Pilgram said. “Music can help give them a sense of themselves.”
The National Association of Music Therapy defines this kind of therapy as the use of music to improve mental and physical health.
However, University professor and director of the music therapy program Charles Furman said the profession is diverse.
“I think music therapy can appear in so many different ways,” he said. “It is very difficult to look at one kind of music therapy setting and say ‘This is what music therapy is.'”
According to the association, which was founded in 1950, music therapists assess emotional well-being and cognitive skills through musical responses. They also design music sessions for individuals and groups based on clients’ needs using methods such as songwriting and music performance.
At the University, music therapy students spend their first two years taking a variety of classes in music, psychology and biology. The anatomy and physiology courses are the same ones that pre-medical students have to take, said Annie Heiderscheit, a graduate student in music therapy.
For their junior and senior years, students take courses focusing on the psychology of music and music therapy, mixing academic training with field work. Their education is followed by a six-month internship that is required to get a degree.
“The program itself is more geared towards (getting) experience,” said Craig Carney, a senior student in music therapy who works with Alzheimer’s patients.
During their field work, students deal with a wide range of participants, from young children with Down’s syndrome to elderly people with Alzheimer’s disease. Those who work at Fraser Community Services interact with children from six weeks to six years old.
“They work on hand-eye coordination by playing instruments, and they use music for relaxation to calm down,” said Kay Luedtke-Smith, resident music therapist at Fraser. Other activities for the children include working on locomotion skills by hopping, skipping or jumping to the beat of music.
When working with Alzheimer’s patients, therapists also use a wide variety of approaches.
Kristin Shields, a University graduate student in music therapy, spent a year at the Hope Adult Day Center, where she worked with one Alzheimer’s patient as part of her internship.
She used songs to help a 69-year-old woman remember what time of the year it was. For example, around Christmas time she would play a lot of holiday carols, or in the summer she would use a 1930’s song called “In the good old summer time.”
“It definitely helped,” Shields said.
“From September to May she improved quite a bit. In the beginning she was not very responsive, but by the end she knew why I was there,” she said.
Usually Alzheimer’s patients regress in their behavior rather than making progress.
While individual attention is helpful, group therapy for sufferers of dementia can also increase their level of physical, mental and social functioning.
In a classroom of a former elementary school, Hope Adult Day Center’s group therapy session participants tried to cheer each other up on a dreary December day. Pilgram had the participants play instruments and sing along with her guitar. By instructing them to slowly raise their instruments, she was incorporating physical exercises.
“It helps keep people on task and awake,” she said.
When one of the participants, Frank Agar, began nodding off, Pilgram put a pair of maracas in his hands and said, “Let’s sing our favorite song.” The group then shook tambourines and other instruments and began singing “Swing Low Sweet Chariot.”
Their faces brightened and the singing got louder. “They sometimes get very turned inward,” Pilgram said. “I use music to get them to socialize with each other.”
One of the participants, Tech Chou Koy, does not suffer from any kind of dementia. Koy, who came to the United States from Cambodia and recently became a U.S. citizen, uses the program to adjust to a new culture and language in a relaxed setting.
Beyond the setting of day care facilities, music therapists also perform at drug and alcohol programs, agencies serving disabled people, and correctional facilities. The cost of a music therapy session ranges from $40 to $100 in most cases and depends on the type of music therapy and the background of the therapists, Heiderscheit said.
Sometimes, practitioners said, music therapy sessions can be frustrating. For Carney, sessions could be a matter of hit or miss, where the therapist approaches the treatment in different ways until he or she succeeds.
“A typical frustration is that you are not sure if the person is even hearing you,” Carney said.
“The biggest thing is that it is not working out. You get used to saying, ‘well, that didn’t work,'” he said.
For a young girl who was paralyzed due to a gun shot wound, there was a lot of frustration to get past. After other therapies failed, she was referred to Heiderscheit at the University.
“My objective with her,” Heiderscheit said, “was to begin to process all the emotions that were tied up into that experience and to begin to find an avenue to release those so she could begin to move on.”
In this case, she said, songwriting turned out to be therapeutic for the patient.
Furthermore, there is an emotional aspect in music therapy.
“When you watch them deteriorate, it is hard to watch them leave,” Carney said. “It’s frustrating when you get attached to that person. It is easy to feel emotional about that.”
But overall the results have been rewarding. Luedtke-Smith said the children she works with progress in different stages, but she has never had a child who didn’t make progress.
And Ruth Agar, whose husband Frank participates in the music therapy program at Hope Adult Day Center, is pleased with what she has seen.
“Oh he just loves it, it’s one of the things that energizes him,” she said. “This is just wonderful for him.”