The power of music is profound; it has the ability to build you up, tear you down, or transport you to a different time and place in your life. It also has the ability to heal. Chances are you’ve had a nasty break-up before. You listened to Elliot Smith or Taylor Swift on repeat and wallowed for a while, but ultimately survived. Then, awhile later, you replay one of those comfort-songs you used to listen to and it all comes welling back. You have flashbacks of crying alone with a bottle of cheap wine and too many cigarettes—then suddenly you realize it doesn’t hurt anymore. Like scratching at an old scar, those pangs are just echoes of pain.
May 21 marked the start of New Zealand’s first Music Therapy Week. The focus was to raise awareness of music therapy and to celebrate the great work its practitioners have been conducting all around the country. It is used to rehabilitate those with emotional, physical, intellectual, and social conditions. Music therapy focuses on encouragement and motivation, operating primarily within schools, retirement homes, and hospitals. The latter is where I first encountered it.
From February till April last year, I spent time in Wellington’s Te Whare o Matairangi suffering from severe depression. Medication was helping, but I still felt a lot of shame and self-doubt, and though friends and family visited frequently I was still isolated. I had been meeting with the music therapist twice a week. She would read my charts and know how I’d been acting that morning, whether or not I’d eaten or even left my room. She would visit me with a guitar and we’d sit and play together, but mostly we’d chat about artists I was interested in, their writing styles, and songs I loved—this conversation naturally moved into how the music reflected the way I feel. This was the first time I had been the one to initiate a conversation about how I felt.
When you’re in a situation like I was you meet so many health professionals and they all sort of merge together, but there’s always that sense of power: I am the patient, you are the doctor/ nurse/ counselor/ whatever. There is a pressure and an anxiety in their presence: I must try to be honest about my progress. I must open up to you. Music disarms those feelings. It’s a safe distraction for the patient that reduces pain and eases anxiety. It gives you words that you might not have been able to articulate otherwise and builds confidence to communicate on your own terms and integrate back into a social environment.
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I had made enough progress in my time with the therapist that I felt confident enough to venture out after hours one night, to see Sharon Van Etten play at Bodega. I hadn’t been around a crowd of people in so long and I had a panic attack, but I kept telling myself why I was there and that once the music started I would be okay. I was. She opened with “Afraid of Nothing” and all the anxiety, fear, self-loathing—all of it—just washed away. I stayed for the whole concert and even walked back to the ward smiling, singing my own little encore. It was a huge step forward.
Music therapy is encouraging and motivating for those who have physiological or psychological disorders, and provides an outlet for self-expression that works directly with therapeutic and educational planning. Music therapists often work in collaboration with occupational therapists, speech therapists, nurses, educators—whoever is involved in the care of the person—to discuss and create forms of treatment will be most beneficial to the person they are working with.
It’s also helpful to people who have suffered brain damage. Research on patients recovering from neurological conditions like Alzheimer’s, or from a stroke, shows that human beings have better memory of music and melodies than of faces and names. So in situations where a patient has aphasia, a condition that affects a person’s ability to speak and communicate through language, they have an easier time singing, which can help revitalize some of the lost connections that impair the language centres of the brain and redevelop speech skills.
Music Therapy is part of a masters program here at Victoria, so I spoke to Emma Johnson, a student of the program, about her experience of music therapy and specifically the placements and field work she has undertaken. Emma described the work that she does in her placements: “I do group work with teenagers from 13 to 18. A lot of the kids are really isolated due to their condition forcing them out of the education system because they’re either too difficult for teachers to handle, or that the overwhelming stimulus in a classroom is simply too much for them. Many of them also suffer from anxiety and have a lot of difficulty making friends.”
What are the highlights of working in the field?
One boy who I work with has autism and has a lot of trouble coping with sound. He hasn’t been a part of a classroom setting for such a long time that noise that he doesn’t have control over, and even certain tones, gives him a huge sense of anxiety. So I made him the conductor of the group we played with—he had full control over what was being played and it’s volume so for the first time, he stayed during the whole session.
Because of the age difference of the kids and that they all have such a variety of reasons for not being able to attend school, tastes, and backgrounds, it’s hard for them to open up to one another. Music provides a safe setting where they will suddenly find a common ground start interacting with one another socially, it’s really rewarding when you see that.
What about one on one sessions?
The individual sessions are dependent on the person’s mood and therapeutic plan. If they’ve had a bad day we might put on some relaxing music, and do some breathing exercises to try and encourage relaxation and lose some of that anxiety they’re experiencing—so that they can carry on with the rest of their day and interact and learn more readily. Music can act as a catalyst for our conversations, as well as being a non-verbal way of communicating; for a lot of teenagers (and people), verbally expressing how you’re doing is very difficult, even when healthy.
Who do music therapists typically work with?
Pretty much everyone. It’s often used for people with learning difficulties, inpatients at mental health units, the elderly under palliative care, anyone who struggles with isolation and suffers from anxiety or depression. Even for little kids going to the doctor to have an injection.
Music therapists do some amazing work to make a measurable difference in the lives of thousands of New Zealanders every month by providing safe, constructive settings for people who struggle with their health and teach skills that help to aid rehabilitation and ease anxiety. They help people find comfort in the way they feel, gain insight and inspire creativity and the will the recover.
If you’re thinking about studying Music Therapy contact Te Kōki New Zealand School of Music (NZSM). For more information on Music Therapy or to find a Music Therapist in your area visit musictherapy.org.nz.