Music Therapy at EMU: Changing Lives One Note at a Time

There is a place on EMU's campus, where the power of music is used to light the spark in an audience of just one. It is not proud Pease Auditorium or intimate Alexander Recital Hall, but is nevertheless a place where music touches lives. This place is EMU's Music Therapy Center, which is quickly establishing itself as one of the University's points of pride. Since its opening in 2006, the center, located in the Alexander building, has given many music therapy students the chance to learn first hand, how to use the power of music to change the lives of their clients.

Music therapy utilizes music to achieve non-musical goals and the Music Therapy Center has given EMU students a state of the art facility that allows them to apply lessons from the classroom in a clinical setting. The hands-on capabilities of the Music Therapy Center, giving students the chance to conduct therapy session as part of their curriculum under the supervision of their dedicated faculty, has quickly distinguished EMU's music therapy program as one of the most highly regarded in the country. In fact, 96 percent of EMU's eligible music therapy alumni have attained positions as music therapists.

The Music Therapy Center, which was funded through donations, including generous gifts by Music Therapy Professor Michael McGuire, consists of a dual function therapy/classroom that is separated from an observation room through a one-way mirror. Microphones embedded in the ceiling allow unobtrusive supervision and observation of the mostly student-led therapy sessions. Adjacent to the rooms is a waiting room for families or caretakers of the clients.

One of the clients, who currently receive therapy from EMU music therapy students, is Christian. He is 16 years old and has severe cognitive and physical disabilities. Christian is nonverbal, but through the power of music, the driving rhythms and soothing melodies, he has made considerable progress since the beginning of his therapy sessions in January of 2007.

On Tuesday, November 25, I was granted permission to witness one of his weekly sessions. Sitting behind the one-way mirror and receiving guidance from Music Therapy Professor Roberta Justice, I was able to see first hand, the benefits of having such a state of the art facility in the heart of our campus.

Christian, who uses a wheel chair, is in the room with aspiring music therapists Ashley Morgan, senior, and Bernadette Skodack, post baccalaureate, who begin the session with the welcome song, a simple tune that reintroduces the therapists to Christian and sets the focus for the session. The repetition of the song seems to have a calming effect on Christian and I was informed by Professor Justice that he was in a good mood that day. (Christian expresses happiness through rocking back and forth in his wheelchair.)

Next, Ashley and Bernadette used a tambourine and placed it under Christian's feet. Sitting in his wheelchair, the therapists punctuated the rhythm of the accompanying song to stimulate his leg movement. The instrument is used to receive auditory feedback.

"The process works on a neuro-muscular level," said Justice, who called Christian's reaction pre-conscious. "Since beats in music stimulate nerves and muscles, we are training his muscles without him having to think about it."

According to Justice, our bodies are naturally inclined to move to beats in music through neurological processes.

"The ultimate goal of this activity is to get Christian to be able to walk," said Justice. "Building his leg muscles is the first step, but you can see he potentially has the capabilities."

For the latter half of the hour-long session, the processes are centered on improvisation. For this purpose, Christian is brought to the piano, where he is encouraged to press the keys to provide the foundation for the musical improvisations of Ashley on the piano and Bernadette on the oboe.

Christian had never before seen an oboe and was utterly fascinated by the shape and sounds, which emerge from this wondrous instrument. For about five minutes, Christian's gaze was fixated on the instrument and one could easily read the elated emotion of his face. He soon began to rock strongly in his wheelchair.

"It can be hard to understand that while an oboe seems commonplace for us, it may be enigmatic for somebody like Christian," said Ashley in a debriefing of the session. "It is important to remain flexible and to adjust your methods to accommodate your clients, even if it means taking time to explore the wondrous features of an oboe."

What we witnessed after Christian acclimated to the sound of the oboe is difficult to explain in words, but it truly showcases the unique features of music therapy, that empower clients and give them a chance to be in control.

Christian begins hitting keys on the keyboard. Random at first, but more focused soon after. The therapists elaborated on Christian's input with wonderful musicality and meticulous perception and create a musical response, an improvisation that provides the perfect accompaniment for the mood in the therapy room.

Christian's chord clusters turned into impressionistic melodies, became melodic streams across a wide range of keys and moods. His evocative staccato rhythms were jovial melodies, and without any words, solely through the power of music, communication was created.
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