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Music Therapy Enriches Lives of Local Youth

Music Therapy Enriches Lives of Local Youth
Music therapy is an alternative approach for helping people of all ages with emotional, physical and mental disorders. We speak with a music therapist and a health rhythms facilitator about their experience healing others through music.

Maureen Cavanaugh: In our age of medical high-technology, with new diagnostic machines and drug therapies emerging all the time, it's remarkable to realize that the benefits of a much simpler kind of therapy are also being explored. The therapy is music - different types of music and rhythm are being used to treat conditions ranging from brain injuries to autism. And music is also being used in therapies that help kids get over traumatic experiences and help them interact with classmates.


Julie Guy, a neurologic music therapist and vice-president of the Music Therapy Center of California.

Sundiata Kata, a musician and health rhythms facilitator at the San Diego Center for Children.

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MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host)): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. In our age of medical high technology, with new diagnostic machines and drug therapies emerging all the time, it's remarkable to realize that the benefits of a much simpler kind of therapy are also being explored. The therapy is music, different types of music and rhythm are being used to treat conditions ranging from brain injuries to autism. And music is also being used in therapies that help kids get over traumatic experiences and help them interact with classmates. My two guests work in the field of music for therapy and healing. I’d like to welcome Julie Guy, a neurologic music therapist and vice-president of the Music Therapy Center of California. Julie, welcome to These Days.

JULIE GUY (Neurologic Music Therapist): Good morning. Thanks.

CAVANAUGH: And Sundiata Kata is a musician and health rhythms facilitator at the San Diego Center for Children. Sundiata, welcome.

SUNDIATA KATA (Health Rhythms Facilitator): Good morning. Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: We’d like to invite our listeners to join the conversation. Have you experienced the power of music in healing yourself or others? We’d love to hear your story. Or do you have a question about how music may help your child or loved one. Give us a call. The number is 1-888-895-5727. Julie, you’re a neurologic music therapist. I haven’t heard that term before. What exactly do you do?

GUY: Sure. Well, I’m a board certified music therapist. I have a master’s degree in music therapy and I specialize in working with kids with autism and special needs at our center in Mission Valley. And we’re using music to help children learn their academics, help them to interact socially, and help them with their communication skills and motor development through the use of music.

CAVANAUGH: Now, when you say you work with children and you work with autism and so forth, how do you exactly evaluate? What is it that you do as a music therapist to evaluate what kind of music therapy might work for a certain patient?

GUY: Well, for music therapy with a certain patient, we’re really looking at using live music and music strategies, interventions to address a non-music goal. So our primary goal is that communication or maybe it’s the social skills and we’re looking at how we can use live music interventions. Maybe it’s drumming or maybe it’s using a guitar and singing or some different other type of music strategy to teach that skill through the music.

CAVANAUGH: Tell us a little bit about the background of this type of therapy because I’m not terribly familiar with it. How has this developed over the recent years in what we know about how music actually affects our brains?

GUY: Sure, well, music therapy’s been developing as a profession for about 50 years but in the last, you know, 10 to 15 years, the whole development of neurologic music therapy’s been coming into practice where you’re looking at, again, that how the brain is functioning and how music’s actually affecting the body, and we’re finding that research shows some really great responses to music. For example, just participating in live music-making can increase your immune system and it can help us memorize tasks or for patients with a brain injury, can help them to coordinate their movement and assist with walking and motor movement or, again, that communication piece, helping to facilitate communication that’s been lost.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Sundiata, you are a health rhythms facilitator for the San Diego Center for Children. What exactly is that?

KATA: What a facilitator does is guide the clients to health and wellness through music interpretation from playing music, getting involved in music and using it as a healing tool. And so we just guide them through certain protocols that allow them to express themselves oftentimes without words.

CAVANAUGH: I see. So it’s just – So in your case, what you’re talking about is rhythm.

KATA: Is rhythm, yes. And you don’t have to be a master. We’re not teaching them how to master the rhythm. We’re just teaching them to enjoy and to be able to use it as an – a ways – as a means of expression. I’m music program director, also, at the San Diego Center for Children, have been there for 40 years, and have used music as a therapeutic tool the whole time I’ve been there and have seen some great results. And a lot of the young people have come back as testimonials as how music changed their lives.

CAVANAUGH: What are some of the goals of music therapy?

What can you achieve with it?

KATA: Well, some of the things that we’re looking at is working with children who suffer from post traumatic stress disorder, attention deficit, and we use music as – drumming especially, as a hands-on instrument, and we try to get them to express themselves and come out of their shell, to be able to have fun and enjoy themselves and a sense – gain a sense of accomplishment, something that a lot of our kids and clients have not experienced before in their lives. This is the first time that they’ve felt good about something, and from that it’s a springboard to other means of communication as well.

CAVANAUGH: And, Julie, I’m wondering what are some – the range of some of the conditions that are – can be treated by music therapy?

GUY: There’s so many but at our center we primarily treat kids with autism, Downs syndrome, traumatic brain injury, just there’s a gamut, a wide range. And we may work with a child as young as 18 months all the way up to I also work with older adults and have worked with people through the death and dying process.

CAVANAUGH: And we are taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727 if you’d like to join our conversation about music therapy. If you’ve experienced music as a healing tool in your life or for someone else, give us a call, again, 1-888-895-5727. I wonder, Julie, what is a typical music therapy session like?

GUY: Well, it’s hard to describe a typical session because it’s different for every child and it’s based on the goals for each child. But you may come in and do a hello song and help the child get oriented to the session, help them get calmed down and focused. And then you may work on, you know, how to have a conversation, how do you interact with somebody and ask “Wh” questions. You know, how are you? What did you do today? And then we may work on some motor movement and different exercises based on those goals and their interventions, and then close with some sort of a goodbye song or closing.

CAVANAUGH: Now, you brought us an example of the songs that you use with the children you work with. Let’s hear a little bit and then talk about it.

GUY: Sure.

CAVANAUGH: This one is called “Conversation.”

(audio clip from song “Conversation”)

CAVANAUGH: That’s a song called “Conversation” and it’s part of a music therapy that’s used at the Music Therapy Center of California. Julie, I’m wondering, what is the benefit of hearing that kind of advice coming at you in terms of a song rather than just saying to a child or someone, you know, you have to look people in the eyes when you’re talking to them and ask them what they’re doing. What is the song – why does it – what does it get across more directly in a song?

GUY: So there’s a couple of different things. That song is really structured as a social story, so it’s teaching a skill through music. And music allows a child to basically memorize that script that you’re wanting them to learn as an idea, as a basis for starting a conversation. So we help the child learn that song and then once they’ve learned it, we then pull out pieces of that into the therapy session and we may just do one little line of it, like ‘what are you eating?’ and helping them to practice saying that. And then teach the parents the song as well so that the parents can help to generalize that information in the home as well.

CAVANAUGH: And, Sundiata, you have brought a small drum with you.

KATA: Yes, I have.

CAVANAUGH: And I wonder if I could ask you to give us an example of an exercise that you practice with your students?

KATA: Okay. The drum that I brought with me this morning is called a Djembe…


KATA: …and the Djembe is also known as the healing drum, and that’s why I like to use this particular drum. And sometimes we may start our group, if you can imagine 15, 20 drums in a circle, and everybody has a drum or Djembe and we start off with the pulse. (audio of drumbeat) That’s the heart. That’s the rhythm. That’s the beat. We’re all walking, talking polyrhythms and it’s all inside of us. It’s our heart. And music is about life, and we teach our kids that. And then we go to a rumble. If you can imagine a room with those drums, and we just do a rumble. And everybody’s rumbling and everybody’s having a good time and they’re unified in that rumble because they’re all together. And it builds a lot of camaraderie with each other, builds strong social skills, and it’s fun. You don’t have to be a master at this instrument. All you have to do is be able to – just to touch it, just to play it. And we do songs like (singing) music makes us happy, music makes us happy, music is the healing beat, music is a feeling beat, music makes us want to dance. Then somebody may get up and start dancing…


KATA: …expressing themselves. And it’s just a joyous time and the children are having fun.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Sundiata Kata, he’s a musician and health rhythms facilitator at the San Diego Center for Children. And Julie Guy, a neurologic music therapist and vice president of the Music Therapy Center of California. We are talking about music as therapy, and taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. And let’s take a few phone calls. Krishna (sic) is calling from Clairemont. Good morning, Krishna, and welcome to These Days.

KRISHA (Caller, Clairemont): Hi. I was calling in because I have a three year old with Downs syndrome and music has helped her so much because she doesn’t speak yet but it has allowed her so much communication. And even with the ability for our two-year-old to communicate with our three-year-old through song that maybe they can’t say, ‘hi, how are you, you want to play’ but they can communicate together through the songs that go with music. And I just wanted to ask real quick, what is it about the, if you know, the learning process that happens especially with kids with special needs, that they can pick up so much more through music?

GUY: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you, Krisha. I’m sorry. I mispronounced your name in the beginning. Thank you for that question, Krisha. And I guess that goes to Julie? Or…? Okay.

GUY: Music is just really great because it’s just hardwired within us. I mean, think of how all of us learned the ABCs. How would we remember 26 pieces of information unless we had a song to go with it? So music really helps. It’s like the glue that makes things stick for us. And music is actually what we call a whole brain process. It takes the entire brain to activate to process music. So where language may happen only in one part of the brain, music happens in the entire brain. And that language center may be damaged and music basically provides a shortcut or a detour route to access that language and ability to communicate through using music. It’s like turning on the light switch with a different route.

CAVANAUGH: Now that’s not always the way people thought music was processed in the brain. For a long time, they thought it was processed on only one side of the brain, is that right?

GUY: Right, melody is primarily processed in the right side of the brain but then you also have rhythm and you have dynamics and you have the meter and all these other pieces and it really does take the entire brain. When you look at brain scans of music being processed in the brain, it’s like a Christmas tree lighting up because it’s really activating so many parts of the brain.

CAVANAUGH: That’s amazing. 1-888-895-5727 is our number. Let’s take a call from Michael, calling from Santee. Good morning, Michael. Welcome to These Days.

MICHAEL (Caller, Santee): Good morning. Thank you. I had a personal experience with Sundiata. I was a construction manager at the San Diego Center for Children during some renovations and I had the chance to experience the amazing transforming faces of these children once they were in that room with Sundiata and the music started, either complicated or primitive, and it was truly amazing to see.

CAVANAUGH: And just describe, if you can, Michael, what was the difference?

MICHAEL: Well, these children were living at this facility full time and I got to know some of them because they would come up to the fence as I was directing the trade partners and whatnot. And a lot of them were troubled. You know, they were downcast, their faces were sad. They – some of them didn’t speak a whole lot. And almost universally, within a minute or even 10, these same children that walked through this door that looked like it was over, just the look on their face, would literally be transformed. And I know the music was certainly a major factor but much credit must go to Sundiata. His smile, his grace, pretty amazing, very, very cool guy.

CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you so much. Kudos, Sundiata.

KATA: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: Now has there been any research into actually how drumming affects health?

KATA: Well, it does boost the immune system…

CAVANAUGH: Right, right.

KATA: …and that’s been reinforced. And I think also, I kind of left out a little something, that when the kids come in, one of the things that we do that really helps them, excuse me, in the healing process is that we ask them how they feel. And without words, they’ll play their name. For instance, I will say, my name is Sundiata and…


KATA: …I feel… And they would play how they feel without using the words. They might go (drum beat) like that. And what is that?


KATA: You come back and ask them. Well, I feel angry. Well, what does angry sound like? What does it feel like? And so they may go into a rage and just start beating on the drum, and then we say, would you like us to join you with that? So we get that support and they’re able to express that feeling, whereas before that anger would be pent up inside of them, it would take a long time for them to get rid of it. And then they would discharge that anger somewhere else, whether it’s assaulting another peer or putting their hand through a wall or something like that. So it has a calming effect. They say that music calms the savage beast. Indeed it does, and it has a soothing effect on all of us and it’s – we’re just built, like Julie said, we’re just built, we’re hardwired for music and music learning interpretation, and anyone can do this. It’s a great tool. Five minutes of drumming or singing or playing a piano, guitar, relieves stress.

CAVANAUGH: That’s good for everybody to know. Thank you for that. Let’s take another call. Laura is calling from Carmel Valley. Good morning, Laura, and welcome to These Days.

LAURA (Caller, Carmel Valley): Hi, there. I have a little son, a little two-year-old boy who is in a coma and he’s now living at home. And I’m wondering specifically what kinds of things we can do to help the healing of the brain and specifically maybe what kind of CDs, if there’s any that can be recommended that would help?


GUY: You know, typically, there’s no cookie cutter or no cookbook response for what kind of music is best. What we recommend is what was the child listening to before this happened? What does the family listen to? What’s part of their culture? And, really, that’s the best kind of music. And you’ll find that, you know, calming music may slow the heart rate down and then if you put something on that’s upbeat and energized, that heartbeat and respiration may increase. And, you know, it’s good to work with a doctor as well to find out is it okay to have that happen? Or are we going to really create a very calm sense for them.

CAVANAUGH: I see. So it’s on a case by case basis.

GUY: Yes, definitely.

CAVANAUGH: The children that you work with, Julie, do they – do many of them learn how to play an instrument?

GUY: Yes, they often do. And usually, again, our goal is, in the beginning, not necessarily learning the instrument but maybe it’s helping them to develop fine motor skills so they’re learning to play a piano and isolate finger movement. Or maybe it’s trying to coordinate the two sides of the body together, being able to play the left and the right hand at the same time. But as they grow older and they become able to do more things, we then, at our center, will put them into a band setting and then we have a band called The Kingsmen, who often plays for fundraisers and things and they go out and perform in the community at Borders and at It’s A Grind, and it’s a great opportunity for them to play together in a group, to practice their social skills, to put all those skills together and then interact with musicians in the community and provide them with a lifelong skill, a leisure skill for them to participate in.

CAVANAUGH: Sundiata, we heard from Michael who saw you in action at the Children’s Center and he told us a story about the change in the expression on the children when they got into your drumming session. Do you have any story you’d like to share with us about some child who perhaps really turned around after being able to drum and sing and dance and whose life changed because of that?

KATA: Yes, over the 40 years that I’ve been at the Center for Children and what makes it unique is that it offers so many different programs to help create change for children. And I can remember this one young lady, her name was Diana. And when she came to the center, she was very withdrawn, nonverbal. She would hold her hair in front of her as a veil or as a guard to separate you from her and would not speak, would not talk to you. And she would come to class and she would just sit there, nothing would happen. And then she – I consider her like a flower, like a bud that’s closed up and there’s no sign of opening, and then all of a sudden she began to open up. She began to lift her head up, she began to look around. All the – you know, after awhile, the hair came off her face, you could see her face. And then next thing you know, she was up singing and dancing and she wanted to get in the choir—and we have a choir there—and she started singing in the choir and it just kept going and kept going until she ended up being president of her class and president of the school choir.


KATA: And that is – that’s a miracle. That shows you the power of music, what it really is capable of doing. It changes lives. It makes what’s impossible possible.

GUY: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: And do you have a story you’d like to share with us, Julie?

GUY: I do. I work with a little boy who’s about five years old and has high functioning autism and comes to our clinic to see me and we were working on a couple of different songs and one of them is called “Share Your Stuff,” and teaching him how to take turns and how do you handle when somebody tells you, no, you can’t have this. And the parents were also using the songs at home as well and practicing singing them in the car. And they happened to go to a playground to play and he wanted to go down the slide, and there happened to be another little boy playing and coming up the slide and he said, can I have a turn? And the little boy told him no. And he pulled a line from one of our songs and said, oh, I guess I’ll just have to walk away. Meanwhile, his mom is standing nearby and heard what happened, and she’s jumping up and down, being a cheerleader because she’s like that’s amazing. He would not have known how to respond to that social situation had we not been practicing the song in therapy, role playing and practicing and taking turns with instruments. And so it was a real exciting moment to see how that translated into the home environment and gave him a really positive experience.

CAVANAUGH: Oh, that must be a wonderful moment for all of you…

GUY: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: …when something like that happens. I wonder, since there’s been such good results from music therapy in clinical settings, have hospitals incorporated music therapy into their healing programs, Julie?

GUY: Yes, definitely. There’s a lot of programs across the country that have music therapy programs.

CAVANAUGH: And what kinds of problems that people have would respond to music therapy?

GUY: Cancer, brain injury, stroke, dementia, I mean, the list goes on and on. I mean, we all respond to music and we all use music therapeutically for ourselves on an everyday basis. So everyone can respond and benefit from using music specifically as therapy.

CAVANAUGH: You know, before we started to talk, we were discussing about driving around and perhaps how we should keep a drum next to us and just tap it, you know, to reduce the stress. Do you have any common sort of advice for people to maybe incorporate music as more than just something nice to listen to but something that can really help them on a day-to-day level in their lives?

KATA: I just want to say, too, that I’m – I work with – at Rady’s Children’s Hospital using music…


KATA: …in ortho rehab. And those children, like Julie was saying, come in, some kids have cancer and different problems, and physical problems, and we have this huge drum circle and we have all kinds of instruments and before you know it, we’re in there playing music and it’s not like you’re in a hospital setting at all.


KATA: Everybody’s having fun, so it’s really healing. I would suggest everybody get a drum.


KATA: You know, or some type of little, small shaker. They have these little egg shakers, and they have little, small drums. I have a little, small drum that I wear that’s a rattle that you can shake and you can play. I think that it’s very important to engage in musical activities. It does a lot for you and it’s amazing. It’s a tool, you know. It’s not a cure-all for everything but it’s a tool in your belt. You know, if you’re a carpenter and you’re going to build a house, you don’t have any tools, well, you’re not going to build any house. So have your tools with you, whatever works, whatever works best for you. It could be patting your foot, clapping your hand, snapping your finger, singing. Singing is a wonderful way to reduce stress and to make you feel better and is very healing.

CAVANAUGH: And, Julie, do you do stuff like that, too?

GUY: Sure. Yeah, definitely. Yeah. I mean, instruments like the marimba…

KATA: Yeah.

GUY: …or, you know, percussion instruments are great because you can’t really make a mistake and it – Like Sundiata was saying, it can be used as a great tool for expression. You don’t have to use words. You can just sit down at an instrument and let it out, you know, by yourself and nobody has to hear you and it can just be a great form of expression. And I really encourage people to pay attention and just be aware of how music makes you feel so that you can use music with intention in your own life. For example, you know, you’re tired but you need to get something done, you’re going to turn on music that’s upbeat and motivating, uplifting but if, at the same time, you need to relax and get to sleep, you’re going to turn on some music that’s calming for you. And research shows that, again, there’s no cookbook answer for what that is for one person, you know, it might be Def metal for one person and it might be, you know, country for somebody else, so there is no specific answer for everybody. But just, you know, be aware and be – act with intention when you’re choosing music for yourself.

CAVANAUGH: I’m going to get myself a drum.

KATA: All right.

CAVANAUGH: Julie Guy, Sundiata Kata, thank you so much for speaking with us today.

KATA: Thank you.

GUY: Thank you.

KATA: It was a pleasure.

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