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Music therapist takes a melodic approach to healing

by Cindy Atoji Keene

Music has healing properties – whether it’s quiet jazz or cacophonous rock anthem, a song can help long-repressed feelings to emerge, said Lisa Summer, who is one of over 5,000 board-certified music therapists in the U.S., and director of the music therapy program at Anna Maria College in Paxton. “Music can address issues that people can’t express using words alone. Whether listening to music, singing, playing an instrument, or even writing lyrics, music can make positive changes in mood and emotions,” said Summer, 60, who has worked with developmentally disabled children and adults with anxiety, depression and addiction disorders.

Q: After music therapy reportedly helped Congresswoman Gabby Gifford recover from a brain injury, all sorts of music healers and facilitators have emerged. Are they the same as a music therapist?
A: I wrote a book, Music the New Age Elixir, about the wide range of music healers. They make all sorts of claims: Mozart can make you smarter; playing crystal bowls or drums are healing; or even that music can cure cancer. These assertions are reductionist simplifications; there is no quick fix. A legitimate music therapist has a degree and board certification to practice. At Anna Marie College, one of only three AMTA approved colleges in New England, students have a high degree of musicianship as well as clinical practice working with those with psychiatric illnesses and medical conditions.

Q: How do you use music therapy in your sessions?
A: One way is to use short pieces of evocative music, such as Edvard Grieg’s Holberg Suite, and pair it with drawing or writing to help confront specific symptoms. For example, I was working with a college student who was anxious and second-guessing her career decisions. I asked her to listen to the ‘Air’ movement, which features very churning tension, then release, and then to draw how she felt. She drew a flower encased in two glass boxes, and said this is my inner self, disconnected from the world. Several sessions later, she was able to confront her internal distress and later drew a flower planted in the earth, receiving nutrients and sunshine. Music is so good at getting to the inner world. It can transform and reconnect you to the healthy part of your psyche.

Q: How do you choose songs for your patients?
A: The music I find most helpful for stimulating imagery doesn’t call attention to itself. I have a pool of about 300 classical pieces, such as the slow movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony or Brahms third symphony. I also use a lot of ethnic music, including Brazilian, African and Asian music. Angelique Kidjo, a West African artist, is one of my favorites. But music is not a ‘medicine’ – no particular kind of music can be ‘prescribed’ for depression or a physical ailment, since music is experienced so subjectively. I’ll also factor in the personal preferences of the client, whether it’s jazz, rock or classical.

Q: You’ve been a music therapist for several decades – how has the field changed?
A: The field started out with focus on psychiatry but new applications are constantly emerging, with the latest being hospice care. When I was training in the ‘70s, we used mostly composed songs; now improvisation models are also applied. Finally, music therapy is no longer as dependent on importing psychological therapies; the field is more established now and we have our own theories and philosophies instead of borrowing from other professions.

Q: How did you come upon this career choice?
A: When I was a teenager, I played piano and French horn. I remember very clearly that my mother would come home from work and always be in a snarky, angry mood. She’d start banging pots and pans and slamming cabinets. I would sit in the other room, playing the songs I loved, and I’d gradually hear the sounds from the kitchen getting calmer and calmer. I learned that music helps people let go of tension.

Q: How do you personally use music your own personal growth?
A: Yes, almost every morning I wake up in a bad mood. So I started going into my office and listening to music. This morning I listened to Paul Winter’s ‘Grand Canyon Sunset.’ At first, the repetitive background drumming matched the closed-down feeling I had: ‘I don’t feel like doing anything. And that felt good, so my attention was called to the more prominent horns and oboes that were already soaring above the drums. They sort of called me to go with them, and I could feel my heart open, and I let go of my negative feeling and attitude.

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