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Music therapy: something for everyone, funded by (almost) no one

Holly Gordon

“Hello, Sarah*! Let’s make some music today!”

The session begins. Sarah reaches for the neck of the guitar, feeling for its sound. Stephanie Josselyn, a music therapist at Halifax-based music therapy studio Heartsparks, strums while trying to make eye contact with Sarah, leaning into the young girl’s reaching hands.

Sarah is 11 years old. Dark, bouncy curls sit atop her head and bright, intelligent eyes stare back at you. A nearly heart-stopping smile sometimes graces her lips. She is non-verbal, meaning she doesn’t speak, so Sarah’s regular communication comes mainly from body language and the sounds she makes.

But today, Sarah’s here to communicate through music.

Lying in the middle of the Heartsparks studio, Sarah is surrounded by four music therapists — Heartsparks’ owner and founder Anna Plaskett, Josselyn, Kate Morin and intern Jessica LaRonde — in a perpetual circle of motion. They’re playing the guitar, drums and singing together. Another young girl, Olivia, 10, dances around the circle.

Sarah eventually moves to lie on her back, hands behind her head. She smiles. A big, satisfied smile.

This — the singing, dancing, instrument-playing, rolling around on the ground — is music therapy. Each week, Sarah and Olivia go to Heartsparks, where they spend 45 minutes interacting with their music therapists through sound and movement. Anything (safely) goes.

“This would definitely be the most free-flow and unstructured of our groups,” says Plaskett, laughing. “These are our ... social groups, so the goal is fun.”

A French horn player and self-described high school band geek (her musical family includes brother Joel Plaskett), she has been a music therapist since 2004 — when Plaskett graduated with a music therapy certificate from Acadia University — and the owner of her self-started business since 2007. She is also currently the vice president of the Atlantic Association for Music Therapy. When Plaskett started in the field a decade ago, she remembers only one other person working in Halifax proper, with some more scattered across the province. There are approximately 23 in Nova Scotia now.

Plaskett says creating Heartsparks has been a slow, but successful, build. It now employs two other music therapists — soon to be three — and specializes in working with youth at risk and people of all ages with special needs. For her practice, Plaskett says the biggest goal is providing an opportunity for positive and meaningful social interaction. When her clients let go of their inhibitions, and she lets go of hers, the sessions can go anywhere.

“It’s primal,” she says.

‘I can’t think of anyone it’s not for’

Music therapy is as diverse as you need it to be. The goal is to “promote, maintain and restore mental, physical, emotional and spiritual health” through the use of music and the guidance of an accredited music therapist, according to the Canadian Association of Music Therapy.

More specifically, it helped congresswoman Gabby Giffords relearn how to speak after being shot in the head. With the help of a music therapist, her brain used the layering of melody and rhythm to retrain new neural pathways for speech. Music therapy can also be used for those in critical or palliative care, those with developmental disabilities, HIV/AIDS, cancer, victims of abuse — the list goes on.

“I can’t think of anyone it’s not for,” says Jennifer Buchanan, a music therapist going on 22 years, and also the president of the Canadian Association for Music Therapy. “I know in our practice here, our youngest client’s two months old; our oldest is 108 right now. We serve everywhere from going into the remand centre, correctional facilities, to sitting by the bedside of people who are dying to working with children with autism to seniors with dementia to teens that either are youth at risk or perhaps have cerebral palsy. It’s such a range.”

Jennifer Buchanan holds a music therapy session with a group of adults with brain injuries, where they write lyrics for a song and she sings it for them.

Buchanan’s first experience with music as a therapy was at the age of 14, when her grandfather had his second major stroke and was put into a long-term care facility. Her grandmother asked Buchanan to learn her grandfather’s favourite song — “The White Cliffs of Dover” — for her weekly Friday night visits. Never close with her grandfather — “I had absolutely no relationship with my grandfather because he was the most miserable old man I’d ever met in my life” — Buchanan was, however, close to her grandmother, so she learned the song on the guitar and nervously sat down to play it next to her grandfather’s bedside.

“I started playing ‘White Cliffs of Dover,’” Buchanan recalls. “The lady in the hall who normally screamed came in and started singing with me. The gentleman who always wandered and made me really nervous came in and sat beside me, and my grandfather started crying. I felt incredibly awkward, and that was the change in my life: where Friday nights changed forever while my grandfather resided there. We made music together.”

Today, Buchanan owns JB Music Therapy in Calgary, Alta., which employs 16 music therapists and serves more than 1,800 people.

The road to regulation

Despite Canada having more than 500 accredited music therapists across its provinces — a 659 per cent increase since 1994 — music therapy isn’t regulated by the government, and is therefore not covered under health benefits. Ontario, after what Buchanan notes has been an approximately 18-year battle, is set to be the first province to regulate music therapists within the transitional Council of the College of Registered Psychotherapists in Ontario, likely by October 2014, and she predicts B.C. might follow within a year.

Buchanan says the Canadian Association for Music Therapy is ensuring that “all our Ts are crossed, that we’re making sure the music therapists have what they need and a strong code of ethics and a well articulated scope of practice. [It’s] very critical for us right now.”

Dr. Alan Turry, managing director of the Nordoff-Robbins Centre for Music Therapy at New York University's Steinhardt School, is currently running a pilot study to scientifically determine the effectiveness of Nordoff-Robbins music therapy — an internationally recognized method pioneered by musician/composer Paul Nordoff and educationist Clive Robbins.

“But to say scientifically proven, you’ve got to have hundreds of thousands of dollars and outside studies and numbers that are in the hundreds in terms of proof, and that’s why it’s a very expensive undertaking to have these experimental control designs,” he says, of one reason music therapy is slow to grow.

It’s something Buchanan also credits to the slow push toward regulation.

“They need to have the evidence that it's as effective as we have seen it to be clinically, and they're needing more research in the area,” she says. “Not enough is being done by music therapists themselves. That's probably one of our weaknesses, because we're so busy clinically.”

“People know, ‘Oh speech therapy, you’re working on speech; physical therapy, you’re working on improving somebody’s physical functioning; but music therapy, you’re fixing their — music?’ It can be hard for people to understand it,” says Turry. He adds that people don’t consider music — and, as an extension, music therapy — as a priority. But in truth music can help with speech or physical challenges.

“I think, especially in [the States], in New York and other metropolitan cities, that people are seeing music therapy as an alternative to traditional verbal therapy,” he says. “That people are trying to find other ways to explore their inner life, their inner world, and music can be an effective way of doing that.”

Raising money the Music Heals way

Closing the funding gap is where organizations like Music Heals come in. Started by Chris Brandt and Dave Barnett in 2012 and based out of Vancouver, its purpose is to raise the profile of music therapy — in B.C. as well as other provinces — and raise sustainable funds for existing music therapy programs.

“A lot of what we do is just try to make introductory conversations because the definition of music therapy is kind of dry,” says Brandt, who previously worked for Universal Music and taught at Vancouver’s Nimbus School of Recording Arts. “We all get the power of music, and if we can get people to just talk about that then it’s an easier job to [say] OK, now let’s talk about funding music therapy, because it’s not funded by the government.”

Music Heals groups the money it raises into $15,000 chunks, and each $15,000 donation goes to an existing music therapy program, which adds one day of music therapy a week, for one year, to the receiving program — averaging to about 400 additional patient visits. In 2013, Music Heals’ first full year, it raised $100,000, which added one day of music therapy a week to approximately six local programs.

Vancouver’s the Matinee are raising money for Music Heals by recording covers of requested songs by people who donate $100 each. Here they cover “Stop” by the Spice Girls, and half the band already knew all the words (maybe also the moves).

While based in Vancouver, Brandt says the organization is looking to partner with other groups — radio stations, for example — across the country to raise funds for music therapy. Wherever the money is raised, it’ll stay; the Canadian location doesn’t matter, as long as it’s helping fund and raise the profile of music therapy.

Brandt brings up a YouTube video excerpt from the documentary Alive Inside, in which an older man in a seniors’ home, who’s mostly non-responsive, is given an iPod by a nurse with all his favourite music on it.

“He just lights up and he starts singing. And he just sings every day now. And every one points, ‘Oh I’ve seen that video!’ And it’s like yeah, technically that’s not music therapy; that was just a nurse that had a good idea,” Brandt points out.

“So imagine an actual music therapist who is now using this to get this guy’s motor skills back up and get his level of engagement back up and start to relate his memory of music to memory of his kids’ names.”

Regardless of whether people know exactly what music therapy is, Brandt clarifies that the conversation, at this point, is key.

“If someone goes, ‘What is music therapy?’ We win. Now they’re asking the question.”

*The names of Heartsparks’ participants have been changed to protect their identities.

Find me on Twitter: @hollygowritely