Music therapy can soothe the sick, both body and soul
Diana Sanita watches as her daughter Katherine Vitorino, 5, who has cerebral palsy, takes part in a session with music therapist Carolyn Williams on Feb. 1 in Toronto.
Carolyn Williams sits by five-year-old Katherine Vitorinoâs hospital bed, strumming her guitar and singing a medley of songs. âThis Old Manâ gives way to âItsy Bitsy Spider,â followed by âThe Lion Sleeps Tonightâ and âBaby Beluga.â
As she sings the lyrics, Williams pauses to leave a word unsung at the end of a phrase, letting the guitar lapse into silence.
It is a sign for Katherine to join in on the song â and her delighted squeal comes right on cue.
Katherine has cerebral palsy and is unable to speak, see or walk. But music therapy has opened a whole new world to the little girl with the angelic face and joyful smile.
âIt brings me so much happiness,â says Katherineâs mom, Diana Sanita. âIt gives me hope that one day she might be able to take those vocal sounds and turn them into a word or two to help people understand what she wants.
âBut more than anything, seeing her happy makes us so happy. And she loves it,â says Sanita of Georgetown, Ont., near Toronto, who bunked in with Katherine at the Hospital for Sick Children for more than two months while her daughter was being treated for kidney and lung problems.
âAnd it gives me some insight into her world. Weâre never quite sure what her cognitive level is, but itâs pretty apparent in music therapy that she gets it. She knows whatâs going on. She knows when itâs her turn to sing, she recognizes songs, she anticipates.
âItâs just pure joy.â
Seeing Katherine so engaged is a joy, too, for Williams, a certified music therapist who has been working at Sick Kids for about a year, assigned to patients in the small-organ transplant unit and general pediatrics, which covers a wide range of illnesses.
âBeautiful singing today, Miss Katherine,â she croons to her young charge, as fellow music therapist Ruth Roberts takes up the guitar, leaving Williams to play a bongo drum for another rendition of âThe Lion Sleeps Tonight.â
Roberts, who has been with the hospitalâs music therapy program since its inception in 1999, points to Katherineâs hands. Usually tightly fisted, her palms are open and her fingers relaxed.
Music is working its magic.
âWhat we realize is that children when theyâre unable to do anything else â maybe they canât move, maybe they canât see, and even kids who canât hear well, you can get to them through rhythm. If theyâre no longer able to participate in life in other usual meaningful ways, the music can still reach them and help them to express who they are and represent themselves in our world,â Roberts says.
Indeed, thatâs one major goal of music therapy, which the Canadian Association for Music Therapy describes as a means to âpromote, maintain and restore mental, physical, emotional and spiritual health.â
Music can help reduce anxiety and even pain, as well as give youngsters who are typically subjected to repeated blood drawings and other tests an opportunity to exercise some control and independence, says Williams.
âIt also gives an opportunity for creative expression or to process feelings and emotions,â she says.
Roberts says kids with cancer often tell her the sessions help them cope with chemotherapy, while families say it eases the stress of having a sick or dying child in hospital.
âIn the ICU, if Iâm in a room with four very sick children and playing guitar with one child, that sound will travel and the nurses, all the staff will comment how it helps to de-escalate the tension and general level of anxiety in the room,â she says.
While Roberts and Williams work primarily with children, Canadaâs roughly 550 accredited music therapists treat clients of all ages in a variety of settings and with a wide range of conditions, among them brain injury, autism spectrum disorder, mental illness, post-traumatic stress disorder and dementia.
At the Baycrest geriatric care centre in Toronto, the focus is on using music therapy to enhance quality of life for aging residents with a variety of disorders, from dementia and Parkinsonâs disease to depression and the effects of stroke.
âWhatâs important for people to know is that music makes a significant impact on the quality of life in older adults with cognitive impairment and helping them engage and actively participate in their environment,â says Amy Clements-Cortes, who heads the program.
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Over time, residents with Alzheimerâs or another dementia forget the faces and names of loved ones and even their own name, and eventually lose the ability to speak, says Clements-Cortes, who also teaches music therapy at the University of Windsor and Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont.
âBut you target a song thatâs in their long-term memory, from their teen years or their early 20s, and they can sing the entire song with you.
âItâs phenomenal, and I think for a daughter or son who comes to spend time with their mother, for example, who doesnât know who they are, to see them participate that way, itâs like they see a piece of their mother that was lost.
âMusic provides a way into the soul. It provides a connection to others.â
People with Parkinsonâs, a movement disorder marked by tremors and an abnormal gait with periodic episodes of freezing midstep, also can benefit from the therapy.
Rhythmic auditory stimulation, which employs music with a beat, is one technique for improving movement.
âItâs quite miraculous,â says Clements-Cortes. âThe client that is shuffling their feet, theyâre pigeon-toed with the Parkinsonâs, you put on that beat and their breathing resonates with it and theyâre able to march or walk to that beat.â
Emotionally, music therapy can help people receiving palliative care and their families work through relationship issues and the grief surrounding imminent death.
Clements-Cortes says the course of therapy may involve writing songs or a musical biography with a client âas a way of ending or closing relationships with loved ones.â
âI might come as a therapist with some suggested melodies that I play them and ask them to choose. They may have the melody or the key that they want, a tone that they come with.â
She recalls working with a woman who was dying from a brain tumour and could no longer speak, but was able to sing.
âWe sang a lot of Broadway songs, those were her favourites,â Clements-Cortes recalls. âAnd as the disease progressed, she could no longer participate but was animated and could appreciate the music she heard.â
As the womanâs health declined, the therapy became more about the time with her husband, who brought her to every session.
âOne week, he brought in a box he wanted to share with me, this box of poetry and love letters they had written and mementoes they had kept,â she says. âAnd I said, âYou know, we could turn these into songs.â
âSo we recorded all of them and sang all of the songs at her memorial after she passed.â
Music can also help soothe a child in palliative care and give families a way to express their sorrow over a dying child.
âIn palliative care, you adjust the music. They will be requiring music that is much less complex harmonically and rhythmically and melodically,â explains Roberts, who sings and plays guitar, flute and piano.
âIt could be an instrumental on the guitar. It could be classical, it could be a folk song, it could be âTwinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.â It could be something significant to the family ... it may be a hymn.â
Often a family will have been holding it together emotionally and they hear one chord on the guitar and it opens the floodgates of grief, says Roberts.
âThatâs part of what we do as therapists â we accommodate, we make a place for the grief, we donât try and make it better. We try to allow it to be expressed and to provide comfort and support for it.â
While the work can be psychologically draining and even physically taxing, Williams says itâs also âextremely rewarding.â
âYou can provide an outlet ... for a patient or their entire family that they wouldnât get any other way,â she says, recalling what one father told her:
ââYou come in here and you play that guitar and the walls seem to disappear and the beeping disappears, and suddenly Iâm transported ... Iâm transported to another place. And for that half an hour, itâs good.â
âWhen you hear that, youâre humbled by it,â Williams says. âIt humbles me every time and leaves me in a place of awe and gratitude for what I can give.â