Music Therapy: the Space for Miracles

“Miracles?” You ask. Yes! I have been doing this work for nearly 20 years and over those years my clients have repeatedly accomplished what would be considered miracles. Let me explain.

When I think of the word “miracle” I think of an amazing or wonderful event, a marvel even, that was otherwise unimaginable. The number of times when a person has surpassed what was expected to be their maximum potential in music therapy is too numerous to describe here, but I will give you a few examples. These examples come not just from my practice, but also from some of my colleagues.

I was working with a 5-year-old child who had cerebral palsy and was thought to be non-communicative. However, he would laugh appropriately at jokes and cry appropriately at TV shows, so we knew that he understood but was trapped in a body that wouldn’t allow him to speak. One day in music therapy, we were working on bilateral grip for him to be able to play small percussion instruments. I wanted for him to indicate which instrument he wanted to play and knew that he loved the quacker (a handheld instrument that makes a duck-like sound) and didn’t like the loud maraca, so those are the two that I gave him the choice from. He was able to choose using eye gaze!!! I tried another choice, and he looked right at the one that he wanted. He started to laugh, I assume because he was pleased to be able to make choices, and I asked him if we should invite his mother in to see and he looked me straight in the eye, which I interpreted as “yes”. When she saw what he was doing in making choices, she said that they had been trying for years to teach him to use his eyes to communicate. Laughing and crying, she stated this was a miracle and she was so proud. From that day on, that child was able to make choices between physical objects and even pictures of desired activities. He was also able to indicate yes by looking directly at you and no by looking away from you. What a difference this made in this childs life!

While I was working in a children’s hospital, it was common for me to be called in to trauma cases when they were contemplating withdrawal of support (pulling the plug) because the child was unresponsive even to pain. Two out of five times I was able to get a response using auditory stimuli. This information helped the parents and medical team in decision making.

Many times working in the hospital with children who had traumatic brain injury I saw miracles. It was common for these children to experience their ‘firsts’ in music therapy. One child, we’ll call her Sherry, was crushed under a deck when it fell, a support beam falling directly on her skull. After a long time in coma, the doctors felt it was time for her to wake, but she just wasn’t. So, they called for music therapy. I was able to get some reaction in that first session, but not more than the medical team was able to get with pain stimuli, until… I sang her favorite song. She smiled and squeezed her mother’s hand. From that day forward, every day she accomplished new things. I was privileged to see all of her firsts: the first time she smiled, opened her eyes, moved purposefully, made vocal sound, sang a word (she was able to sing before she was able to speak), all the way to walking and talking. These miracles, while not to be diminished, are actually common in music therapy. Sherry, by the way, is now in regular education and considered typically functioning. She is known by her family as, “our miracle girl”.

Music therapists work with many populations and the following story, while not mine, has always touched me. My dear friend, Kathy Schellin was working with a group of elders with dementia and their spouses. She was going to do an intervention using reminiscence and put on a piece of music that would have been popular when these folks were in their late teens to early twenties (what the research says that we all respond to best in our older years). One gentleman who was non-verbal at this point and in the latter stages of dementia, stood up, turned to his wife and put his hand out (a common gesture to ask a woman to dance). They danced together, him holding her close, the entire song clearly a couple who loved each other deeply and enjoyed dancing together. The wife had tears streaming down her face. When the song ended, he returned to his seat and his face went expressionless once again. His wife said that was the first time in years that he had touched her affectionately or even shown any knowledge of who she was. She treasured that experience! It was a miracle!

Here are a couple of other stories my friends have generously shared with me on Facebook:

My former intern, Cheryl Olson, shared: “Just saw a patient this morning with end-stage Alzheimer’s who appears to be entering the “catatonic” part of the disease progression. During the music, the patient opened her eyes, looked right at me, and smiled. When I asked if she was enjoying the music, she nodded her head and gave an enthusiastic “Mmm hmm” and smiled again. The best part was when she started clapping her hands after each song – something that she hasn’t done in a very long time, according to the facility staff. Funny enough, I actually had the phrase “making miracles” go through my head afterwards.”

Kimberly Thompson shared, “My very first practicum site: inclusive classroom, one child was selectively mute and never spoke in school…only to gramma at home. We were observing a group MT sessions throughout the semester, and the last session was my turn to lead….I had this compulsion to go and buy kazoos to give the kids as a goodbye token and activity…and this kiddo engaged that vocal box, the same muscles he refused to use with expressive communication, and shocked everyone kazooing quietly and then louder and louder….Mouth dropped. Power of MT, sold! After 2 years in a group, this was his first vocal contribution:-)”

I could go on and on with story after story, but I won’t as this blog post is already long. Miracles, while common in music therapy, are not to be under appreciated. It is a privilege to be the “space of miracles” for the amazing clients that I have the joy of working with! To all of my clients, current/past/future, thank you for including me in your lives and allowing me to help make a difference in your life!!!

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