Sing away the pain

September 24th, 2011 | SMWC

While most little girls are outside playing, one lives trapped in a tiny plastic world. Her body, covered in burns, relies on a plastic bubble to keep away bacteria hidden in everyday things, like a cool breeze, a soft blanket or her mother’s touch. These innocent things simply aren’t so innocent to her damaged skin. In this isolation, rocking with pain and confusion, all she can do is cry.

“She had been inconsolable,” said Annette Whitehead-Pleaux, M.A., MT-BC, a music therapist at the Shriner’s Hospital for Children in Boston, Mass., and graduate of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College’s (SMWC) master’s in music therapy. Armed with her guitar, Whitehead-Pleaux only knew a few words of the tiny 2-year-old Guatemalan’s native language. But there was one she was very familiar with.

Cantare.

To Sing.


SMWC professor Sharon Boyle, M.M., MT-BC, can play anything from Garth Brooks to the Beatles. Knowing a variety of music will help music therapists connect with patients’ specific interests.

“Music taps right in and pulls emotions out. It bypasses defenses,” said Sharon Boyle, M.M., MT-BC, associate professor and coordinator of SMWC’s undergraduate music therapy program. 

In music therapy, credentialed professionals use music to address physical, emotional, cognitive and social needs of individuals, according to the American Music Therapy Association (AMTA). “It’s so broad in scope,” said Peter Meyer, M.A., MT-BC, supervising music therapist at Good Samaritan Society-University Specialty Center in Minneapolis, Minn., and another graduate of SMWC’s music therapy master’s program. “It can be applied to physical therapy, as well as counseling.”

For the most part, therapy is segmented. If you are depressed, you try cognitive therapy. If you are injured, you try physical therapy. Music therapy, however, cannot be boxed into one category. For example, a young burn victim at Shriner’s, placed in a medically induced coma, would twist and writhe, tormented by intermittent pain. “If we played slow music,” Whitehead-Pleaux began, “it would calm and relax him, allowing his pain meds to kick-in faster.” 

Pain management is one of many physical benefits of music therapy. The beat of a drum can help those with Parkinson’s disease increase their fluidity of motion. When words stumble around in the mind of Broca’s Aphasia patients, uttering a single syllable is exhausting. “Music is processed in numerous centers of the brain,” Boyle said “It is, in essence, a whole brain experience. Therefore, a person can sing even if they can’t speak.”

In many cases, music therapy can help patients with traumatic brain injuries regain not only lost functions, but also their lives. In January 2011, Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords began her inaugural “Congress on Your Corner” event. Instead of firing questions; however, a gunman fired bullets, one of which caused Giffords severe brain injuries. With music speech stimulation and melodic intonation therapy, Giffords rapidly recovered lost speech functions. “Teaching someone to speak through music helps the brain develop new areas for processing communication,” Boyle said.

While music therapy makes headlines in the newspapers, it is also taking center stage in the literary world. The main character of acclaimed author Jodi Picoult’s most recent book, “Sing You Home,” is a music therapist. As research for the character, Picoult sought out SMWC’s own Whitehead-Pleaux for her expertise. She spent a morning following Whitehead-Pleaux at Shriner’s, using her work as a basis for the book’s music therapy elements.

“I think her portrayal of music therapy was very good,” Whitehead-Pleaux said of the book, which debuted at the top of the USA Today and New York Times book lists. “It seemed very honest.” The increased public awareness has aimed a spotlight at the multifaceted uses of music therapy.

For instance, just as music therapy mends the body, it is also a salve for emotional wounds.


SMWC student Cathleen Flynn used Caribbean drumbeats during her field service work with the homeless, sick and children with disabilities in Jamaica.

 “We would play a favorite hymn or song and they would just start to cry,” said Cathleen Flynn, a SMWC sophomore in music therapy, who worked with the homeless, sick and children with disabilities in Jamaica.

As the director of SMWC’s Master of Music Therapy program, Tracy Richardson, Ph.D., M.T.- B.C., knows how important it is to expose students to the many faces of music therapy. When she was just a fledging music therapist, Richardson attended to a woman in her 30s, engaged in a grueling fight with breast cancer. Richardson entered her room and softly began to play “You are My Sunshine.” The woman, weak from days of painful treatments, slowly lifted her head from the pillow and reached out to her exhausted mother, slouched by her side.

“They locked eyes and the mother stood up. She got in bed with her daughter and held her, while they both cried,” Richardson began. “I asked, ‘Should I continue?’ and the mother said ‘Yes. I used to sing that to her when she was a little girl.’”

Witnessing this poignant moment, Richardson herself was brought to tears. “The music gave them permission to be mother and daughter,” she said. “It was the most powerful session I’ve ever had. It’s like it unlocked something.” 

We all can connect music to a memory. Lullabies our mother sang bring the comfort of her arms. Beats that get our legs shaking energize our bodies. Lyrics that parallel our lives allow us to be honest with ourselves. “Music therapy creates a safe environment for people to express themselves,” Meyer said. From overcoming anxiety to recovering speech, its benefits are limitless.

As the benefits of music therapy increase, so does the need. With a swelling demand for music therapists, SMWC’s bachelor’s and master’s programs feel the surge. Since its inception in 1983, SMWC’s Bachelor of Science in Music Therapy has been one of the most challenging programs in the nation. Students earn practical experience by completing 1200 clinical internship hours in professional settings such as schools, hospitals, nursing homes, rehabilitation centers and psychiatric facilities. With the addition of a one-of-a-kind equivalency program, those with a bachelor’s in music can earn a degree in music therapy from a distance. These innovative hands-on programs draw students from all over the world and develop them into well-rounded music therapists.

“My pursuit of a music therapy career is tied directly to my decision to come to The Woods,” said Flynn, who relocated from Mitchell, S.D., for the bachelor’s program. SMWC’s Master of Arts in Music Therapy program, approved by the AMTA, allows students to continue their work, while earning an advanced degree from a distance. “You can apply what you learn directly into your practice,” Meyer said. “I grew so much musically, as well as clinically, in the master’s program.”

By combining individual attention with meaningful peer interaction, the program creates diverse professional growth. “The Woods brought in professors from all over the country with different perspectives,” Whitehead-Pleaux said.

SMWC’s programs focus on healing the whole self with the profound power of music. “I think people connect so deeply through music because it is something we all share,” said SMWC senior Nicole Gilberti. “We all feel a need to create and express.”

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