SMWC students break cultural boundaries to explore music therapy in a distant land

September 10th, 2012 | SMWC

SMWC senior Laura Kempton uses rhythmic music therapy techniques with patients in a Jamaican infirmary.

A bare bones infirmary, overlooking a crystal clear bay, shaped a tiny community out of an assortment of ailments. Four narrow buildings, with areas exposed to the surrounding tropical heat, shelter both men and women twisted in beds or slouched in wheelchairs.

“There was limited stimulation, typically no visitors,” said Sharon Boyle, MM, MT-BC, associate professor of music therapy at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College (SMWC). “When we came in and began playing music, the people sat up, they smiled and laughed. Music brought beauty into that space.”

Boyle, along with two SMWC music therapy students, participated in a summer immersion experience known as the Jamaica Field Service Project (JAFSP), which is held five times a year. Music therapy, a health profession that uses musical experiences with board-certified music therapists, can maintain or change a person's functioning level in a variety of health domains. In JAFSP, these students volunteer in impoverished areas of Jamaica under supervision, while learning traditional Afro-Caribbean music, exploring the island’s lush terrain and probing the culture’s values and customs.

“We never felt pity for the patients,” said Boyle, a music therapy supervisor on the trip. “They are a proud people with an optimistic outlook that radiates gratitude.”

Sharon Boyle, associate professor of music therapy, with music therapy student Laura Kempton in Jamaica.

Boyle and SMWC music therapy senior Laura Kempton, from Noblesville, Ind., volunteered at a special needs school, a homeless shelter and an infirmary for 10 days in June 2012. “All of the clients were incredibly grateful we were there,” Kempton said. “JAFSP is about serving people in need, while discovering the way people experience music in another land.”

About a month before Boyle and Kempton touched down in Montego Bay, SMWC music therapy junior Sherry Bube, from Nashville, Ind., spent her 10 days helping locals at the some of same sites – the infirmary, the school for children with special needs and a hospital, instead of a homeless shelter. In these varied settings, the students witnessed the diverse ways music can be a soothing salve.

“Music has always played a role in healing throughout history,” Boyle said. “It is a connection between cultures, between people. That’s why music therapy just makes sense.”

In the infirmary, the day moves slowly for some solitary patients. For others, they are simply happy to be alive. “Many of the people there no longer have family or no one who could take care of them,” Boyle said. “There were lots of people with amputations from undiagnosed diabetes. You could tell some of them had been there a long time.”

Laura Kempton

The music therapy students walked in, threw back the dingy curtains and let the music rise like the sun. Bube overheard a women tell a volunteer to “please come back, because she felt alive again and this place made her feel dead.”

Boyle witnessed the music transform a disconnected man into a soulful songbird. “It was amazing to see the impact our music had on the clients,” Kempton said. “There were several who would follow us around the entire day, just to experience the music.”

With the older patients, music flowed organically. Patients began the verses of Jamaican folk songs, facilitated by the rhythmic beats from the students’ drums. “Flexibility is an extremely important skill to have as a music therapist,” Kempton said. “We always had ideas of what to do and what the clients needed in the moment determined what we did.”

Playing music that is culturally significant music is key to successful music therapy sessions. The music breaks through barriers, soothing emotional and physical aches like a patch of sunlight breaking into a grey day. “By playing authentic music, we demonstrate respect for their culture,” Boyle said.

Since a menagerie of afflictions manifested in all corners of the hospital, students had to be prepared to face it all. “Our first client had cerebral palsy,” Bube recalled. “He had been in the hospital his entire life. We did an individual session with him and he had great responses to eye tracking with the hand bells and playing the tone bell. Even the slightest movement was a great improvement.”

Sharon Boyle with a student at The School of Hope.

Like the other sites, the School of Hope works with a range of disabilities. The children were divided by age into three small classrooms with a large space outdoors. “They were the most energetic,” Bube said. “We used music therapy to help them with motor skills, academics, socialization and physical-response issues, such as even breathing and released muscle tension.”

The school children were excited by the novelty that arrived with the visitors. “One barefoot little boy, maybe four or five, would constantly slip out of class to be with the drums,” Boyle recalled. Pineapple bushes lined the courtyard, where a large concrete picnic table soaked up the shade. The sounds of drums, guitars and other unique instruments hung in the humid air as the sun crossed the sky. “They were so happy to be able to dance and play music with us and each other,” Kempton said.

The children took pictures with the volunteers’ cameras, played with drums and frequently ran off, looking over their shoulders, as if inviting a game of tag. In time, Bube noticed, they became more attentive and more engaged in the music sessions. “The teacher commented that she was surprised at how long the children remained seated,” she said.

The JAFSP volunteers learned new music after site visits.

After each site visit, the music therapy students would return to their huts, learn Afro-Caribbean music and reflect upon the day’s events. The immersion into the very bones of Jamaica – the music, the culture and the challenges – helps them better understand the diverse ways music can impact each person. 

“We want our students to have deeper perspectives,” Boyle said. “We don’t want them to just sing the words; we want them to truly understand the meaning of the music and its role in healing. ”

The experience also allowed students to venture out and explore a new and distinct environment. They ate breadfruit, hiked to waterfalls and drank coconut water right from the fruit. They talked with locals, bought their wares, learned their customs and shared music and dance.

“There wasn’t a sense of hurrying things along,” Bube said. “You don’t place an order at a food stand before asking how that person is doing. That means acknowledging the person above your own personal needs. How many times do we forget to do that in our own lives?”

With SMWC’s commitment to service learning, the JAFSP is a natural supplement to the music therapy curriculum. Portions of the summer experience count toward SMWC’s 180 pre-internship practicum hours, which students must complete before their final clinical internship. With almost 20 student volunteers in each session, they exchanged ideas and techniques with music therapy students from across the U.S. Since SMWC’s music therapy program provides a unique blend of independence and support, students quickly adapted to new ideas, new challenges and new cultures.

“Cultural differences shouldn’t be seen as a barrier, but a growing opportunity,” Bube said. “Both the client and the therapist can learn more about patience, acceptance and the beauty found in sharing music.”

Visit SMWC music therapy online to learn more about this signature program. Read about Professor Sharon Boyle’s own journey through Jamaica at the SMWC Music Therapy Blog.

Media coverage about SMWC's participation in the JAFSP:

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