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Wednesday, July 26th, 2006
1:20p - Interesting
Music therapy helps develop communication

By BRANDIE M. JEFFERSON, Associated Press Writer 17 minutes ago

BEVERLY, Mass. - Seventeen-year-old Tony Bacon sat at the parlor window seat, his eyes glued to the driveway. He settles into the same spot every Wednesday afternoon.

"What are you waiting for?" asked his mother, Susan Williams.

"Music therapy," he said, his words fast and slurred.

For the next 45 minutes, Tony, who has autism, and Krystal Demaine sit face-to-face in the sunroom. She plays guitar as he beats on a drum.

Demaine, a graduate of the music therapy program at Boston's Berklee College of Music, has been going to Tony's house for four years, using the Beatles' "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" for exercises in enunciation, volume and breath control. Beating along to "Blackbird" tests the teen's coordination and motor control.

It's part of a session known as music therapy, which is used to help people with various medical conditions develop everything from language skills to motor coordination. It can provide a drug-free way to regulate moods in people with depression or foster socialization in those with limited means of communication.

The first music therapy program in the country started at Michigan State University in 1944, according to Alan Solomon, former historian for the American Music Therapy Association and current dean at the Potsdam State University of New York's Crane School of Music.

He said it gained popularity in veterans' hospitals in World War II as doctors became interested in music's ability to heal soldiers with both physical and mental problems.

These days, Berklee's program is one of the largest among the 70 that have sprouted up around the country. In the upcoming school year, Berklee will have 100 students in the program.

Music therapists take advantage of the ways mind and body are stimulated when people listen to and make music to hone motor and brain functions, said Al Bumanis, spokesman for the American Music Therapy Association.

"Music impacts a person viscerally, physically, immediately and directly," said Suzanne Hanser, founder and chairwoman of Berklee's music therapy program. Its undergraduate program is one of 70 in the country.

Demaine, who graduated from the program in 2000, said a patient in music therapy works on many senses at once.

"I'm using my hands, I'm using my eyes, I'm using my ears — I'm using all these different senses and I'm receiving something that makes me feel good," said Demaine, who also has a certificate in neurologic music therapy and a master's degree in education.

Tony's mother said she enrolled him in music therapy because she thought it could help his communication skills.

The therapy "forces language" when he and Demaine sing, Williams said, which makes it easier for Tony to communicate with others.

"I think there's something so basic but so complicated about rhythm," she said. "I think it really helps organize the brain."

Students in the Berklee program spend most of their time off-campus, in hospitals and schools where they work with patients under the supervision of professional music therapists. They must pass a national certification test to be recognized as music therapists.

Adam Sankowski, a 2003 graduate of the program, works at the Kennedy Day School at the Franciscan Hospital for Children in Boston, where he uses music therapy to foster socialization. Many of his patients are nonverbal and use machines with recorded phrases to communicate.

The idea, Sankowski said, is to make the setting similar to other groups of friends hanging out. "People are talking, everybody takes turns," he explained, "we try to create that same thing but in a musical context."

The first song the group sings every day is a greeting, used to help the children interact and learn to use the technology they depend on. Several students have such limited use of their bodies that all they can do is hit a switch with their heads. But during music therapy, hitting that switch lets them sing along with their classmates.

The Berklee students help doctors and other caretakers understand that music therapy "is an art and it is also a medical science and it is based on current theories as well as research," Hanser said.

For instance, in a 1986 paper published in the Journal of Music Therapy, Hanser, a research associate at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute, described the effects of music therapy on women in labor. For 10 contractions, women listened to songs they had used previously as part of relaxation techniques. That was alternated with five music-less minutes for the duration of labor.

The women had fewer physical pain responses — tense muscles, clenched teeth, raised shoulders and requests for painkillers — while music played.

And recent research at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation suggests listening to music can reduce chronic pains and depression by up to 25 percent.

But it wasn't such research that brought Sankowski to the Berklee program.

"I wasn't sure what I was going to do, but I made the decision that music was going to be a big part of my life," he said. "It's more about connecting with people."

current mood: sleepy

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