Deep stories, deeper healing: Music and Psychotherapy

She laid in bed, frustrated and agitated. I sat beside her, guitar resting on my lap. What could I do for this dying woman to support her, to help her cope with her feelings of loss? I picked up my guitar and delicately began to play a tune, singing along gently. She became lost in passionate listening and reminiscent reflection; I noticed her face relax – eyes lightly shut, body still and full of heart. The song quietly faded to an end, and we sat in silence. After a moment, she took my hand in hers and whispered in a calm voice, smiling with tears in her eyes: “That was my favourite song. Thank you.” She peacefully passed away hours after our session together.

Music seeks to tell an individual’s story; you may associate a specific song with a special romance, or perhaps have found lyrics that somehow seem to speak to your soul. My musical story began when my parents enrolled me in piano lessons just before I turned four. Since then, it has become an integral part of my life, from providing me comfort in sadness, to inspiring conversations that led to unforgettable friendships. But most significantly, it influenced my education and career choice. I was determined to use my talents to help others experience the healing properties of music and to support them in creating their own personal relationship with the art, helping them tell their own story through music. Completing a Bachelor of Music Therapy degree allowed me to do just that, and showed me how music can touch lives, beyond my imagination.

My first exposure to the arts as an alternative, non-medicinal way to improve health and well- being occurred during the summer following my first year of university. At a local wellness centre, I was part of a multidisciplinary team that supported adults with memory loss through various activities, such as: music listening and discussion, drama and visual art workshops, modified yoga and physical exercise, and socializing with the participants, giving them an opportunity for self-expression. It also marked the first time I witnessed the great effects of music on memory: a participant with late-stage Alzheimer’s – who was completely dependent on all activities of daily living, and who very rarely spoke – sang and moved along to her favourite song, ‘You Are My Sunshine’; I had never seen music elicit such incredible responses, and at that moment, I was convinced that I had chosen the right career path for my future. The following summers, I continued to seek knowledge and experience working with diverse client populations, including children with developmental disabilities, adults with various mental health/behaviour concerns, and seniors in long-term care. These opportunities allowed me to develop comfort and confidence in my interpersonal and communication skills, as well as taught me how to observe and be sensitive to an individual’s non-verbal cues that indicate their needs and wants.

This past January through August, I completed my 1000-hour music therapy internship at a local hospital working with war veterans as well as patients on the palliative care unit and their loved ones. Much of my caseload involved working with clients who were at the end-stage of their life, some of whom were actively dying, with prognoses of short hours or days. I was faced with many client concerns that I wanted to address further, going beyond the realms of music therapy – a client’s suicidal thoughts, existential distress at end-of-life, mental health concerns, or even guiding their processing of emotions were not within my scope of practice as a music therapy intern; these require psychotherapy training. Despite this obstacle, through this internship I learned how to employ some counselling skills that were within my scope of practice. One of my clients particularly enjoyed my presence and company; she told me it was because she felt I understood her. For this reason, she also often felt comfortable expressing her feelings and needs to me, in comparison to other staff. I found that this client particularly benefited from my use of active listening and validation during our sessions. I was also fortunate enough to connect with several Registered Psychotherapists (RP) in the Creative Arts Therapies department, who allowed me to shadow and observe some of their sessions in which psychotherapy techniques were used. With my clinical supervisor – an RP and a Music Therapist Accredited (MTA) – I helped run a weekly psychotherapy- and discussion-based music therapy group, with my supervisor facilitating the psychotherapy elements. I watched intently during one session as she supported a client grieving for the loss of a friend on the unit as well as for his own personal losses: the ability to walk, the ability to provide for his family, and the new identity that came with his sickness. I wanted to learn how to effectively address his concerns, to support him to find peace within himself, and to provide a safe space for him – someone who I only ever knew to have a positive outlook on life and a smile on his face – to break down his barriers, and just cry.

Music therapy uses music as a tool to achieve non-musical goals, such as: facilitate meaningful social interaction, provide cognitive stimulation, encourage self-expression, and improve overall quality of life. Through facilitating music therapy sessions as well as participating in various psychotherapy-focused discussions during my internship and at music therapy conferences, I learned that many non-musical goals that music therapy seeks to achieve also overlap in psychotherapy. Though, psychotherapy delves into the human psyche, which is something beyond the training of a music therapist. Following several psychology courses during high school and university, I became intrigued with the fact that human behaviour and mental processes can be altered, often resulting in more efficient, healthier ways of thinking; this is something that psychotherapy can achieve. During my work, volunteer, and internship experiences, I recognized many instances where employing psychotherapy techniques may be of benefit to my clients; because of this, I want to pursue more education specializing in counselling and psychotherapy in order to learn how to further support my future clients at a deeper level, using music therapy and psychotherapeutic techniques in conjunction; I believe that this will make me a more effective music therapist in the future. I hope I will be able to learn much in this field of study and be provided with the education I need to go out into the world to change and touch lives using my music, and my whole being and presence.

Music has the astounding ability to connect people to each other, to the world, and to themselves. Whether it be at the beginning of someone’s story, or during their final chapters, I hope I can – through music, and my own being – bring a positive light to their life. Music therapy and psychotherapy work together in perfect harmony: using an element that naturally elicits emotions and reaches into the heart and soul to change and give life to new realizations deep inside the human psyche, all to guide one to a more fulfilling life. All our stories must end, but it is what we do in between the pages, how many lives we can touch and renew, that make life so meaningful.

~ Cynthia Y.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I recently applied for a masters program for psychotherapy. As per admission requirements, I had to write a Statement of Intent and… well… here it is in all its glory (with some minute changes for confidentiality reasons). I wanted to share this with all you readers in hopes that you can get a sense of why I’m doing what I’m doing/why I want to pursue further education in this field.