“Minimal verbal interaction. Full musical participation.”
I find myself writing these two short statements pretty often. If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know that I work primarily with older adults in various living settings, but I also have quite a few younger clients that share a similar long-term need with many of my older adult clients – they have a need (like all human beings) to engage socially with other people and to communicate with others, but they don’t have the ability to do so effectively through speech. Whether my client is a thirty-something with severe autism, a forty-something living with the help of a ventilator, or an eighty-something in the later stages of dementia, they all have the need to get something out to the people around them.
Luckily for us, music is perfect for helping people connect without the use of speech.
Musical interaction can occur in a variety of ways. Some people sing (even if they don’t speak.) Some people vocalize without words. Some people tap their toes or wave their arms or follow the movements demonstrated in a structured movement to music activity. Some people play instruments, sometimes spontaneously, and sometimes with a few verbal or tactile cues to help them get started. My role as the music therapist is to provide the musical material to elicit and support these interactions.
These musical interactions vary widely, but I can say that I am frequently amazed and humbled by what happens because of music. Take, for example, the times when I have a client who does not easily engage in conversation – who might answer questions with one word or none at all – but who still shakes a maraca with a steady beat for the duration of a song, starting with the group and stopping with the group. Or when I am with a woman who sits in a chair most of the day barely moving, and I hold her hands and begin singing a tune while we sway our arms together, and soon I am following her tempo and her movements. Or when a man just looks at me and smiles when I ask his name, speaks not a word in conversation with other group members, but sings all the words to “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”
These moments happen frequently in music therapy sessions with the clients I serve. These moments offer a special opportunity for a person to connect with others, while also serving as a powerful reminder to caregivers, family members, and others that there is still a musical person inside the man or woman that might not be able to say or do much. This recognition helps to strengthen relationships and improve quality of life for all involved.
When have you seen music experiences help someone interact with others in a new way? How did that affect the people around him/her?