Alex Nelson and the Gift of Music Therapy

[Music] is such an underrated resource, yet people use music every day. We have it in our cars, on our phones, in the grocery store – it is everywhere we go and it is used to alter or encourage our own moods. My hope is that people will be able to recognize music not only as an art form, but as a tool to help others overcome obstacles in their life.

Having seen music’s restorative power through her own experiences, bassoonist and Jack Kent Cooke Young Artist Alexandra Nelson (Show 243) wanted to explore ways that music can inspire others beyond the concert hall setting. She decided to connect with several music therapists from her hometown, and wrote the following essay to share her experiences:

What Music Can Do 

It was once said that music is what feelings sound like. For the average person, we would all agree that music can transform our attitudes, change our perspectives, set a mood, help us from feeling alone… the list goes on. But how does music affect someone who has mental or physical disabilities?

This has been something that I have been more interested in as I have grown older. Given my own difficult family situation, I used music as an escape. Practicing became a way to disappear out of the discomfort in my household and focus on something beautiful. What about people who are uncomfortable in their own body or their own mind? I soon began to question if music would have the same effect on people other than me, other than just musicians.

Music therapy embodies this very idea. On the website for the American Music Therapists Association, it is defined as, “the clinical and evidence-based use of music interventions to accomplish individualized goals within a therapeutic relationship by a credentialed professional who has completed an approved music therapy program.” These goals can be anything from opening oneself up emotionally to distracting someone from intense pain to encouraging verbal communication. Therapeutically, the benefits are endless. I have quickly learned that, not only is music enjoyable and mood altering, but it is a growing resource for therapists dealing with people who suffer from any type of disability or disorder.

When I sought out the music therapist, Eve Montague, at the South Shore Conservatory in Duxbury, I was just looking to have her shed a little light on this topic. She was able to share many stories with me: a patient with serious physical problems regaining use of her fingers and toes, a premature infant’s heart and breathing rate stabilizing immediately after birth, a burn victim becoming seemingly immune to the pain while having his dead skin removed – all through music therapy. It seemed unreal. I knew that music was powerful, but could it really have that much of an effect on people? I’ve experienced it myself, but never to this degree.

In my excitement, I began to participate in an adult chorus with Eve at the Conservatory, working with mentally delayed adults to sing and make music once a week. It was a place where people could socialize, learn about music, and most importantly, grow as a person. There was a woman who was nonverbal but still able to make sounds. Throughout the year, I soon realized that she was mouthing the words and actually quietly singing along. A young boy who shyly kept to himself before chorus was a new person when it came time to sing – yelling the words, jumping for joy at the climax of a song. This was all through music.

Another therapist who works with Eve, named Kari O’Brient, travels to several locations offsite for her therapy sessions. When I asked to observe her at a local elementary school, I had no idea what to expect. All I knew was that I wanted to see music therapy first hand, in all of its glory, to better understand how it really works in an everyday setting.

I traveled to the Hatherly School, an elementary school in Scituate, one afternoon with Kari to work with two special education classes. We arrived, signed in at the office, and headed down the hall, our arms full of drums and scarves, with a guitar on Kari’s back and a bag filled with who-knows-what hanging off of my shoulder.

When Kari walked into the room ahead of me, the room erupted. The kids could no longer focus on their math or reading – it was music time! We headed into one corner of the small room with a bright colored rug, bulletin boards creating a space around us, and a chair for each of the students, Kari, and me. I sat down anxiously and waited for the therapy to begin.

Instead, Kari quietly took the guitar case from off of her back while asking the kids how their vacation was. However, after a soft bitter mumble from the few kids around us, Kari laughed off their negative reaction and started to strum. Soon, her chatty words turned to song, “Why hello there, you guys! I know I’m happy to be here. Hmm mmm, hello, hello!” The energy in the room suddenly shifted back to excitement. We all sang the hello song, each of us having a chance to say our own name and say hello to the rest of the class. Not only was this song encouraging friendly greetings, but it was teaching the kids to say their name and “hello” loudly and clearly. For anyone with a social disorder, such as autism, even saying hello to someone can be a challenge. Kari, though, with her bright smile and upbeat guitar playing, had everyone doing this with ease. The next song was a variation on “Head-Shoulders-Knees-and Toes,” with Kari’s own musical spin. The students stood, did the dance moves, and some even took a turn leading the song.

I really noticed at that point that, despite the necessary therapeutic value these songs had for these kids, they really enjoyed this! It was a break from their school day. Especially for someone with disabilities, even the simplest of tasks can seem daunting and overwhelming. Music therapy was a care free and light hearted time set aside where they could simply be themselves, but still be absorbing necessary lessons like verbal skills and physical coordination.

The lessons continued – more songs, more dancing, more swaying back and forth, more singing – the fun went on, and so did the therapy. The next class was more of the same – excited children, each eager to listen and play while still taking part in the therapy. I left the school feeling excited, rejuvenated, and encouraged at the idea that music had such an impact on these kids. Not only did they have a great time playing and singing with Kari, but they were reclaiming themselves as fun-loving children, able to let go of whatever troubles they were having in school earlier that day, and just enjoy the therapy for all that it was.

Despite all of my wonderful exposure to music therapy, there is just one problem that I always come across when I leave the conservatory atmosphere: no one I know seems to respect music as a valid source of therapy. I learned quickly that this was because they didn’t understand it, but that’s no reason to dismiss it.

This is why I am writing this piece today: through my own experiences, I have learned and will continue to learn more about music therapy so that I can share it with my peers. It is such an underrated resource, yet people use music every day. We have it in our cars, on our phones, in the grocery store – it is everywhere we go and it is used to alter or encourage our own moods. My hope is that people will be able to recognize music not only as an art form, but as a tool to help others overcome obstacles in their life. As the author Berthold Auerbach said, “music washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life,” no matter what that dust may be.

Alex is currently pursuing a dual degree in Bassoon Performance and Music Education at Northwestern University.

Show 256: Listening Guide

From the Top’s broadcast for Show 256 was taped at the Palace Arts Center in Grapevine, Texas on Wednesday June 27, 2012 as part of the Military Child Education Coalition Conference. We asked our performers to tell us about the music they performed on the show:

William Hume, 16, piano
Rhapsody in B minor, Op.79, No.1
By: Johannes Brahms

I have enjoyed learning and interpreting the Brahms Rhapsody Op. 79 No. 1.  As I researched this piece, I was able to understand the music more and identify with the piece on a deeper level. I think that sometimes the vastness of the music stimulates certain feelings in the performer and the listeners that may be unfamiliar, such as anguish or longing for something special. I could imagine Brahms and the love and emotional conflict that he felt towards Clara Schumann, which I think is represented in this piece. I played this for several performances and competitions and each time I discovered new aspects of the piece. But the primary goal is to make the music sound as beautiful as possible when I play it, in hopes that the audience will appreciate it as much as I do. I love the dissonant harmonics in the bass at the very end of the piece.  The last few measures have a surreal quality and it is very exciting for me.  It is a real test of musicianship and professionalism for me to put as much enthusiasm and focus into each performance- making it a new and exciting experience each time.

The Rhapsody is a great piece because it is very expansive.  It includes contrasting themes and conflicting, varying emotions and characteristics in the different sections. It has everything that the audience loves to hear.  It is emotional, aggressive, lyrical, fast, loud, soft, strong, and sorrowful. This stimulates the performer and listeners to explore all of their own personal feelings.  It uses almost the entire keyboard with some of the lowest notes.  It is important to listen through the ends of the sections and phrases to transition into new ideas effectively.  For example, you cannot just jump into the softer lyrical section in the middle of the piece without listening very carefully to the end of the preceding phrase.  One of the more challenging aspects in the piece is maintaining the energy and pushing through to the fortissimos even as the chords are getting aggressive and physically demanding. You must maintain the tempo and build the energy through the climaxes of the phrases.  I also feel that it is important to understand what is behind the music you are playing, and what the composer intended. I think that giving a brief overview about this to the audience is helpful. Audiences seem to appreciate information about the background of the music that they will be hearing, and I think that this seems to promote a connection between the audience and performer.

Post Show Reflection: This was a great experience!  The cast and crew of From the Top were so kind and ready to help at all times.  They were very well organized.  The From the Top family enhanced my experience and enjoyment of the show and I felt very comfortable playing and speaking, and I was ready to give a great performance.  I was also finally able to get my program from Christopher O’Riley’s concert autographed by him!  I had heard him perform in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, in November of 2010.  It was also great to have a family photo taken with General and Mrs. Dempsey.  And the other performers, Dominic, Clarissa, and Devon, along with the members of The United States Army Band “Pershing’s Own”, were really wonderful.  It was great to meet people my age who share my passion for music.  It was a privilege to be a part of the first show featuring performers with military connections!

Music can unveil the initiative and action that is present in every human being. It is a timeless art that preserves the complex emotions of human beings for generations to come. 

Devon Naftzger, 18, viola
Praeludium and Allegro
By: Fritz Kreisler

My teacher suggested that I learn Praeludium and Allegro because it’s a fun, showy, and athletic piece that suits my personality well. It starts off boldly and stubbornly and then becomes playful and dramatic in the fast section. I love the last part because it has an epic ending that makes me want to hold the last note forever.

To me this piece is all about conveying contrast in character. The allegro molto section is very note-y and busy in the left hand, but it’s the articulation of the bow that gives this piece its spice. This piece has a lot of tough section all strung together so it’s important that I have the focus and stamina not to lose pizazz.

Post Show Reflection: I had so much fun dancing backstage to the military band’s Sousa march with the staff members and the other performers! It was such an honor to meet General Dempsey and perform for him sitting three feet away.There’s nothing like performing on stage with Christopher O’Riley and the From the Top “On the Air” sign behind you! Everyone was so supportive at From the Top, so it wasn’t scary to perform at all – it was really fun!

Music has the power to change people for the better. It builds relationships, emotes passion, and connects others.

Dominic Giardino, 18, clarinet
3 Pieces for Solo Clarinet
By: Igor Stravinsky

For me, this piece of music invokes a feeling of controlled chaos. When I first picked it up about a year ago, I remember feeling very confused and frustrated. This was a piece of music I couldn’t sing and I had such a hard time hearing it the way I wanted to. Because of this piece, though, I have learned to find melody where I once believed it did not exist. In fact, I have grown to believe that this is one of the most beautiful and exciting pieces in the repertoire. It brings about beauty with its tragic first movement, and then attracts the audience with its wild second and third movements; it’s an adventure.

I have learned more from the Stravinsky 3 Pieces than any other piece of music. It started as a piece that was so brutally painful to practice, and has grown to be one of my most favorite and publicly performed pieces. The fact that this is an unaccompanied piece has played a huge role in its facility as a part of my repertoire. As a musician it has forced me to be the entire piece of music. To this Day, I have not stopped looking for ways to further bring out the technical and musical motifs. Stravinsky so purposefully wrote, “It is most important to truly ‘perform’”.

Post-Show Reflections: My favorite memory from these past three days was talking with the “Pershing’s Own” Wind Quintet in the green room the night of the performance. The energy of the audience was spectacular – you  could really engage as a performer. On the other hand, I needed some time to get used to the “studio feel” of recording.

Music has the power to build relationships, and ultimately build community. It has the power of supplying unlimited opportunity.

Clarissa McLaren, 17, harp
Impromptu-Caprice, Op.9
By: Gabriel Pierné 

Impromptu Caprice reminds me of mini vanilla cakes covered in marzipan and chocolate, with a cream and jelly filling. I used those as a practice treat and motivator – they are delicious! My least favorite part of the piece is the page of bisbigliandos. It is a lot of control work and getting my fingers not to buzz against the strings.

This piece is special to me because I’ve always wanted to learn it. It was on the first CD of harp music I ever owned, and I immediately loved the moving melody and accompaniment, fancy glissandos, and overall showy-ness. The hardest bits are the powerful octaves and left-hand chords towards the end.

Post-Show Reflection: My favorite memories were partying and dancing backstage right after the performance, and meeting General Dempsey at the dress rehearsal the day before.  Performing wasn’t as terrifying as I imagined it to be, and the cast, crew, and musicians were fantastic! The opportunities to share my music and inspire others makes all of the practicing worth it.

Music can change people from the inside, and change society overall. It can inspire, create emotion, and give people a passion. 

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