Singing the Praises of Music Therapy

Music is the universal language that connects us all, regardless of age, race or ability. All of us have benefited from music as a learning tool. Think of a song that you learned as a child. What made it stick? Chances are, it had repetitive words and a simple, recurring melody. Perhaps it involved hand gestures or miming that helped reinforce the lyrics. Songs can help us remember and use language – it’s no wonder the alphabet has been set to music!Music can also be a powerful tool to help children with disabilities who have difficulty expressing themselves and communicating through verbal language. As a result of these challenges, children may experience stress, frustration and depression. Music can help provide comfort and solace, as well as a means of communication. For example, children can express themselves and their feelings by playing with instruments.

“I’ve performed for children and adults with various disabilities, and music always seems to make a special connection with them,” says Ontario children’s entertainer Erick Traplin. “I’ve seen it calm very agitated individuals, bring a tear to the eyes of some as the song conjures up happy or sad memories from their past, and pick up the spirits of people who are feeling blue and put a smile on their face. Music communicates at a level far deeper than words can, and penetrates our whole being. It’s great stuff!”

Music therapy has been practised in Canada, the U.S. and Europe since the 1950s. Accredited music therapists help promote and maintain their clients’ mental, physical amd emotional health. Using different forms of music, they encourage individuals to sing, move to rhythm, play with sounds, and improvise with instruments such as guitar, piano and percussion.

Evie Allgeier (right) enjoys music therapy with accredited music therapist Taryn McKinnon

Evie Allgeier (right) enjoys music therapy with accredited music therapist Taryn McKinnon
Music therapy can help improve a person’s self-awareness and awareness of his or her environment, self-esteem, motor skills, attention span and communication. It also teaches turn-taking, following directions and making choices. Music therapy can be beneficial for children with various disabilities, including Down syndrome, autism, cerebral palsy, acquired brain injury, speech and language disabilities, mental illness and sensory integration disorders. “A child of any ability or disability can respond to and partake in music, and feel a sense of accomplishment and enjoyment from being able to do so,” says Michelle Quan, who is working toward her Master of Music Therapy degree at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont.Quan has weekly sessions with a preschool class of children with disabilities. “Since formal language development is often delayed in children with disabilities, music is used as another means of communication for children to express themselves and to interact with one another.” Music can also help improve children’s attention span (they follow a song closely so they don’t miss their favourite part, or are engaged in the music because they’re playing an instrument), enlarge their vocabulary, and help them learn how to rhyme, take turns and wait (by matching the music to words or actions).

Music can also lay the groundwork for a child to learn to read. Heather McLennan, a speech-language pathologist in Waterloo, works with children with disabilities, including Down syndrome and autism. She says that many of them are taking music lessons or receiving music therapy. “I think that there is a connection between language learning and music for a variety of reasons. Music and language happen in complementary parts of the brain,” explains McLennan. “When there is a multi-sensory approach to learning, there is more language learning that occurs. Singing, hearing the music, beating on a drum, dancing…it’s a total sensory experience, and when kids are interested in something, they learn more. We often use music in our speech therapy sessions, using the words we are trying to teach the kids…and they remember it more!”

Amanda Bedard of Meaford, Ont., says that music has helped her sevenyear- old son, Logan, who has PDD-NOS (Pervasive Developmental Disorder – Not Otherwise Specified). “Music has been a phenomenal tool in shaping Logan’s vocabulary. When he started senior kindergarten, he was taught Jolly Phonics through music. He sang all day. This year, because of these foundations, he’s learned to read.”

Bedard says that without the repetition, Logan would not have been motivated enough to tackle reading. “Music has given Logan the opportunity to practise his skills in a meaningful way.”

Evie Allgeier, 15, of Kitchener, Ont., has Down syndrome and autism. She has been working with McLennan for many years, and with hard work and the help of her parents, she has made great strides in her speech and language.

Allgeier’s mother, Wendy Newbery, says, “In our daughter’s early years, music was the key to everything. It facilitated communication, motivation, co-operation. We often said music was Evie’s first language.”

Newbery says that she and her husband, Doug Allgeier, sang to their daughter at home continually when she was young. She also listened to tapes, and when Allgeier reached the age of 18 months, her parents enrolled her in Kindermusik, a research-based educational program, which she completed at age eight. “Still today, a song can help Evie make transitions and often will help encourage her to try new things,” says Newbery. “Its effect on her is magical.”

Now a teenager, Allgeier enjoys music therapy with accredited music therapist Taryn McKinnon. The therapy is also helping Allgeier live with a medical condition. In 2002, she had a stroke that affected the right side of her body. Music therapy helps her use and strengthen her weakened side.

Canadian children’s entertainment icon Fred Penner agrees that music can offer powerful experiences for children with disabilities. “As a teenager, I was overwhelmed to see the effect that music had on my sister Susie, who had Down syndrome. Often she would be drawn to tears after listening to her favourite songs,” says Penner. “She passed away when I was 21, but this experience set the foundation for my philosophy, ‘By making a positive connection with the vulnerable spirit of the child, your attitude toward life can be affected.’”

Penner adds that this has been confirmed for him countless times over the years – not only with children who have disabilities, but all children. “Never underestimate your ability to make a difference in the life of a child.”

Melissa Martz is a childcare provider and freelance writer who lives in Kitchener, Ont. She wrote the article “Good Signs,” about the benefits of sign language for children of all abilities, in the Winter 2007 issue of Abilities.