Something to Sing About

November 8th, 2013 | SMWC

Music Therapy 30th Anniversary

By: Katie Shane

It’s a moment thousands of people have watched online; months after suffering a gunshot to the head, Arizona Congresswoman Gabby Giffords mouths her first word, “you”. In a second video she and a therapist work to lift her legs. And then in another video, she takes her first steps. Each clip is emotional, exciting… and musical. Through the healing process doctors have relied heavily on music therapy to aid Giffords as she works through the brain injury.

While many hospitals across the country offer music therapy only a handful of colleges and universities offer the program in undergraduate and graduate degrees. Saint Mary of The Woods College is one of those colleges. Not only does The Woods offer the music therapy degree, but the program is celebrating its 30 year anniversary.

“It’s become one of The Woods’ very distinctive programs,” says Music and Theatre Department Chair Tracy Richardson. “We are one of only three or four universities in the state that offer this program.”

Richardson is a professor of Music Therapy at The Woods and still logs hours as a music therapist at a local Terre Haute hospital.

While she says not every session with a patient is as emotional as the video clips of Giffords, there are moments that are unforgettable.

Richardson recounts a session between a mother and daughter.

The daughter had recently been diagnosed with cancer.

“I started to sing, ‘You Are My Sunshine’, just to break the ice. I started and they locked eyes. The mother climbed into bed with her daughter and they were crying and hugging,” Richardson says thinking back to that moment. “At the end I said, ‘What was this like for you? Could I sing something else?’ And they thanked me and said, ‘That was all we needed today.’ For me it felt like that was what they needed…. The music sliced through everything and allowed them to be real and to be with each other. It was just the music, it cut right to the bone. I have lots of stories like that, that are special to me and taps into the human condition and makes things real.”

In that moment Richardson was part musician and part counselor; a common occurrence for music therapists, who incorporate numerous skills into the one profession.

“Music therapy is a challenge to explain and define because it draws from so many other disciplines,” says Sharon Boyle, Associate Professor of Music Therapy at The Woods. “Psychology, anthropology, sociology, neuroscience, music, counseling… it is at once an art and a science, and contains an interpersonal process.”

Described as a healthcare profession, music therapy is used to make changes and reach goals in patients with conditions such as Autism or Alzheimer’s or patients who have suffered a stroke.

“A lot of people think music therapy is what a music teacher does but we use music as a tool, we use music as a way for people to improve in a way or area they need to improve in,” Richardson explains.

Richardson uses an example of a stroke patient who cannot speak. While language takes place in the left side of the brain many patients can still communicate through song because music and singing takes place on the right side. With song many patients can learn to speak again.

In the 30 years the music therapy degree has been offered at The Woods many students have seen patient breakthroughs. And in the future there will be plenty more.

The graduate program, which was started in 2000, is a hybrid format with online coursework and limited time on campus.

The newly created Music Therapy Equivalency Program, the only one of its kind in the country. This program provides students who already have a degree in music to pursue a career in music therapy.

“The Woods is really good at pioneering things,” Richardson says of the program.

Richardson would know, she was a student in 1983 when the music therapy degree was created.

“It is very special for me,” Richardson says. “I was a student here and (now) being able to teach in the program that I was part of as a student, it’s just amazing.”

Started by Sr. Laurette Bellamy, the Music Therapy degree program aligns perfectly with the overall mission of The Woods.

“It works within the context of service, making positive change in the world, and is centered within the modality of music, which has a long and rich tradition at SMWC and with the Sisters of Providence,” says Boyle.

Recent SMWC graduate Julia Lopez-Kaley shares Richardson and Boyle’s admiration of the program.

The 2011 graduate is using her degree in a career as a music therapist for Bridges of Indiana.

A musician her entire life Lopez-Kaley says learning of the music therapy program was her “ah-ha” moment in high school. Once she looked into the program she knew it would be a perfect fit.

Now working in the profession, Lopez-Kaley is nearly speechless when asked about how the program prepared her for a career in music therapy.

“Oh wow, I felt so prepared when I left The Woods,” she says. “I am very biased on my opinion but I felt so supported by the faculty in all different realms. I felt supported in my clinical and professional growth, in the growth of my music skills and I was personally supported. While I was learning these new skills, I felt so supported and so prepared to go into an internship and then go to work as a music therapist.”

Cathleen Flynn, who will graduate with a bachelor of science in music therapy degree in August of 2014, also feels that support.

Flynn, a native of South Dakota, says her time at The Woods has changed every aspect of her life.

”I improved as a musician and learned clinical techniques,” Flynn explains. “But I also became more emotionally aware and a better communicator which enriches every part of my life.”

That sentiment is something both Boyle and Richardson also echo while speaking about the program.

Boyle says that while The Woods and the Music Therapy degree program may be small compared to others in the country; it’s made a large impact over the last 30 years.

“The undergraduate program has a very strong reputation in music therapy and while we are small, we are mighty,” Boyle says proudly. “Our students are leaders on campus and they receive competitive scholarships, internships, and eventually jobs or graduate school… They truly are outstanding examples of excellence, professionalism, initiative, and the desire to serve and make positive changes in our world!”

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