THE THERAPEUTIC POWER OF SONG: AMIR’S STORY
This blog post was written by JKP author Conio Loretto, MS, LCAT, MT-BC.
Songs play an undeniable role in our lives. When we hear a song, it can transport us back to an important time, evoking special memories and feelings. Songs motivate us to get moving on the treadmill or clean up the house. The right song can help us decompress after a stressful day. Simple songs helped us retain academic concepts when we were children. Songs unite us in a common moment, to express our spirituality, or celebrate a special occasion. Songs orient us to the seasons. Sharing songs allows us to find commonalities with friends and loved ones. The songs we listen to represent our individuality and unique perspective in the world.
Board certified music therapists at The Center for Discovery® harness the power of songs to promote opportunities for personal growth and fulfillment. The Center provides innovative healthcare and educational services to more than 1200 children and adults with complex conditions, medical frailties, and autism spectrum disorders. Many of the children and adults at The Center are overcome with ways to express themselves and connect with others. Music helps them find their voices and songs can be an important part of that process.
The predictability of a song is grounding for some and can provide a sense of security. Songs can signal the beginning or ending of a session or indicate it is time to engage in a particular activity. Songs provide for repetitive practice to facilitate learning without satiation. Songs outline, clarify, and reinforce the expectations of an experience. Songs help identify and express innermost thoughts and feelings. Songs provide a “home base,” allowing someone to venture away from a musical structure and have a secure place to return to.
Songs were already playing a significant role in fifteen-year-old Amir’s life at the time he landed on my caseload. Diagnosed with autism, Amir struggled with regulating his emotions that often led to intense behavioral outbursts. The smallest disappointment, be it a change in schedule or a friend being absent from school, would often lead to moments of dysregulation where Amir could cause harm to himself and others. Employing the holistic, health and wellness approach developed at the Center (The HealthE6®), many strategies were introduced to aid Amir in identifying and regulating his emotions.
Perhaps most momentous among these strategies was Amir’s songs. Amir had a love of songs, drawing from the Disney canon and pop songs as his favorites. Through the focused work of his treatment team, Amir learned to recognize when he was feeling elevated and to choose a song to express how he was feeling. Taking the time to pause and sing along to a recording of a particular chosen song aided Amir in owning his feelings and ultimately decompress, averting a potential behavioral crisis. This process proved a turning point for Amir and allowed him to successfully navigate his school day and build meaningful relationships with his peers.
Amir was referred to music therapy in the hopes of deepening his relationship to music and build his self-awareness and confidence. He attended individual sessions two times per week for 45 minutes. Interestingly enough, he avoided singing the songs from his repertoire when I suggested he do so. I envisioned this would be a good starting place to our work together, but quickly came to realize the songs were highly revered by Amir and served a specific purpose that was more important than re-creating them in his sessions. And so we began our journey in music therapy with Amir and me playing music together, he on the drum and cymbal and I improvising from the piano.
A few weeks into his sessions, Amir chose not to play the instruments he had come to enjoy and definitively announced “I’ve got something to say.” He appeared a bit anxious and I wondered if he might need to listen to one of his songs. Instead, I began to improvise music that honored that he did indeed have something to say by singing the phrase back to him. He added “you’ve got to listen, listen to me.” Amir clearly had something on his mind and was choosing to express it in song. And so Amir’s first official song was born. In subsequent sessions, Amir would request to sing it at the times he really needed it. The creation of this song changed the trajectory of Amir’s music therapy sessions. We worked together to create songs that served as anthems, representing his innermost thoughts and feelings on any particular day or in any particular moment. Lyrics like “it’s going to be a good day,” “sometimes I feel happy” or “I feel sad today” filled the session room as they morphed into Amir’s highly personalized, meaningful expressions in song.
That first song Amir created, “I’ve Got Something to Say,” can be found alongside many others in SONGS OF DISCOVERY FOR MUSIC THERAPY: A PRACTICAL RESOURCE FOR THERPAISTS AND EDUCATORS, now available from Jessica Kingsley Publishers. Like this one, all of the songs found in the collection were born of clinical work by music therapists at The Center. In the collection, one will find songs for growing not just emotional skills, as was the case with Amir, but also fine and gross motor skills, academic and cognitive skills, communication and socialization. The songs are offered in the spirit of discovery for use by other music therapists, music therapy students, music educators, special education teachers, and facilitators of early childhood music programs. Our hope is the songs take on a new life of their own, wherever they happen to land, and bring meaning to those who come to experience them.