Music Therapy Helps Unlock Doors To Brain

by Sandy Cohen

Matt Beggs was just a regular guy until two severe brain injuries stole his ability to read and form cohesive thoughts.


The 41-year-old now struggles to regain his independence and rein in his oscillating mind. The nature of his injuries make traditional therapy impossible.


But music therapy is bringing Beggs back to life.


"Music is such a natural medium. Everyone responds to it," said Julie Berghofer, a music therapist who works weekly with Beggs. "It bypasses language. It's another way in."


During their hourlong meeting, they warm up with a jam session - Berghofer on piano and Beggs moving from drums to cymbals, eventually ditching his drumsticks to pound the congas with his bare hands.


Next, they use rhythmic drumming drills to improve his motor skills and coordination. Playing notes on a xylophone becomes an exercise in identifying letters, setting the stage for literacy. And the experience is one of play and discovery, not imposed therapy.


Hardly a new approach, music has been recognized as a healing influence since the days of Plato and Aristotle. After World War I, American soldiers found the trauma of battle soothed by music, as bands toured veterans' hospitals hoping to lift spirits.


Today, music therapy takes place in a variety of settings with patients of all ages. From nursing homes and psychiatric hospitals to schools and rehabilitation centers, music can help heal emotions, increase coordination, improve self-esteem, facilitate communication and inspire creativity. Therapy might include singing, listening to lyrics, writing songs, creating music on different instruments and physically moving to the beat.


"There are no limitations," said Ron Borczon, director of the music therapy clinic and educational program at California State University, Northridge, the only public degree program in the state. "It's used in prenatal situations and as therapy for people who are dying. From before birth through death, and even music therapy after death for people as they grieve, it can be for anybody."


Autistic children respond particularly well to music therapy. Youngsters with various autistic spectrum disorders make up most of the patients at Cal State Northridge's music therapy clinic, Borczon said.


"When you look at the autistic population, the problem is the way their brains process things," he said. "Music is processed differently than language. It's more easily worked through the brain than other forms of communication."


Manhattan Beach mom Janet Wilson noticed her daughter, Courtney - diagnosed as "middle-functioning" on the autism spectrum - would always light up when she saw characters from "Sesame Street" or "Barney" singing on television. "The longest sentences that come out of her are songs and music," Wilson said. "She's very attracted to music, so we thought it would be a good way to teach her."


A year ago, Courtney, now 4, became a regular at "musical storytime" classes at Emily's Piano Studio in Hermosa Beach, singing songs and performing simple movements in a group of "mainstream" kids. Wilson said the class covertly reinforces Courtney's other therapies and allows her to model age-appropriate behavior.


"It's been a great experience. It's a basic class with lots of repetitive movements, which is good for kids on the spectrum. They like repetition," Wilson said. "Miss Emily is very patient and, at the same time, expects a lot from kids who have special needs, to be able to sit quietly and wait their turn."


Another parent, Laura Katayama of Hermosa Beach, said her autistic son, Kyle, benefits from traditional piano lessons. The 5-year-old learns more than just music in his weekly class. He gains listening skills and practices following directions, which help ready him for kindergarten in the fall. "One thing I like about music therapy is that it's a diversion. It's like sneaking in therapy for him," Katayama said. "His music lessons are part of a more comprehensive therapeutic approach, which is appropriate for a child with autism. Emily expects him to follow directions, make eye contact and pay attention. She's reinforcing the things we're doing in our therapy in a really positive, fun environment."


Of course, not every music teacher is a music therapist. Certified music therapists study music, as well as psychology, anatomy and special education, and work in a clinical setting for several months before they're eligible to take the National Board Certification exam. About 70 schools nationwide offer music therapy degree programs.


But even regular music instructors can see the therapeutic effects of rhythm and sound.


Emily Baum, owner of Emily's Piano Studio, found herself using music therapeutically almost by accident. A lifelong musician and former kindergarten teacher, Baum worked with students with special needs in the classroom and saw how well they responded to music. When local parents approached her about working with their autistic children, she accepted, allowing the music to work its magic.


"I noticed that although they have very special and specific needs, these children blend beautifully with the mainstream environment. They're treated the same and expected to do everything that a mainstream child is expected to do," Baum said. "I expected a challenge, but the fact is that music works. I've been open to taking on these students and I've been touched and inspired by them."


There is a difference between music therapy and regular music lessons, Borczon said. Therapists are trained to use specific exercises for various circumstances and adhere to the same therapist-client boundaries as psychologists do. But the power of music can transcend a typical lesson and become something therapeutic and healing.


"I feel like his lessons are an important part of his therapy," Katayama said about her son, Kyle. "It's a good bridge for us. He really loves the music and he's working on school readiness skills."


Music therapy has given Beggs and his family new hope. Eighteen months ago, he was withdrawn, unable to concentrate and basically homebound. Now, he talks openly, even with strangers. He takes the bus to a local community college, where he sings in the choir. He listens to rock 'n' roll and jazz records at home, even teasing his mom about the opera music she likes. His new confidence and focus is as apparent as the grin on his face.


"He likes music very much," said his father, Bud Beggs. "Music is the one thing we think will help with his brain."


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