Music's Ability To Heal
The power of Cook Children's therapy in disguise
By Victoria Shelton
As Shea Ingram makes her rounds up and down the halls of Cook Children’s Medical Center, she pulls behind her a red wagon filled with musical instruments, from guitars and ukuleles to pianos and drums. Ingram is one of two board certified therapists who use the art of music as a way of healing.
“I like to talk about the role of a music therapist as using music to achieve non-music goals,” said Ingram. “Everybody has some sort of relationship with music, but what makes music therapy different is the relationship between the therapist and whoever they’re serving. We are targeting specific goals and we’ve been trained to use the tool of music in order to achieve those goals.”
Ingram has nurtured the music therapy program since its inception nearly a decade ago. The program falls under CARPE, the Creative Artist in Residence Programme at Cook Children’s. This program, made possible solely by donated funds, gives kids the freedom to express themselves through various creative outlets such as music.
“We know that music can be utilized in a lot of different ways,” said Creative Arts Program Coordinator Carri Ann Wantuchowicz. “It certainly can help reduce stress and anxiety and is also a form of expression if kids want to talk about the music and the lyrics of songs that they like. That’s one way a music therapist can enter into their world and get to know them. They’re also welcome to write music and express themselves that way and record things here, so I think there’s a lot of different ways it can be utilized.”
In addition to the music therapy program, Cook Children’s houses a complete broadcast and recording studio for patients and their families. Recording studio producer Raymond Turner sees the way music helps these families every day.
“We have patients who come down here and this becomes a very therapeutic space for them,” said Turner. “It’s amazing to see the transformation when they come in here and get their hands on an instrument they know or something they’ve always wanted to play when they’ve never had a chance to touch anything like that. It’s pretty amazing.”
The recording studio is a unique space in that it allows the whole family, not only the patients, to connect with music in a way that is meaningful to them.
“What really surprised me is seeing parents connect,” said Turner. “I think that really shows the lifeblood of this place, that it’s not just about the kids and their siblings, which is really the focus and what it was intended for, but the unexpected response we’ve had from parents who come in has been incredible.”
Music’s ability to heal reaches people of all ages, from the smallest babies to fully-grown adults.
“So whether it’s a premature baby that can benefit from some gentle stimulation or if it’s a young adult who would actually benefit from writing and recording something, we try to provide all those different opportunities for them here,” said Wantuchowicz.
Ingram believes her role as a music therapist is as more of a facilitator between the child and the instrument than between herself and the instrument.
“A common misconception is that I’m going into these rooms and performing for these kids,” said Ingram. “Obviously there are times when that is appropriate, but I prefer to get them engaged in making it and participating in it physically, so that they’ve got something that they’re doing rather than just sitting there listening to me.”
In the NICU, music therapists work with some babies on becoming more tolerant of positive stimulation, as opposed to the negative stimulation that they get on a more regular basis. Other babies who aren’t at that stage yet work on relaxation and calming so that their bodies can get to a more restful, at-peace state.
School-aged kids work on music making in order to get them comfortable enough to interact with people, deal with their fear and anxiety or just physically move.
“We’ll have drums and go on parade around the halls just to get their bodies moving,” said Ingram.
But for teens, fiddling around on an instrument is not quite as therapeutic as the things they might say and start sharing while they’re doing that.
“A safe place for a lot of them seems to be talking about what kind of music they’re listening to,” said Ingram, “and you start learning a lot of things about them that way.”
Turner has also witnessed the way patients use the lyrics of songs as a means of self-expression.
“For a moment, they can forget about what they are going through and be able to express something that’s really deep within them,” said Turner. “They’ll do it through music. They won’t necessarily talk to you directly, but when you hear them sing or rap or whatever the case may be, you realize there’s a lot going on inside of this person.”
Ingram says that music is a kind of therapy in disguise.
“I very rarely, especially with the school-aged and adolescent population, introduce myself as music therapy,” said Ingram. “For me, that word automatically changes the tone of a relationship. I’ve got my goals and targets in mind, but they don’t necessarily have to know that we’re doing therapy. And I think it can change the tone of the results of the situation a lot more.”
The goals and targets of music therapy differ with each child, but the reaction when a child reaches that goal is always priceless.
“I get to be present and part of the moment where the parents pull out their phones and take pictures because they’re seeing their kid look like their child again,” said Ingram. “They’re getting to see that personality and that energy come back out through the music interaction. That right there validates everything, and that happens daily.”
With all the validating moments and triumphs that music therapy brings, the program is facing a major setback.
“We can’t meet the needs,” said Wantuchowicz, “not even close.”
Ingram and the one other music therapist both hold part-time positions, so combined they only do the work of one full-time employee. According to Wantuchowicz, they are not able to see nearly one-third of their referrals.
“It’s not even getting to all the referrals or getting to see all the kids who could benefit from it,” said Ingram. “It’s getting to do better work because you’re not spread so thin. For almost ten years now, we’ve had to decide whether we serve more kids at a more basic level or do some real good work, but reduce the amount of kids that are getting services. So it’s this uncomfortable balance of figuring out where to put yourself in that.”
Kids who have the opportunity to experience music therapy at Cook Children’s sometimes discover they have hidden talents, and the music therapists get to discover that talent right alongside them.
“There have been times in my years here where I’ll sit down with a child and give them an instrument they’ve never touched before and discover that they have a gift no one knew about beforehand,” said Ingram. “So then they leave here with whatever they’ve endured for their medical reasons, but then they’ve got this new thing as well.”
The art of music is something that kids can carry with them and benefit from long after they leave the hospital.
“The goal of everything we do here is to introduce kids to things they may not have tried before,” said Wantuchowicz. “We give them those chances to try something new in hopes that they discover something they really like and want to continue doing beyond their time here with us.”