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Arts & Culture

Music Therapy: What It Is And Who It's For

photo of gospel choir at Eliza Bryant Village
The gospel choir at Eliza Bryant Village is one of dozens of The Music Settlement music therapy center's outreach programs. They rehearse every week and perform concerts at Eliza Bryant and at other local venues.

The Music Settlement in Cleveland has been a pioneer in the development of music therapy. Despite being around for 50 years, misconceptions remain about the work they do.

A handful of residents at a retirement home gather in a large, multi-purpose room. At the far end, there’s an upright piano with chairs arranged in a semi-circle.

The gospel choir at Eliza Bryant Village is about to rehearse for its next concert.

Combining therapy and music

'Some people think that music therapy is just putting headphones on and listening to music.'

Alison Brady leads the rehearsals. But she’s not a music teacher or a conductor. She’s a music therapist. So along with the usual things you’d expect in a rehearsal—singing through repertoire, working on diction and intonation—Brady’s also incorporating therapeutic goals.

“We work on increasing group cohesion, that’s very important in this group. We also work on having healthy debates, versus having arguments," Brady says.

photo of Ronna Kaplan
Ronna Kaplan says music therapists need to be excellent musicians as well as therapists. They're often required to adapt music on-the-spot to fit a client's physical and cognitive abilities. For example, a therapist might have to simplify a melody or transpose it so a client can comfortably sing it.

The gospel choir is one of dozens of outreach programs run by The Music Settlement, a community music school.

What is music therapy?
Ronna Kaplan started working here as a music therapist in the '80s. Now she oversees the entire program.

“Some people think that music therapy is just putting headphones on and listening to music, or being entertained, that a music therapist is an entertainer," Kaplan says.

In fact, music therapists have to complete more than 1,000 hours of clinical training, plus an internship, before becoming board-certified.

'You don't have to be an accomplished musician to benefit from music therapy.'

Music therapy is typically used to treat neurologic and social disorders. But Kaplan says music therapy works for all kinds of people. That’s partly because there are so many approaches. Some rely on improvisation, while others borrow from music education techniques.

Whatever the approach, music therapists are trained to adapt to the patient’s musical and cognitive abilities. Therapists might use letters or symbols instead of traditional music notation, or transpose a song so it’s in a comfortable vocal range for the patient.

Kaplan says in some cases, music therapists will  work alongside occupational or physical therapists.

“There’s a great example in the media, unfortunately. When Congresswoman Gabby Giffords was shot a few years ago, in Phoenix, part of her rehabilitation was music therapy," Kaplan says. "Music therapy helped her with her gait, in improving her walking ability, and also her singing with the music therapist specifically addressed supporting her communication skills.”

photo of Alison Brady
Alison Brady has been a music therapist with The Music Settlement since 2015. She runs their outreach programs at Eliza Bryant, which include the gospel choir and adult day programs.

Kaplan says the parts of the brain that process music are among the last to deteriorate as people age, making it well-suited for patients of all ages.

Connecting through music
Back at Eliza Bryant, residents keep up their social skills and work toward common goals through music therapy.

Maefair Duckworth sings soprano in the assisted living center’s choir.

“The lady sitting next to me, we harmonize. She can sing alto, and I sing soprano. But then I can sing alto, too, sometimes. So, we harmonize," Duckworth says. "The two of us, we sit together all the time.”

The choir primarily sings gospel. Therapist Alison Brady says a lot of the residents here grew up with this music. So sometimes, they  have strong feelings about it.

She remembers one of her first rehearsals with the group.

“This was a pretty, arpeggiated version of ‘Amazing Grace.’ It was slower," Brady recalls. "We get done and I ask them, ‘OK, how was that for you all?’ They’re all whispering, I’m trying to catch what everyone’s saying. And then I hear Mr. Dozier: ‘Well, that’s how the white folks sing it.’”

A tune in a bucket
Robert Dozier is in his late 80s. He’s modest about his musical skills.

“I couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket, but I think I do pretty good!” Dozier says.

Dozier is the choir’s entire bass section. He doesn’t have a musical background, but the Music Settlement’s Ronna Kaplan says for music therapy, that’s not required.

“You don’t have to be an accomplished musician to benefit from music therapy," Kaplan says. "The main thing that a person needs is an interest in music.”

And Kaplan says that’s part of why music therapy—and creative arts therapies in general—are different from what people normally think of as therapy. The art form is like a bridge between the therapist and the patient.

And, in a group setting, the music is what helps everyone connect.