Tuesday 15 April 2014, 12:38 | By

Talking about music therapy

CSL Invites

Creative Skills For Life is all about where creativity, technology and healthcare collide. And one discipline that definitely interests us is music therapy. Indeed our first CSL research project, being led by Dr Thomas Barber of University Hospitals Coventry and Warwickshire considers the beneficial effects of music on the alleviation of stress and anxiety.

Annie Tyhurst

As a precursor to that, perhaps we should ask the question, what exactly does music therapy involve? Though it can be tricky to describe. As Annie Tyhurst, a Senior Music Therapist at MusicSpace in Bristol and Assistant Trainer for a new course in Guided Imagery And Music in London, explains in this guest post.

Talking about music therapy (to misquote Thelonious Monk) is rather like dancing about architecture: it’s quite difficult. People often ask me, ‘What is a music therapist?’ and sometimes – if I’m being honest – I groan a bit inwardly. American music therapist Ken Bruscia wrote a whole book on defining music therapy. Whilst his scholarly musings make an interesting read, I’m not sure he entirely succeeds.

I am an experienced musician, a cellist actually, and I use music creatively with people who may not be very good with words. Sometimes they can’t talk, sometimes they can. We play music together. There is no pressure to speak – I’m not like a counsellor/psychiatrist/social worker/educational psychologist. For music therapy, all you need is a willingness to come and play. Or listen.

In the therapy room you might find a piano or a keyboard, a guitar, percussion instruments, a lyre (that’s a beautiful little harp you sit and play on your knee), some things you blow (a recorder, some funny duckcalls too). Yes, you are welcome to try anything. If it’s OK, I’ll play along with you.

I have worked for the Bristol-based charity, MusicSpace for about ten years. We work in our centre in Southville or we go out to schools, residential homes, hospitals, children’s centres and hospices.

Currently I am working with recently diagnosed autistic children and their families. Parents sit in on the sessions and are welcome to join in. Music therapy isn’t a panacea, but I know that parents often learn a lot from re-discovering the importance of play. It’s very natural to get caught up with worries about your child not speaking, or the way he or she might communicate their frustrations, especially if things at school have started to get difficult. Music therapy sessions can help build confidence and self-esteem, celebrate strengths, rebuild relationships. Nobody really knows how playing music helps an autistic child – maybe they start to ‘get’ how communication works through the exchange of sounds.

I am also working with some adult clients at the moment: a woman with learning difficulties, another with mental health problems and a man who had a severe head injury several years ago. When he started coming to MusicSpace last year, his improvised music was really chaotic. Now he sits and plays a makeshift drum kit keeping a regular beat whilst I play the piano. We sometimes sing songs together, old stuff from the 70s. In the spaces between the music, we talk about the past. I am moved by his determination, his cheerfulness, his resilience, despite his immense losses. He repeats himself a lot but just recently I have noticed this is decreasing.

I’ve also just finished some work in a paediatric burns and neurology unit. The staff there originally thought I was some kind of entertainer but they sat in on sessions and gradually started to understand my work. Each week they would draw up a list of children and young people for me to see. Again, the work was often with families: a dad who had to live in the hospital for months whilst his son recovered from a brain tumour; some travellers whose youngest daughter had suffered horrific burns and a teenager who had been involved in a car accident on her first holiday away from her parents.

Sometimes I might work with a child co-creating a song. Sometimes we might play music together as a family. Sometimes I could be trying to assess whether a little one responds to sounds. I might use some guided imagery and music techniques to help prepare a young person before a major operation. I might just play a little music for someone who is too unwell to do anything but listen. Or maybe I’ll hold a hand and sing quietly with someone who is very poorly.

When I started work in the hospital I thought that I would find it too upsetting, but I soon realised that using music could really help with recovery, and now feel very privileged to be able to contribute in this way.

There is a growing body of research that documents the evidence base for music therapy. And the rigorous masters level training takes three years. Nevertheless, there is no guarantee of regular work. As my boss frequently reminds me, in terms of health care professions, we are “quite low down the food chain”. The funding of the work in the hospital stumbled along in six week blocks. Then it finally stopped.

It’s hard to talk about what I do. From moment to moment, even in a single session, it changes.

But listen. It’s all in the music.