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Sound Health Music Therapists Using Song And Dance To Heal Body, Mind And Spirit

Tue., Dec. 2, 1997

At a Colorado Springs nursing home, an old man had sunk into dementia and despair.

“He cried constantly. All he could say was ‘My mama and papa are dead,”’ says Eula Moore, 84, an uncertified music therapist who has been visiting nursing homes since 1980.

“I said, ‘Mine are dead, too. Perhaps we’ll see them before too long in heaven. What will we do when we get to heaven?”’

“We’ll sing ‘Hail, Hail, the Gang’s All Here!”’ exclaimed the man, who proceeded to do just that.

“He didn’t cry after that,” Moore says. “He’d let go of this awful feeling he had.”

Colorado is home to two of the nation’s best-known music-therapy programs: one at Colorado State University in Fort Collins and one at the Naropa Institute in Boulder.

Operating on the premise that music is good medicine, both schools offer students a mix of music, music education and psychology so they can practice their healing art in nursing homes, hospitals, hospices, rehab units and special schools.

The music-therapy scene is certain to gain even more attention this fall with the publication of a new Book-of-the-Month selection: “The Mozart Effect: Tapping the Power of Music to Heal the Body, Strengthen the Mind and Unlock the Creative Spirit” (Avon). Author Don Campbell, founder of the Boulder, Colo.-based Institute of Health, Music and Education, opens with a dramatic account of how he shrank a potentially lethal blood clot in his brain with songs, chants and drumming.

“Your own inner sound system - your ears, voice, and choice of music or self-generated sounds - is the most powerful healing medium available,” Campbell writes.

Yet, Colorado is hardly a hotbed of music therapy. Of the 5,000 therapists registered by the Maryland-based National Association for Music Therapy, only 76 live in Colorado, mostly in the Denver-Boulder area.

That leaves the field open to people like Moore. Part music lover, part drill sergeant, she prides herself on her ability to register with patients who haven’t responded to psychotherapy, drugs or other conventional treatments.

“Music and dance are healing,” she says. “Extremely so.”

Her success stories include a combat veteran whose war wounds left him unable to speak or control his arms or legs. Intensive one-on-one therapy couldn’t restore him to normal, but it did enable him to regain some control of his voice, arms and legs.

“He couldn’t talk otherwise,” Moore says. “But he learned to call square dances.”

Laura Wilson, an uncertified Woodland Park, Colo., music therapist and former rock band keyboardist, also witnesses such uplifting changes.

Wilson, 31, who graduated with a CSU music-therapy degree in 1988, performs an hourlong program at up to nine nursing homes a day. She is reluctant, however, to call herself a healer.

“What is healing anyway, other than a word that gets thrown around a lot?” she asks. “I tend to be a little more practical. My goal is to get the residents active and see that they have a good time.”

Still, administrators at Integrated Health Services/Pikes Peak (Pikes Peak Manor) have nothing but praise for Wilson’s twice-weekly performances there.

“What she does elevates, enhances and helps maintain the residents,” says administrator Kelly Everly.

Wilson starts by leading residents through stretches, then coaxes them to sing along to such old favorites as “Put Another Nickel In” and “You Are My Sunshine.” Then she plays a variety of CDs, including new age, classical and rock albums - even the alternative band Primus.

Wilson works the crowd like a professional, making eye contact with the residents as she sings, struts and banters. Most of the residents, including the Alzheimer’s patients, appear alert, happy and bright-eyed.

Administrators agree the show is more than entertaining; it’s therapeutic.

“It stimulates them,” says activity director Cindy Baum. “Whether they’re alert or confused, they just seem to totally change.”

William Davis, director of CSU’s undergraduate music-therapy program, yearns for the day when music therapy becomes a mainstream medical practice.

“We know it works,” he says. “Skillful therapists can do incredible things.”

An increasing body of research shows, however, that music therapy is effective in treating a host of ailments. Studies have shown that it improves coordination of stroke and Parkinson’s disease patients, that it enables women to forgo anesthesia during labor, and that it reduces patients’ pre-surgical jitters as well as the post-surgical need for painkilling drugs.

Anecdotally, it’s been shown to be effective for such conditions as acute pain, allergies, arthritis, headaches, heart disease, hypertension and even writer’s block.

CSU researchers recently conducted a study of 10 stroke and Parkinson’s-disease patients who had difficulty walking. After listening to rhythmic pulses for 30 minutes a day, the patients’ cadence, stride and foot placement were markedly better than those of patients who had not received music therapy.

Michael Thaut, director of CSU’s graduate-level music-therapy program, believes the pulses helped reprogram the patients’ damaged brains.


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