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Music as medicine: Willow Song’s Carla Carnegie helps patients improve their lives with music

Alex Owens, 8, tossed his head as he pounded out a syncopated rhythm on a drum at Willow Song Music Therapy Center in Otis Orchards on a recent evening.

There’s joy in his movements. He paused, leaned in and waited for music therapist Carla Carnegie to repeat the rhythm on her own drum.

Blind since birth, Alex has been working with Carnegie for a little over a year. The board-certified music therapist uses the tools of her trade; piano, drums, guitar and autoharp, to help Alex navigate his world with confidence, learn important social cues and strengthen his fingers. Finger dexterity and strength is crucial for the Post Falls third-grader who uses a variety of Braille devices in the classroom and at home.

“Music and movement next?” he asked. “Brown-Eyed Girl?”

And soon he was dancing across the room with Carnegie, holding her hand and humming in harmony with the song.

“His personality comes out especially when he’s singing,” said his mother, Fawn Owens, as she watched. “He talks about Carla all week long. His attention span is much longer now.”

The new space in Otis Orchards offers Carnegie room to continue the work she loves while also providing a place for the community to gather. As Alex and his mother left, people trickled in for a Drumming for Wellness and Joy workshop. The group meets on Mondays at 7 p.m. and is open to the public.

Accident changes

life path

Community is important to Carnegie, 59, a lifelong Spokane Valley resident. The community rallied around her family when tragedy struck in 1971. Carnegie, then 14, was walking along Trent Road with her mother and sister when they were hit by a drunk driver.

“It was a rainy, dark night. We never saw him coming for some reason, even though we were facing traffic, and walking on the shoulder, well off the road,” she said.

Her mother was spared, but her sister was killed and Carnegie critically injured. She spent 45 days in the hospital, suffering from multiple broken bones and head and internal injuries. After undergoing several surgeries, she was sent home in a body cast – just in time to celebrate her 15th birthday.

Her life forever changed. More than three months after the accident, she returned to school part time, with her right leg in an immobilizer. For the once active teen, adjusting to her new limitations proved daunting.

“I’d always been athletic,” she said. “I’d planned to work as a lifeguard to pay for college and then go on to nursing school.”

But just keeping up with her high school studies was exhausting.

“It was extremely difficult, as I couldn’t seem to hold anything in my brain for any length of time,” said Carnegie. “Studying was more than fatiguing. This is all part of what a person with a traumatic brain injury goes through in trying to live life normally again.”

College seemed out of reach. While she was hospitalized, Rick Carnegie, a fellow West Valley student who worked for her dad, visited frequently. They fell in love and she married him as soon as they graduated from high school.

She was told she’d never be able to have kids because of her injuries, but gave birth to four healthy children.

When her youngest graduated from high school, Carnegie decided it was time to pursue her dreams. She enrolled at Spokane Falls Community College to study music in 2004 and later transferred to Whitworth University.

‘Music was the glue

that held me together’

Music has always been a part of her life and was pivotal in her recovery after the accident.

“I grew up in a musical family,” she said. “My home was filled with live music. Music was the glue that held me together mentally, psychologically, emotionally, and physically, as I used much loved folk tunes I had played – jigs and reels on fiddle – to provide the foundation to learn to walk again.”

While studying at Whitworth, she learned about the music therapy degree. After graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in music in 2009, she looked for a college that offered a degree in music therapy. The closest one that offered it was Marylhurst University in Portland.

“I went to Portland and lived by myself for the first time at 52,” Carnegie said.

She graduated with a second bachelor’s degree, this time in music therapy, completing the required 1,200 hours of clinical internship in 2012, and launched Willow Songs Music Therapy Services that same year.

Her national board certification means she’s had additional training in neurologic music therapy, which she said is a great help in her work with stroke patients, kids with autism and people with Parkinson’s disease.

Carnegie is adamant about what music therapy is and what it is not.

“It’s not listening to music passively through the use of headphones and an iPod. It’s not playing the guitar or harp at a very ill or dying person’s bedside,” she said. “Music therapists practice in many settings – rehabilitation centers, hospitals, psychiatric settings, schools, day cares (both adult and child) and private practice.”

Researchers have long known the importance of music and brain function.

“Music is the one activity that entirely lights up the brain,” said Carnegie. “The physical piece is rhythm – it fires the motor neurons.”

Music therapy has been especially helpful for those who’ve had strokes or suffer dementia.

“Someone with stroke damage can access the return of language through music,” she said. “Music is stored globally in the brain.”

She recalled one patient who could only speak gibberish, but when Carnegie began to play and sing “Sentimental Journey,” the patient burst into song.

“Her face just lit up. It was like a switch turned on.” Carnegie said. “She sang the whole thing!”

Unlocking potential

In addition to individual clients, Carnegie leads several workshops for those with Parkinson’s disease.

Dennis Rose, 75, attends one such group in Coeur d’Alene.

The retired schoolteacher said he’d always wanted to play the banjo, but he was reluctant to sing with the group because he’d been told he didn’t sing well.

Carnegie told him if he could find a banjo, she’d teach him the basics. Soon he began to hum along as he played. The next thing he knew he was singing – and enjoying it.

“There’s something about music,” he said. “It completely channels you from using your current brain patterns.”

Dr. Jason Aldred, a neurologist at Northwest Neurological in downtown Spokane, has witnessed the benefits of music therapy in his patients.

While medication and surgery can address symptoms of the disease, Aldred said music offers a fantastic auditory cue for Parkinson’s patients who suffer from “freezing episodes.” Freezing is the temporary, involuntary inability to move.

For example when Rose struggled with his gait, Carnegie showed him how a simple song like “Yellow Submarine” could help him regain his walking rhythm.

“Less well understood but possibly more important is the ability of music to reach within a person with a disorder like Parkinson’s,” said Aldred. “The social isolation of the disease is one of the most disabling aspects of the disorder. Music has the unique ability to connect people to one another through the shared experience of listening and identifying this with their own personal experience.”

Rose can attest to this.

“When you have those Parkinson’s moments, when you’re in the slum, the valley of the doldrums, it’s hard to get going, to take the first step,” Rose said. “Music helps. You get into the tune and out of yourself. You forget about everything – even that you have Parkinson’s. You are the music. It’s unbelievable what it’s done.”

Aldred said, “The feelings from music may be sometimes happy, sometimes sad, but if it resonates this can do something special that we can’t touch with traditional treatments. Whether it’s playing music together, singing, or dancing, the benefits patients report suggest we may be able to harness the therapeutic potential of music.”

Seeing clients unlock that potential is what Carnegie loves most about her work.

“I’ve found my calling, my passion and my purpose,” she said. “Music is my passion and now I’m able to help people in a meaningful way. It’s incredibly satisfying.”

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