I Interviewed a Music Therapist and Learned About the Therapeutic Power of Music.
Mariagracia Rivas Berger is a Board Certified Music Therapist. All her life, she has loved music. When she was attending college, she realized that the performance side of music just wasn't her cup of tea. She truly felt the desire to help people. This desire led her down the path of musical therapy. Flash forward to today; she is currently a board-certified music therapist and works at Children's National Hospital.
You can check out our interview here.
According to Marigracia, music therapy is an evidence-based practice that utilizes musical interventions to improve a client or patient's quality of life. It looks different for each patient, as it is a very individualized therapy.
Jasmine: "Who do you work with, and what does your day look like?"
Mariagracia works with babies a month or two months old up to people in their thirties. She works with some older folks because certain cancers are characterized as pediatric cancers, so a lot of time, those patients come to their hospital to work with specialists.
Every single day for Mariagracia looks different. Because hospital settings are impossible to plan for, she won't know what her day looks like going in. She first checks to see whos admitted and if she has any referrals. She'll see plenty of patients she's worked with throughout the week, and she'll speak with caregivers.
Mariagracia: "I might go in to see a 5-year-old, and based on our relationship... we might be engaging in singing every Disney song in the world. Through those interactions and experiences, we are giving back a lot of control that the patient doesn't have, and we are normalizing the treatment environment… Then I might pop in to see my next patient, and I might be really just engaging in drumming and might not be engaging verbally at all."
"Where words fail, music speaks."
Jasmine: "Percentage-wise, when you're doing music therapy with patients, is it for physical pain or mental pain, like anxiety/depression?
Mariagracia: "It's both. If you're looking at the physiological effects of what music can create in the body, you can target speech, physical pain, even a patient's vitals. Research has shown us that heart rate will sync to the music you're listening to. I also go to see patients every day for their emotional well-being and how this diagnosis is affecting them in their day-to-day life…. The interventions I use for a patient that day might allow for an emotional release."
When it comes to what exactly a patient needs music therapy for, that's something Mariagracia has to figure out. At the Children's National Hospital, there is an entire psychosocial team dedicated to helping patients' well-being. Therefore, Mariagracia works closely with a group of psychologists, art therapists, social workers, and education specialists to form a collective strategy for each patient. They share notes and help each other out, which in turn helps the patient out. They work together to determine the best course of action for each patient.
Patients vary in the type of care they need, and that's okay. Sometimes, music therapy isn't even used with certain patients. Some patients might require more art therapy; some patients might just need someone to talk to. Every patient is different. There's also not one song that Mariagracia uses to help the healing process. Music therapy is extremely patient dependent.
"Babies are musically inclined, they respond extremely well to music and have an ability to understand and feel verbalization." - Mariagracia
Jasmine: "Let's say you're treating a month or two-month-old baby; what is the type of music you would play?"
Mariagracia: "The type of songs we approach are always the parents preferred music… The instruments I use, I have a little baby ocean drum, it has visual stimulation with shapes and colors as well as being very soothing. I might use pre-verbalization songs, a lot of oohs and aahs in order to elicit that communication."
Interestingly enough, music therapy is the only therapy that can be used on NICU patients.
Jasmine: "When you're working with teenagers who already have a formed taste in music, do you speak one on one with the patient and decide which song? How does that work?"
Mariagracia: "Everything is based on a patient's preferred everything. I go in and assess how they are feeling, how they are showing me how they feel… I want to see what my role is there when I walk in. My role one day might be to help them with their pain, but it might immediately go into how they are coping outside of the hospital."
She gets to know each patient on an individual basis. They might share what they like, and she can take that and formulate an experience with music for them. She might guide them through a relaxation exercise with soothing noises; they might do singing based interventions, or they might choose to spend time writing music together. For some people, slow music might increase their anxiety. In that case, Mariagracia would formulate a different game plan that works specifically with that client.
"Music therapy is such a safe space for people to have different avenues of coping." - Mariagracia
Jasmine: "Have you ever worked with someone who was in a coma or couldn't speak or see?"
Mariagracia: "Parents or caregivers are typically at the bedside and can tell me what the client's preferences are; I have however, worked with patients who can't see or speak… if I have received a referral [and have not met parents or caregivers] I might just improvise something on the guitar and do soft tones. I would never just assume a song, music is wonderful, but it can be bad if a song is triggering in a negative way to somebody."
Music activates the brain's limbic areas associated with emotions and stimulates the hippocampus, which is the brain's memory center. That's why some music pieces can bring us back to our childhood or trigger deep emotional reactions within us. That's also why it's so essential that Mariagracia understands exactly what her patient needs.
Miracles, Music, or Both?
Gabby Giffords is a woman who was shot in the head and suffered a traumatic brain injury. She completely lost her ability to speak. When Gabby was engaging in speech therapy, she could not physically say words. The most magical thing happened when she started music therapy combined with her regular speech therapy. While she couldn't heal the old neuropathways damaged in the accident, She began to form brand new neuropathways in her brain and could sing out certain words she couldn't physically speak. For example, she might not say the word apple, but she could sing the word apple.
Mariagracia has seen music work in miraculous ways. She once had a patient who would not eat anything other than two types of food. She wrote a song for the patient that included the other senses, including taste. Within three sessions of using this song and humming along with the melody, the patient began to eat different foods.
Jasmine: "For those at home with anxiety, how can one utilize music to relieve this anxiety?"
Mariagracia: "Sometimes making a playlist based on a different mood, familiarity is helpful with anxiety so listening to those songs that make you feel at peace, I would also say work on your breathing maybe in rhythm or not, closing your eyes and focusing on the lyrics can help ground you. Try to sing along to a song because a lot of the time you are able to release what you are feeling."
For those interested in learning more about how music affects your brain, check out this book: This Is Your Brain on Music. by Daniel J. Levitin.