Individual Music Therapy: Client Stories
The individual music therapy session provides a free and inviting space for children, teens, or adults to be supported in their process of growth or healing. Relational music experiences are tailored to the person’s individual needs, strengths, and interests, so that the music provides opportunities for the person to practice areas that are challenging in life. Because there are so many different paths that the music therapy process can take, I will share stories to provide clarity. These examples give a taste of how music therapy can unfold.
Kevin is a 6 year old child with autism spectrum disorder, who loves music, but who can be easily overwhelmed by too much sound or movement. It is difficult for him to hold attention to a given task or experience, and he tends to withdraw or get upset when routines change, when others do not understand what he wants or needs, and when he is unsure of how to do something new. He communicates with gestures and sometimes with one or two words at a time. I first spend time with Kevin and his parents, assessing how Kevin relates to music, and discovering how music can be a means through which the he can grow his abilities in areas that are challenging, such as regulation, joint attention, communication, and motor planning.
I notice right away that Kevin holds his attention to musical sounds longer than to speech or non-musical play. He shows interest and initiation in playing the drum and the xylophone I have put out for him. I join him on the piano, providing a gentle, steady beat to help support and ground his playing. I begin to sing his name and sing about what instruments he is playing. In music, it is natural to repeat words and phrases, rhythms and patterns. I sing, “Kevin, beat your drum, Kevin, beat your drum! We’re playing together, Kevin beat your drum!” When I go back and repeat the singing, I pause and leave spaces. Kevin completes the rhythmic phrase on his drum. On the next repetition, I sing, “Kevin, beat your _________!” Kevin fills in the missing word. We keep on the in the music together, where I continue to invite Kevin to open and close circles of communication in the music. I follow his lead when it comes to how fast to play or how loud to play, and I am careful to choose sounds and pitch registers that are comfortable for him. I listen carefully to him throughout our music making, and let him know through my music that he is heard and supported. Kevin gives a brief glance toward me, and a hint of a smile as we finish our improvised music making. We are on our way to establishing a therapeutic relationship in the music. The music has provided a bridge. It has helped create a safe space where Kevin is ready to be with me and to grow his capacities for relating and communicating.
Because music is processed through both the right and left hemispheres of the brain, and because it has a predictable form and structure through time, it is common for children with ASD to show heightened attention, interest, and responsiveness to music. Music can be that space where a child feels comfortable and relaxed enough to try out new ways of relating with others. Within music, a back and forth flow of communication is not dependent on words alone. It is common for communication and relationship to flow with greater freedom and joy within music. When given time and space to develop expressive skills through music, children (and adults too) grow in ways that carry beyond the music room, and out into other areas and relationships in their lives. This carryover from music therapy into life is a process supported by the therapist and family jointly.
Clair is a 14 year old girl who has been showing signs of depression and anxiety. Within the last year, her parents separated and she experienced the death of her grandmother, to whom she was very close. Clair is often withdrawn and moody, with occasional outbursts of anger, in which she has thrown objects in the home, damaging walls and frightening her younger brother. She has a difficult time talking with anyone about how she is feeling, and puts up a wall of silence when asked what is bothering her.
For a teen like Clair who is experiencing emotional and behavioral challenges, musical experiences can be a means through which she can feel safe enough to explore what in going on inside, to learn to accept and cope with a range of feelings, and to express those feelings in ways that are safe and that help to relieve the hurt, anger, anxiety, or pain. Clair needs a space that feels safe, where she can feel understood and where she feels some sense of control. An unfolding musical process provides such a space. As Clair and I listen together to songs that are important her, Clair is able to relax a bit, and to talk about what the songs mean to her. Teens, (and all of us really) are often drawn to songs that reflect their inner emotional landscape in some way. The songs provide a safe opening for dialogue around what someone is going through. Safety and trust begin to develop through these conversations, and Clair becomes willing to open up about the pain she is feeling, the pain she has been hiding under her angry outbursts.
Clair becomes interested in creating her own music. She creates songs that include loud, constant drumming, songs that are slower, with an expressive melody, and later, songs that have moments with an upbeat, joyful feel. Her music becomes a means to channel and express feelings that have either been locked up or that have been leaking out in harmful ways. When creating her own music, she is in control, and she learns express and modulate the expression of her full range of emotions in ways that are creative rather than destructive. When she listens back to the recordings of her own songs, Clair hears herself in a new way and over time is growing in self awareness and acceptance. She is now able to open up to her mom and to a close friend. Knowing she has people in her life who understand and accept her, including her full range of feelings, she has been feeling better, has become more involved in social and school opportunities, and she is learning to adjust to and cope with the changes in her family.