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For Patients of Music Therapy, Success Stories Abound

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Meryl Lammers’ love of music stretches back to her childhood when she jammed out to Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and other classic rock bands in her bedroom. However, one special moment at a high school concert proved to be the muse to inspire her career.

She recalls a time when she performed a jazz version of “Amazing Grace” on her flute. She noticed a woman in the audience started to cry, so after the show, she asked the mom why her solo caused such an outpouring of emotions. “She said it brought back memories and some regrets,” the 35-year-old recalls. “It was then I realized the power music had.”

In college, Lammers went on to major in music therapy, a field that uses music interventions to accomplish individualized goals within a therapeutic relationship. “Humans are built for music,” explains Lammers, who now works as a music therapist at The Music School of Delaware. “We have a heartbeat. We have our own rhythm. Music is part of who we are—mind, body and spirit. It’s a universal language and an incredible force of love and connection that really helps to cross boundaries.”

An ensemble of benefits

With branches in Wilmington and Milford, The Music School of Delaware offers individual and group music therapy, both on- and offsite. 

The instructors in the program, now in its fifth year, have seen hundreds of patients with a variety of conditions, including autism, Alzheimer’s disease, Down syndrome, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and dementia. “It’s our responsibility to spearhead major projects and innovations as the primary community music school in the state. This is in our purview, and it’s our responsibility,” says Cheri Astolfi, dean of the school. “We are still very much growing this program and hope to establish the reputation of making it the place to go for music therapy.”

While they work to expand the program, they also constantly fight the common “all fun and games” misconception about this clinical- and evidence-based form of therapy. “Don’t get me wrong,” Astolfi says. “Music therapy is wonderfully rewarding musically and aesthetically, but it’s just not ‘playtime’ or a fad. It’s a legitimate form of therapy that only licensed music therapists are authorized to provide.”

Strike a chord

With 11 years of experience, Lammers has seen patients with developmental disabilities and substance abuse problems, vets with post-traumatic stress disorder and seniors in hospice. Using guitar, drums, small rhythm instruments (like a shaker), piano and flute, she focuses on people with autism at The Music School of Delaware, where she started last year.

Lammers conducts a clinical assessment during the initial session, speaking with the parents or guardians to find out their goals and to learn some background information: Are they verbal? Do they have sensitivity to light or sound? Are they drawn to any particular instruments? Do they have any favorite kinds of music?

Caryn Tazartuz is optimistic that music therapy will help decrease her daughter Jennifer’s anxiety, increase her socialization and quality of life. Jennifer is 23-years-old and non-verbal but enjoys listening to The Beatles—a top selection for many in music therapy.

Lammers observed Jennifer’s reactions to the instruments during their initial session. For example, she didn’t like to bang the drum hard, so she might have a touch sensitivity. On the other hand, when Lammers sang to her, she saw an increase in eye contact. 

Jennifer Tazartuz

After the assessment, Lammers discussed the goals with Caryn and how to best accomplish them. One objective looks to have Jennifer identify preferred songs by pointing to related picture symbols on cards and hand them to Lammers. Other components of the structured 45-minute sessions include a “hello song,” “a rainbow song” with colored scarves to add a tactile element, and a “goodbye song.” “All the while music is engaging her,” says Lammers, who notes throughout the sessions Jennifer’s anxiety melts away and she begins to make eye contact, laugh and smile.

Caryn, a Hockessin resident, decided to start sending Jennifer to music therapy to give her a structured program that can strengthen her skills. “She’s out of the school system and doesn’t have the kinds of activities that a typical 23-year-old would have,” Caryn describes. “I wanted her to have something extra, something that she would enjoy.”

Jennifer has progressed since she began attending in July 2015. Now, when Lammers sings The Beatles’ “Let It Be,” Jennifer will give an approximation of “be,” and during the goodbye song, she says “Dad” when her father attends the class. “It’s really cool,” Caryn says. “My husband never heard her say ‘Dad’ before.”

Success stories have become a regular part of Lammers’ job. For instance, she worked with an Alzheimer’s patient with garbled speech who could barely communicate. As part of the therapy, she gave him a rhythm instrument and sang him popular songs from his youth. “All of a sudden, he would tap his toes and sing the songs verbatim,” Lammers says. “Then, he would tell me how he played the violin as a child. It’s a beautiful thing. He could have a coherent conversation with me just 30 minutes after engaging in live music.”

Lammers shared an equally powerful experience about another client, a 58-year-old man in hospice who once was a musician and roadie for the band Hall & Oates. “Music was his life,” she says.

Because of his condition, he lost most of his fingers, but he wanted to write a song for his daughter. He called Lammers, and she went to his house to help him. “I was his scribe and instrument, and we wrote a song together,” she says. 

In a touching moment, the daughter visited to watch them perform the song live. He died the following day. “It gave him control and power in a powerless situation,” Lammers says. (You can listen to the song on YouTube.)

What is music therapy?

The roots of music therapy date back millennia, as Aristotle and Plato wrote about how music could influence health behavior, according to the American Music Therapy Association. In modern times, music therapy grew as a discipline after World War I and II when community musicians went to hospitals to play for the thousands of veterans dealing with trauma. Following the performances, the patients showed notable positive physical and emotional responses to the music.

“Music is a total brain experience,” says Lammers. “It stimulates both hemispheres of the brain. Other forms of therapy, like speech therapy, can benefit from collaborating with the music therapist to achieve more of an interactive rehabilitative and therapeutic experience.”

Research backs up music therapy’s potential, she says. Clinical- and evidence-based benefits include: enhancements in quality of life, relaxation, social skills (eye contact, speech, sharing, turn taking) and the ability to participate in a group; improvements in mood, breathing, heart rate, creative and emotional expression, verbal and non-verbal communication, and fine and gross motors skills; decreases in physical, emotional, and spiritual pain and stress; and the increased ability to focus attention and follow directions.

Clients don’t need to have musical talent to participate and benefit from therapy, but the therapists must be highly trained. Professional music therapists hold a bachelor’s degree or higher in music therapy (plus, they complete a 1,200-hour internship), and to practice, they require their MT-BC (Music Therapist-Board Certified) credential.

Music therapy can be provided in individual or group sessions in a variety of settings, including assisted living facilities, nursing homes, hospitals, schools, group and private homes, and elder daycare centers.

Financial aid available

The Music School of Delaware offers music therapy programs for people of all ages and types of special needs. At this time, private health insurance doesn’t cover music therapy in the state, but the school has aid available. “We’re hopeful that before someone says, ‘It’s impossible for me to attend because of the cost,’ they come to us and we’ll make every effort to make sure they’re involved,” says Cheri Astolfi, the school’s dean.

For more information, call 762-1132 for the Wilmington branch or 422-2043 for the Milford branch, or visit The Music School of Delaware’s website.

Wilmington Branch
4101 Washington St., Wilmington

Milford Branch
P.O. Box 442, 10 South Walnut St., Milford

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