January is Music Therapy Advocacy month and VNA Board Certified Neurologic Music Therapist Lauren Meeks couldn’t be happier. “Having an official music therapy month gives music therapists a chance to spotlight ourselves and educate the world about who we are and what we do with such a unique focus,” she says.
But what exactly is music therapy?
Simply put, it’s the use of music to help address various ailments a person might have, everything from physical issues like lack of mobility to mental issues like anxiety and depression. For example, if a patient has gait abnormalities, a music therapist could play a steady beat on a piano to help retrain the patient to walk, a music therapy technique called rhythmic auditory stimulation (RAS).
Music therapy works best for chronic conditions, including chronic constructive pulmonary disease or COPD. “Music therapy is especially beneficial for helping patients to manage their COPD,” says Lauren, who, like most of her colleagues, plays the guitar and sings. “Learning to effectively regulate their breathing, strengthen their lungs, recover from shortness of breath, etc. goes a long way towards improving quality of life with COPD. Not only that, but music makes it enjoyable and memorable,” says Lauren. It also helps patients relax, she notes, which is key for those who experience stress due to shortness of breath caused by COPD. These are just some of the reasons why VNA offers music therapy, the only organization in Indian River County to do so.
When Lauren begins working with a new client, she always asks what kind of music they enjoy listening to. She does this not only to create a good rapport, but also for practical reasons. “My patients are far more likely to practice their breathing with me when I use familiar music than if I presented it through unfamiliar music, or just spoken instruction,” she says, and gives an example of a patient with COPD who benefited greatly from this practice.
“When I met *John, I began inquiring about his music and it turned out that he loved Dean Martin. His face LIT UP when I started singing “When You’re Smiling’. I encouraged him to sing along with me and we began practicing singing longer and longer phrases in the song to improve his lung strength and breath control. The familiarity of the music allowed him to focus on his breathing since he knew the words so well, and also helped establish trust between us because we could share in his music,” says Lauren. “I learned later that he had a history of being a ‘difficult patient’ because he was often noncompliant with instructions, but he loved to practice with me and his breathing improved to the point that he could speak whole sentences without taking a breath, whereas when I met him he had to pause to breath every few words.”
Lauren cannot overstate the benefits of music therapy for people like John with COPD, including that it’s a personal, safe, non-invasive option compared to drug therapy, which is often what patients are prescribed. She also emphasizes that music therapy is versatile and adaptable to patients with COPD no matter the state of their disease, which is progressive by nature; while the rate of progression and symptoms vary, no one “recovers” from COPD. But there’s still cause for hope. “I may first meet patients with COPD while they are not using oxygen and only experiencing mild to moderate symptoms, and I can work with them to improve their lives. A few months or years down the road I may encounter them again and find them virtually bedbound and wearing oxygen around the clock just to take normal breaths, and I can still help them,” she says.
The joy Lauren and her colleagues gain from teaching music therapy is contagious and underscores why highlighting the little known field for a month is so important. “I can’t tell you how many people I treat on a daily basis who say, ‘Why didn’t I know about you before? Why have I never heard of music therapy, this could have helped me so much!’ The more people who hear about music therapy and what it does, the more people can receive the benefits,” she says. Indeed.
*John is not the patient’s real name.