Until research studied the matter, the idea that music could be therapeutic was just that. An idea.
Now we know much more. According to UTC faculty members Stuart Benkert, interim head of the Department of Performing Arts, and Lee Harris, professor in the same department and coordinator of the music education program, a new degree at UTC beginning this fall will teach what most did not know—music therapy can address all the bullet points listed above.
The new, four-year Music Therapy program is the first of its kind at the university. A board-certified therapist, Katie Goforth Elverd, helped create the program. She relays one of her personal experiences.
“A six-year-old wasn’t feeling well, understandable since he’d just gone through a round of chemotherapy to treat his bone cancer. He wasn’t really saying anything. It was a quiet room,” recalls Elverd.
Her job, though, was to help him feel better. Or at least not as bad. She asked if he would like to sing a song. Yes, he said, sitting up and choosing “Eye of the Tiger” by Survivor. “We sang it and his behavior changes,” Elverd says. “It really affected him physiologically. It improved the way he felt because it got his mind off what his body had been through. It uplifted his mood and it normalized his environment because, for him, being in a hospital was not a normal thing.”
And that, she says, is the whole point of music therapy.
The Music Therapy program began with a request to explore the idea from officials at Erlanger Health Systems. Currently there are no board-certified music therapists in Chattanooga, Elverd says. There are music enrichment programs, she notes, but those are not the same. The UTC program’s goal is for graduates to be certified to work in three specific areas of music therapy: pediatrics, geriatrics and those suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Benkert says.
“Part of it is a very physically-based therapy session that uses instruments to increase your fine motor skills,” Benkert says. For example, he says, a patient has had hand surgery and needs physical therapy but hates the standard exercise of squeezing a ball over and over to increase the ability to grip. Because of that, the patient stops doing the therapy. “So instead of squeezing, maybe we put drumsticks in their hands or mallets for a xylophone or something,” Benkert says. “Say you need some fine shoulder work done, strumming a guitar will give you that.”
For children in hospitals, music therapy can lead to shorter stays, he says. “You get an earlier release where you have certified music therapists,” which is especially cost-effective in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.
For the elderly, music therapy can help physically and mentally, Benkert explains. “Lots of time you can put a tambourine in their hands and they can keep time and make music,” he says, “They’re not able to recuperate the fine motor skills they had, but they still want to try. “If someone is having a hard time breathing and we get them singing, they’re taking in more oxygen. I can sit here and say, ‘Hey, let’s work on our breathing’ or I can say, ‘Let’s sing a song,’ which is also going to have you working on your breathing.”
Mentally, it helps them feel as if they’re accomplishing something and being involved, not just sitting in their room alone, he adds.
Benkert says treating PTSD is one of his dream goals for the program, but he acknowledges that it will take a few years before it’s ready to tackle the task. “I feel that, ultimately, PTSD is an important issue that we’re not facing well as a nation. Someone needs to do something, right?
“Say someone is suffering from PTSD. Cognitively we can help them write songs about how they’re feeling. We can help them identify music that physiological calms them down. Kind of the same way that sometimes when you get in rush-hour traffic, the last thing you should be listening to is heavy metal. Sometimes you just need to turn on Beethoven.”