A look at music therapy from a parent’s and clinician’s perspective

A parent’s perspective:

My daughter, Maya, has had a rough start in the world. After six months of several surgeries and procedures, we brought her home from the hospital. She battled and with steady determination she has become a bright, bubbly sweetheart, beloved by her family and our community.

When she was three-and-a-half years old, her progress in communication hit a plateau. Though she was qualified, I did not think her speech therapist was very good. The school district wasn’t particularly responsive to my concerns. She was having a lot of speech therapy – a half-hour five days a week. I wasn’t sure that more therapy would be more effective, especially with the therapist at the time.

In desperation, a friend suggested music therapy with Ryan Judd. Music therapy struck me as “out there.” I make my living in science and was concerned about the seeming lack of evidence-based research out there. But I am a mom, and was a desperate one at that, so we gave it a try.

Music therapy made a dramatic difference within the first month. Ryan uses music as a motivator to get her to practice a wide variety of the skills she is working on in her IEP. He has addressed speech goals like practicing signing, vocalizing and working with her communication device. He has addressed physical therapy goals such as getting up from a seated position and jumping. He has addressed occupational therapy goals by pinching an oversize guitar pick and allowing her to strum the guitar herself. I have posted a video of their work on YouTube (search MayaMusicTherapy.)

My school district has resisted paying for this service or even testing for whether it would be a needed service. Because I had started it on my own and she was progressing, their argument was that it was unclear whether the music therapy was making the difference. Perhaps it was an increased emphasis on speech therapy or the interventions that her new speech therapist provided that spurred the improvement. I ultimately gave up the fight and paid out of pocket.

I would encourage you to investigate this for your child.

A clinician’s perspective:

When I first met Maya, she immediately engaged me in a game of “Copy Me!” She would clap and I would clap. She would slap out a rhythm on the table and I would imitate her. From the first minutes I spent with Maya, I knew we were going to do some great work together.

This was further reinforced when I began playing the guitar with her. Maya was drawn to the vibro-tactile properties of this instrument and began to put her mouth on the strings when I strummed the guitar. She was craving this sensory stimulation and this was one of the first keys to her success. Maya was so motivated by this sensory feedback that when I stopped strumming and prompted her to vocalize, she took up the challenge and succeeded.

As soon as Maya vocalized, I would start strumming and she would put her mouth back on the strings. Playing off of this success, I began improvising songs that incorporated various vowel and consonant sounds and Maya got the repetitive practice that she needed. One of the beautiful things about music therapy is that you get the repetition without the monotony.

I wrote many songs for Maya’s sessions that were specific to the sounds and words she was working on. For example, I wrote an animal song with bears, bats and bees. I then created a page that had pictures of all of these animals so that Maya had some visual supports for these words. I would sing the song and pause before a “b” word and when Maya would say it, the song could continue. By its very nature, music has tension built into it and this can be a very effective tool in working on developmental goals. For example, if I sing “twinkle, twinkle, little” and then pause before “star,” your brain and body is going to want to hear that last word and you will be motivated to complete the phrase.

Maya’s love of music also inspired her to participate in movement songs. I wrote songs that addressed the particular gross motor skills she was working on, and because it was musical, it was motivational. We would march with our knees up high, balance on one foot, and jump to a fun, upbeat song.

Music has always been a very powerful therapeutic tool for Maya, but there is also something else that makes her work very hard and push her limits in our sessions: humor. When I find something that makes her laugh, I know I have struck gold. Lately we have been exploring her new communication device and the best motivator I have found is laughter. Maya will push through her challenges with using this device if the reward is me doing something silly and crazy that makes her laugh. It makes me laugh too so it is a win-win!

I feel very blessed to have discovered the field of music therapy and to be able to work with children like Maya. Specializing in working with children with special needs has brought a joy into my life that is priceless. The music, laughter and success always seem to lift my clients’ spirits,  and mine.

Ryan Judd is a board certified music therapist and founder of The Rhythm Tree. He has specialized in working with children with special needs for more than 13 years. In addition to this work, he has a video blog and newsletter that educates parents, teachers and therapists on how to use music to help children with special needs. You can learn more about Ryan and his work at therhythmtree.com. 

Emily James lives with her husband and three kids in Wolfeboro. Her youngest daughter has Down Syndrome. For the last 12 years, she has been a full-time physics and astronomy teacher at Brewster Academy. She is a NH leadership graduate and is the co-president of Region 1 Family Support Council.

Categories: Stepping Stones NH