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Mark Bennett: Harnessing the power of music | News Columns

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Music can heal, inspire and revive its listeners.

A shining example came in the aftermath of a tragedy.

A gunman killed six people and injured 13 others, including Arizona congresswoman Gabby Giffords at a 2011 meet-and-greet she hosted in Tucson. A bullet to her brain seriously wounded Giffords, leaving her unable to speak. A music therapist at a Houston hospital worked with Giffords to build a new route for speech impulses around the damaged area of her brain.

Eventually, she began to sing along to memorable songs, including “This Little Light of Mine.”

“It was part of her recovery,” said Tracy Richardson, a music therapist and professor at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College, where she serves as dean of graduate therapy and counseling programs.

Back in 1983, she was a student when the college launched its music therapy program. Thirty-eight years later, the American Music Therapy Association has given Richardson its 2021 Honorary Life Award for the association’s Great Lakes region. She well understands music’s potential to assist a broad range of people, from special needs kids to withdrawn teenagers, folks afflicted with Parkinson’s disease and strokes, youngsters with ADHD, adults with mental and physical disabilities, and men and women in hospice care.

“It’s all about harnessing the power of music to achieve some sort of therapeutic goal,” Richardson said.

She’s one of more than 9,000 board-certified music therapists in the nation, including 800 in the Great Lakes region. That number has more than doubled in the past decade, according to the AMTA. The college pipeline of new therapists is strong, too.

“The growth of music therapy degree programs has also been rising over time,” said Deborah Benkovitz Williams, president of the AMTA. “Keep in mind that credentialed music therapists are both therapists and accomplished musicians.”

Richardson fits that profile as “a composer and performer of note, in addition to her roles as a clinician and academician,” delivering “incredibly creative and dedicated work,” Williams added.

Indeed, the 56-year-old singer-songwriter got inducted into the Wabash Valley Musicians Hall of Fame in 2016, has recorded a handful of albums and singles, and performed with several bands and solo. Richardson’s first exposure to music therapy came during her time with the popular Don Morris Band in the early 1980s while she was a Woods student.

Morris told her about his upcoming outing to play guitar and sing for special needs kids at a Terre Haute elementary school.

“I kind of tagged along with him, and I just about fell out of my seat,” Richardson recalled. “Some of these kids were nonverbal, and they were trying to sing along. I was just amazed.”

Her entry into the Woods music therapy program led to many other impressive interactions with people listening to her sing, play piano or guitar, bang a drum, or write a song.

She’s worked with cancer patients in hospital oncology units, struggling with pain between their allotted pain medication dosages. Because music causes a release of dopamine, it allows a rewiring throughout the brain, Richardson explained. With that, a music therapist can affect a cancer patient’s perception of their pain while awaiting more medication.

“At the end of the session, they’ll go, ‘Oh, I forgot all about how much pain I’m in,’” Richardson recalled. “And by then it’s time for their next dose.”

Music therapy also can coax a quiet teen out of their shell. Trying to talk with a reclusive 14-year-old can be difficult. “If you put a drum and guitar in a room, you get a different reaction,” Richardson said.

Writing a song with a teenager can deliver breakthroughs, too. “We might facilitate a songwriting session with them, so they can express how much they hate their parents, or whatever,” she explained.

“It’s the perfect therapy,” she said.

The Woods added a graduate music therapy program in 2000. In 2013, the college began a unique music therapy equivalency program, allowing students who already hold a music degree to pursue a career in music therapy. More than 300 students have graduated from Woods music therapy programs.

Through the pandemic, students have experienced music therapy delivered through telehealth methods, Richardson said.

That’s been true for the staff at Rhythm Garden Music LLC in Jasonville. The studio offers music therapy sessions, as well as instrumental lessons and early childhood arts programs. Its team includes several Woods music therapy grads, including owner and lead music therapist Morgan Sparks.

“We have had to adapt quite a bit,” Sparks said. The shift to telehealth “was a learning curve for ourselves and our clients,” she added.

Sparks opened the studio in 2005 as an early childhood music and movement program, but “fell in love” with music therapy and went back to college for a second bachelor’s degree in the field at the Woods. As a result, Rhythm Garden Music has offered music therapy since 2014.

“I’ve always had a passion for music, but also a passion for helping people,” Sparks said. “Music therapy blends those two passions very well.”

Fellow Rhythm Garden music therapist Devyn Burns earned her bachelor’s degree in music therapy at the Woods in 2018. She’s currently pursuing a master’s degree in music therapy there. “Music holds a lot of power and potential,” she said.

Just as Richardson, Sparks and Burns once started their music therapy journeys, 22-year-old Ariana Hall is beginning that same path as a Woods freshman. Hall got intrigued with the craft while on a trip to Israel with a group from her Georgia church. She watched a music therapist at an Israeli hospital treat a patient unable to speak.

“That was one of the highlights of the trip, seeing someone in a career I could find myself in,” Hall said.

A moment just like Richardson witnessed with those elementary school kids years ago.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or [email protected].