Music therapy helps children, families cope with illness


Nine-year-old Hannah Gorham loves to sing.

She loves Carrie Underwood and reading Fancy Nancy books, and she adores Bear-y, the tattered stuffed animal blanket she has had since birth.

Her hero is Calysta Bevier, the 16-year-old ovarian cancer survivor from Hannah’s hometown of Grand Rapids, Ohio, who advanced to the semi-finals on the popular NBC show America’s Got Talent.

And Hannah’s therapeutic savior might just be music.

In ProMedica Toledo Children’s Hospital since Aug. 31 for severe migraines, Hannah was introduced recently to music therapy, a growing practice for hospitalized children and those with developmental or physical disabilities.

Operated through the hospital’s Child Life program, music therapy helps children and their families cope with stresses related to a child’s illness and the adjustment of a hospital stay. David Putano, a music therapist who owns a private practice in Toledo, visits children like Hannah at the hospital for weekly one-on-one musical sessions.

“When you expose people to music they love, the feeling of success, of hopefulness, reminds them of things they love,” Mr. Putano said. “At a hospital, we sometimes get away from things at home that we love, things that are beautiful.”

On this particular Friday, surrounded by stuffed tigers, monkeys, and dolls, Hannah, a quiet, petite blonde with glasses, finds her place on the keyboard and joins Mr. Putano in making music. The pair first coordinate musical notes to a preprogrammed rhythm (this, time, they choose one reminiscent of an epic space movie; Mr. Putano often uses movie references to get students in the right creative frame of mind). As Mr. Putano plays the guitar, Hannah finds her happy place on the keyboard and joins in.

“OK, start going slower, we are going to sneak up on the ending,” Mr. Putano prompts. “When I count to three, you play one more note.”

Twice, the session is interrupted so that Hannah can take medication. Then, it’s back to the beat.

Hannah watches intently as Mr. Putano searches for the perfect hip-hop beat on the keyboard. She clutches Bear-y as he explains to the young girl that there are 12 notes in music and helps her find the A note on the keyboard.

“Play whatever you want … Atta girl!” he encourages.

“You can tell when someone is really wired for music. You do really well,” he says to his tiny student as they finish up.

She smiles. Quietly.

“My favorite part was doing this with David. It made me happy,” Hannah said after the lesson. “It feels good.”

Soothing the soul

Hannah was diagnosed two years ago with Chiari malformation, a congenital defect in which part of the skull at the back of the head is too small for the brain.

“She started stuttering; she would trip over things and there would be nothing there,” said her grandfather, Rick Tolles, also of Grand Rapids.

Her mother, Heather Gorham, was optimistic that music therapy would help.

“Heck, it’s worth a shot. All of this medication is hard on her little body, but if something like this would work, that would be fantastic,” she said.

The young girl had been getting migraines for about a year, but a week into fourth grade, they became severe, Mr. Tolles said. Now, when she gets a migraine, Hannah runs to her grandfather and hides in the crook of his arm to shield herself from the light.

“I think the biggest thing is the music. It makes her rest easier — I can get her to close her eyes,” he said. “I haven’t found much else that helps.”

Music is considered to be a primary cognitive experience, meaning as human beings, we have no control over the emotions we feel when we experience it, Mr. Putano said.

“If we can identify music that a patient loves, music they have positive associations with … if we can engage them in playing music that they really like a lot, we can instantly have them experience those positive emotions,” he said.

Music versus medicine

Researchers have found that music therapy provides a diversion from negative feelings and helps manage the pain of not only adults but of children with developmental, physical, behavioral, and neurological disabilities, said Al Bumanis, a certified music therapist and now the spokesman for the American Music Therapy Association. Continued research with music shows effects on the subjects’ vital signs: blood pressure goes down, the heart rate slows, body temperature goes up; it calms and relaxes but also motivates.

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Piano music raising the bar at elementary school

Via CBS News

These days, as Michelle Miller is about to show us. thousands of elementary school students are hitting all the right notes:

The Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary School sits in a New Orleans neighborhood stressed by violence, poverty and the after-effects of Hurricane Katrina. But don’t tell that to the music teacher.

“Ooh, everybody has such a beautiful smile this morning! Good Morning!”

Pat Sylvain-Little’s music class is a world apart. And she says there’s a lot more going on here than just a piano lesson.

“It’s something about the keyboard,” Sylvain-Little told Miller. “You have so many things you have to do at once. You’re playing with two hands. You’re trying to read the music. You’re trying to count the rhythms, all at the same time. And what researchers have found is that it sparks the brain.”

Sparking the brain of a child is what motivated Lisha Lercari to create this course that’s now being taught in 14 schools in New Orleans, and 130 in New York City.

Lercari is a music teacher on a mission.

“I think children need to read music,” Lercari said. “I want to raise the bar high for them. I want them to be thinking beings while they’re playing and not just play it. It’s making it a process of thinking about it. It’s a process of using their brains.”

The education program Music and the Brain aims to instruct young people far beyond the rudiments of music.

CBS News

In 1996, Lercari read a Newsweek cover story about children’s brains and how they develop; how exposure to music rewires neural circuits; how, in one experiment, music lessons improved the abstract reasoning of preschoolers.

She then spoke to scientists and researchers, and asked herself: How could she translate what was happening in laboratories back into the real world?

Miller asked, “Why is this necessary?”

“It’s necessary because children don’t have music in their lives,” Lercari replied. “But it’s also necessary because of what it does in other areas of education. We have seen their literacy improve, we’ve seen their language skills in other ways improve. Music sticks. It enhances memory skills. It helps with attention. It helps them focus.”

Decades of budget cutbacks had led to the gutting of art and music classes, so Lercari got funding from various foundations, devised her own program, and called it “Music and the Brain.”

“You’re doing it. Very good job! I love it. You’re doing a great job. Keep up that singing!”

At PS 71 in Queens, New York, Claire McIntire has been teaching the course for 12 years, mostly to kindergarteners and first- and second-graders.

“I don’t want to be a music teacher where it’s taught like ‘drill and skill,’” she told Miller. “Like, ‘Let’s go. You gotta do it again! Again!’ and make it boring.

“When the kids come in the room, I want them to walk in with a smile. I want them to leave with a smile. I want them to feel good about it. Mistakes happen every day, and I want them to know that’s OK.”

Most schools discover the program through word of mouth. And when they do, Lercari arrives bearing gifts: “Keyboard lab with piano, music stands, and keyboard stands and headphones, piano books, teachers’ manuals, theory papers, posters that go along with every page of every book, CDs that are instructional, and CDs that are for fun listening, and rhythm CDs as well.”

Here’s how it works: Students first sing the melodies — classical, world, folk and children’s songs.

Next, they learn the rhythms. Then, the notes. Along the way, teachers add the history, geography and languages associated with the music.

And finally, practice at the keyboard. One or two times a week, 30 to 45 minutes at a time.

Miller asked, “Can anybody teach this?”

“Yeah, if they’re willing to work at it!” Lercari laughed. “I would say the only people who can’t teach this are people who probably shouldn’t be teaching at all.”

Lercari is in constant contact with her music teachers. If a technique works in one classroom, she believes it will work in another. But in all the schools, the key is finding teachers who care as deeply as she does — teachers like Pat Sylvain-Little.

“Pat is one of the most beautiful teachers I’ve ever worked with,” Lercari said. “So many kids in New Orleans need a way out of ‘No Way.’ And she makes sure they find it. Nobody fails in her hands.

“I can tell you she saw every child every day. And we watched the ranking of this school go straight up. Her kids can do anything.”

Sylvain-Little says, if it weren’t for these classes, most of her students would never play the piano … let alone have one at home.

“Parents will say, ‘I didn’t even know my child was studying the piano,” she said. “I have some children that have told me, ‘I practice on the kitchen table.’ You know, they sing the letters and go through the music. And so a keyboard is wonderful, but if you don’t have it, it doesn’t stop you.”

Claire McIntire said, “A lot of the parents will come to me and they’ll say during parent-teacher conferences, they’ll ask me, ‘Miss McIntire, should I buy a keyboard?’ And I always tell them, ‘Listen, it’s better than video games. It’s better than watching TV. And your child really loves it. So why not?’”

Lercari plans to expand Music and the Brain into many more schools.

She’s ready for battle.

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