Connect and Heal with Music

  • By:  Melissa Page Deutsch

Music is all around us. Stop and listen, and you might hear a bird singing nearby. Maybe you can hear the rhythmic lull of ocean waves or the wind’s whisper as it blows though tall pines. Is that the rumble of a distant storm approaching? Or the sound of gentle rainfall? The music of nature has the power to touch our hearts and connect us to each other and our world.

Besides the music found in nature, we learn to appreciate the music people create—with voices, instruments, and batons. As children, we listen to soothing lullabies. Later in our teen years perhaps a different beat keeps us company. As we age, our tastes mellow, and the sounds of a symphony or a jazz trio may enhance our lives.

There are times, however, when we, or our loved ones, might be less connected to the world we inhabit. This could be due to aging, hospitalization, pain, mental illness, or physical disease. Any of these conditions can isolate us from the surrounding community.

Fortunately, music has the ability to return us to ourselves and connect us once again to the world we live in. Let’s meet three local women who help others reconnect, using the power of music.

“Why does gray hair have a negative connotation?” asked MaryAnn Toboz, founder and executive director of Tidewater Arts Outreach. In case you’ve never met her, MaryAnn epitomizes cool. Along with her chic silver locks, she sported fringe booties, a trim skirt, and a wide smile when we met recently at the offices of Tidewater Arts Outreach (TAO) in the Ghent section of Norfolk.

“Why does aging have a negative connotation?” continued MaryAnn, who is passionate about advocacy for those who are marginalized in our society, especially elders. In 2004, she founded TAO, whose mission is “enhancing wellness in people with special needs or circumstances through the healing power of the arts.”

A musician herself, MaryAnn initially modeled TAO after programs such as Bread and Roses in San Francisco, which was founded by Joan Baez’s sister, Mimi Farina, and provided live music to those confined in institutions in the Bay area.

Although conceived as a way to touch others through music, Tidewater Arts Outreach quickly expanded to include visual and other arts. “My idea for this was stone soup,” said MaryAnn. She put her vision on the table and created a board of directors. It grew from there.

TAO supporters and community partners work together to bring music and other arts to those who are isolated or unable to engage with normal life. Through music, painting, drama, poetry, clay, and a variety of other art forms, TAO artists reach out to those in need.

The benefits are many. Artists and caregivers have discovered unexpected rewards through participating in TAO programs. Artists find themselves appreciating the connections they make. Caregivers receive a much-needed boost in morale and new perspectives on their patients. And those that TAO serves? They find dignity, the most basic of human needs.

“Music, out of all the arts perhaps, is the most accessible. It cuts across demographics of age and abilities,” MaryAnn said.

Skilled nursing facilities, memory care centers, and other facilities that cater to the elderly appreciate the collaborations spearheaded by TAO. “We bring people in from the outside,” MaryAnn explained. “It relieves the caregivers, brightens the day of the residents, making them more compliant, and the new faces give them extra stimulation.”

 “Music gives people the chance to tell their story, be heard, and get a little of their identity back,” she said.

After 45 years of resisting, Becky Watson finally returned to what she was supposed to be doing, sharing the gift of music. As a child, Becky played piano, clarinet, and organ. She received a music scholarship but didn’t accept it. She knew she didn’t want to teach or perform.

And besides, she was ready to get out of Kansas. Navy recruiters visited her town and planted a seed. Three months later, Becky was in the Navy. What began as two years of active duty in the Navy turned into a 19-year career as one great opportunity after another kept presenting itself.

In 1995 while on active reserve in Charleston with her husband, also in the Navy, Becky found herself missing the music. While walking around the campus of Charleston Southern, she came across a plaque with a quote that stopped her in her tracks: “Your talent is God’s gift to you. What you do with your talent is your gift back to God. If this quote resonates with you, you need to consider a degree in music therapy.”

Once again, a seed was planted, but it would be another 19 years before that seed would take root and blossom.

In 2005, Becky’s mother became very ill, and her family feared that her cancer had returned. Becky flew back to Kansas, bringing her guitar along with her. “I hadn’t played in years, but as I sat on my mother’s bed and began strumming, it was calming to me, calming to all of us,” she recalled.

“Becky, you need to help people with your music,” her mother told her, planting the most powerful seed. The next day Becky’s mother died.

Eventually, Becky decided to pursue a new career in music therapy. After undergoing rigorous training, she received her degree and board certification and began practicing.

Part of her training involved an internship at Eastern State Hospital, where half of her caseload consisted of folks aged 18-60 with mental illness, the other half, geriatrics. “I saw the profound impact music has to redirect or stimulate or relax the patients,” Becky explained.

For example, she discovered that she could use music to de-escalate a situation or use rhythm to energize some of the older adults. Becky also discovered that she loved working with elders.

For the last three years, Becky has offered music therapy through her private practice, Music for Wellness, LLC. She visits adult daycare centers, hospitals, churches, adult geriatric-mental health clinics, and memory care facilities. Most of her time is spent with people with dementia, where music can be uniquely effective.

“Someone might forget a husband, a daughter, but rhythm is retained,” Becky said. “I help families discover how you can connect and communicate using rhythm and music with a loved one.”

One of the elders that Becky visits is Frank Gross, a retired minister. Frank is in hospice and has Alzheimer’s disease. His wife, Claire, a retired school psychologist, is grateful for the close relationship Frank and Becky have. Once Becky visited him and sang Amazing Grace. Frank responded.

“It was a very powerful moment—because she herself was present and singing to him. And he started humming along. I cannot tell you how moved I was.” said Claire. “I think Becky’s most powerful instrument is herself. She has an amazing way of being present. He really responds to her.” 

Becky feels her mother’s spirit with her every day in her work as a music therapist, an affirmation that she is following the right path.

Leslie Magee discovered music therapy after high school, while looking at different universities. “It just clicked,” she recalled. “It felt like the perfect mix. Doing something I loved, music, in a place I had always pictured myself working, a hospital.”

Now Leslie has a front row seat into the starring role music plays in the lives of the patients and students she works with every day as a board-certified music therapist at CHKD.

“Music gives us a shared experience for bonding, language development, and emotional expression,” Leslie said.  Not to mention the impact music therapy has on improving learning, pain management, and physical endurance.

A physical therapist recently remarked while co-treating a patient with Leslie, “This child’s never stood this long.” It was the music and the lyrics that made the difference.

“Music therapy is different from the therapeutic use of music,” Leslie explained. “It is psycho-educational, helping patients and students access their emotions, have an outlet for creative expression, and an avenue for social interaction.”

And it’s goal driven. “We look at what the needs are for patients who are missing school because they are in the hospital, what goals we want to set for them, and what their own goals are,” she said

Leslie started the music therapy program at CHKD in 2004. “I was the only one here when it started,” she said, “and now there’s a Tidewater group.”

Leslie’s favorite part of her job is “watching kids have that a-ha moment”—when they discover how music can improve their moods. And it’s not just the patients who benefit. Through music therapy, families discover new ways to connect and communicate more powerfully with their children.

“I feel fortunate to be with families in difficult times, to walk beside them and give them the support they need,” said Leslie.

“When I started college and people asked what I wanted to do with a music therapy degree, I said my dream job would be working with cancer patients in a pediatric hospital,” Leslie said. “I never imagined that’s where I would end up…. It has exceeded every expectation I had as a dream job.”

Adrianne Giddings, 17, would agree. She met Leslie for the first time in 2012 while in CHKD’s Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU). Adrianne was paralyzed from the neck down. She was diagnosed with Devic’s, an autoimmune disease. She still remembers the moment Leslie appeared at her door, guitar in hand, and asked, “Can I come in and play a song for you?”

“I met Leslie and I slowly got better,” Adrianne recounted. “I am very strong in my faith, and I believe God used Leslie to get me through this. I got off the ventilator and slowly got better.”

Her mobility returned, but unfortunately, Adrianne still had to endure severe nerve pain throughout the day. Leslie worked with her to create a playlist of her favorite songs on an iPod. “Listening to that music, I laid back in that hospital bed and put out my arms and for the first time didn’t feel the pain,” Adrianne said.

Now when Adrianne returns to CHKD for treatments, Leslie gives her an iPod with her favorite music on it.

“I listen every night and it helps me go to sleep,” she said. “I go to a place where I’m completely free of all these chains and every situation that binds me and causes anxiety—the medications and infusions, the injections. I go to a place of comfort and a place of peace.”

To learn more:

Melissa Page Deutsch, MS, CCC-SLP, CPCC, ACC, a certified personal development coach and speech-language pathologist, partners with women to identify their unique gifts and make empowered choices to live a life they love.

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