Good vibrations: Survivors and families find healing through music therapy

November 01, 2018 - 1432 views

When Shelley Cory got into a car accident a few years ago, her life dramatically changed.

Not only did the accident put her in a coma for two and a half months, it also left her with a traumatic brain injury that impacted her ability to speak.

Cory is now a client at Liberty Place, a Whitehall-based nonprofit that serves people with traumatic brain injuries.

During Cory’s time at the facility, she surprised caseworkers one day when she told them she wanted to sing. She recalled singing to her sister when she was a child and wanted to recapture something that had once brought her joy. That’s when she struck up a partnership with David Parker, a music therapist at Liberty Place. That was in 2014, and slowly but surely over the years, Cory is now able to sing again.

“When I’m singing, everything else disappears,” Cory told The Montana Standard.

Cory and other clients like her at Liberty Place are rediscovering their voices and other skills through music therapy — a discipline that practitioners in southwest Montana say isn’t well known among the general population.

David Parker

According to Parker, Liberty Place clients come to the organization (which also has a facility in Belgrade) from locations throughout Montana. They are often the survivors of accidents, strokes, aneurysms and other sudden, life-changing events, though some have been dealing with brain injury since birth.

“These are folks who were going about their business whether for good or bad and their life was changed dramatically within seconds,” said Parker.

Parker says that music therapy can help clients with a range of skills they may have lost due to their injuries, including mobility, speech, impulse control, emotional regulation and more.

But traumatic brain injury survivors aren’t the only people who can benefit from the practice, according to music therapists interviewed by the Standard. The practice can also help people with autism, dementia, Parkinson’s disease and many other conditions.

Portland native Angela Kopshy recently started a music-therapy practice in Butte.

Kopshy previously co-owned a practice in Portland. She moved to Basin a year ago with her husband, a Montana native, and in January she opened Big Sky Music Therapy on Harrison Avenue near the Butte Civic Center. Since then she has offered free group sessions and has volunteered at The Springs in Butte, a senior living facility on Mt Highland Drive.

Like all of the practitioners interviewed by the Standard, Kopshy was a musician before she was a therapist.

She got her first piano when she was four and was known to fall asleep with a radio at her side. She went on to study piano in college and graduate school and today plays in a Portland-based indie-chick rock band called Stoneface Honey.

“Even though I had never heard of music therapy (until later in life) and I wasn’t using it in the same sense that I do now, definitely my music has been my therapy, it’s been my emotional outlet,” said Kopshy.

Today Kopshy focuses on children with autism but works with other populations, too. She says music therapy can be helpful for just about everyone but it can be “magic” for specific populations.

Liberty Place clients working in an ensemble, for instance, have to wait to play their part during a performance, helping them with memory and impulse control. Meanwhile, singing lyrics can help with speech and playing instruments can help with movement. Similarly, the rhythmic beat of a drum can help with gait for clients who have trouble walking.

Bethany Venekamp is a music therapist who formerly utilized her expertise to help children with special needs at Parkview Elementary School in Dillon. Today she’s busy being a mom and pursuing a master’s in education, but still works at the school as a paraprofessional.

Venekamp studied music therapy at Colorado State University, where, among other things, she worked with a choir for people with Parkinson’s. She says the idea was to help choral members with things like articulation, breath and volume.

Venekamp said music therapy can sometimes cause children who previously have been unengaged to suddenly become animated.

“My favorite part is just watching kids come out of their shells,” said Venekamp, noting that music can be especially beneficial for students needing to work on their social skills.

For the three music therapists, music therapy is all about creating new neural pathways.

Parker explained that for people with traumatic brain injuries, important connections in the brain are often lost, but the brain has the capacity to heal itself by making new connections through what’s known as neuroplasticity.

Because music activates a range of areas in the brain, Parker said, it can be used to harness the power of neuroplasticity, potentially enabling clients to regain, at least in part, skills they lost after their injury.

Kopshy, meanwhile, said some children with autism have trouble speaking but are able to access language through song.

The reason, she said, is that the region of the brain associated with speech is relatively small. Music, on the other hand, is complex — “because of the rhythm and the timbre and the ability to evoke emotions,” Kopshy said.

The goal of the therapy over time, then, is to gradually turn song into speech.

Music therapy has other benefits, too — ones that don’t require a brain scan for explanation.

For one, music happens to be fun.

It can be engaging and motivating for children, Venekamp said, noting that it’s hard for kids to resist the strumming of a guitar or the beating of a drum.

As for Parker, music therapy has a humanist side.

“These guys have had an absolutely horrendous experience in their lives. Here they are, this is probably the last place they want to be… (But music is) letting them be part of something good, and human.”

During Parker’s sessions, clients collaborate on writing songs.

Some songs are about mundane things like the search for caffeine, but they also write about their struggles.

One song, called “Another Day,” talks about a regimented life, the monotony of yet another day.

In addition to group and individual sessions, Parker helps clients tap into their creativity with live performances.

Each year clients at Liberty Place put on a concert to benefit its music therapy program called “Lights On.” The organization put on the second iteration of the event last May.

Parker also has a vision of creating an arts-based branch of Liberty Place called the Liberty Arts Project, which would give clients access to a range of artistic outlets in ceramics, creative writing, visual and performing arts and more. He added that he hopes to recruit a cadre of volunteers with backgrounds in the humanities to help grow the program.

As for Kopshy, when asked why music has been with humanity almost since the beginning, she described music as an all-encompassing force.

“We’re all responsive to music one way or another,” she said. “Our body responds to music and our minds … our whole being responds to music.”

Drum guided meditation


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