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Where words fail, music speaks

The first music therapy masters degree programme in Ireland was launched at University of Limerick in 1998, and today is still the only one in the country. Limerick Voice reporter Federica Montella found out more about this relatively young health profession.

When thinking about music, we see it as a recreational activity, a universal form of entertainment enjoyed in every corner of the world since the dawn of civilisation.

Music therapy, however, is a powerful healing tool that works with people with physical and mental illnesses, dementia, autism, chronic pain and more.

Music therapists are not simply musicians that perform for their clients; their aim is to help patients achieve therapeutic goals through music in all of its forms.

Photo: Aisling Moloney, Limerick Voice

Music is used to help self-expression, communication and socialising to achieve a clinical outcome.

Music therapy student, Marguerite Collins, explains that music therapists work within a multidisciplinary team of neurologists, nurses, physiotherapists, using music to help rehabilitate patients.

“Your patients are not referred to you just because they like music. You wouldn’t refer someone to physiotherapy because they like PE, but because they have a problem with movement. It’s the same with music therapy,” Ms  Collins explained.

After completing her Bachelor’s degree in Irish Music at University of Limerick (UL), Ms Collins worked as a musician and as a carer in Dublin, where she was in contact with people with dementia, and decided that music therapy was the way forward.

Music therapists actively engage with their patients through activities such as clinical song-writing, a powerful tool for people that cannot verbally express their feelings.

The music therapist invites the patient to express themselves with a basic instrument, like drums or a xylophone.

A strong knowledge of psychodynamic theory is very important to study the outcomes and functionally help the client.

“If someone is experiencing levels of high confusion, orientation would be a big goal, bringing them back into the ‘here and now’ focusing on their long-term memory. If you look back at the music from their era, you can bring down their stress levels, and it helps their entire immune system, it’s like a butterfly effect,” she explains.

The 30-year old music student grew up with her brother who has a brain injury, she decided that her ultimate goal is to work with children with profound learning disabilities.

The proudest moment of her career, was working with a 26-year-old girl from Dublin with autism:

“I played some songs for her with my guitar that should have been familiar to her age group, and I was getting nothing. There were doubts around the team whether she could even hear at all.

“She would scream  in the transition from one room to another, so we put some musical markers in every room, so she wouldn’t be so disoriented.”

“We figured out she wouldn’t empathise with the sound of the guitar, or singing, but one day I discovered she really liked the sound of the flute. I’ve made a CD for her, and it really helped her in transitioning from a room to the other, and I think this was my best piece of work”, she says.

Photo: Aisling Moloney, Limerick Voice

The Master’s course in UL, the only one in Ireland, has helped estab-lishing Music Therapy as a profession in the country, although it is not recognised by the HSE yet.

Senior Lecturer in Music Therapy Dr Hilary Moss explains there are  implications for this:

“Right now everyone can call themselves a music therapist, while with regulations it’d be safer”.

The lecturer said that the founder of the Irish World Academy Professor Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin, who passed away in early November of this year,  was a visionary with a strong interest in the course.

“The Academy in UL is very different from more traditional degrees, it’s more focused on performance, and the culture is very experimental and innovative”.

Dr Moss, originally from England, has mostly worked with adults with chronic pain or dementia, and people suffering from mental illness.

One of the most beautiful thing about her job is seeing potential in people that supposedly can’t do things or are seen by society as criminals:

“To see them create something beautiful through music, this is what I love about my job. You get to witness very personal emotions, people sharing with you deep memories, and it’s an honour”.

Although music skills are essential to access the course, it is not neces-

sary to have a degree in music.

After graduating in psychology, music therapist Dr Jason Noone decided to combine his passion for music with his interest in language and how technology can help people with disabilities access music.

Dr Noone explains that empathy is a huge part of music therapy, as it involves direct contact and requires sensitivity.

At the same time, a music therapist needs to have a clinical mind, he added.

“You need to think about and analyse what happens during your interactions with the patient, and that’s why you need a lot of training, otherwise every musician could call themselves a music therapist”, he explains.

Dr Noone works for Enable Ireland, where most of his work is withadults with disabilities, and he has also worked in UL as a guest lecturer and tutor.

As a full-time music therapist, he couldn’t be happier with his job:

“It is incredibly challenging but that’s what makes it worthwhile. I mean, it’s the best job in the world! But it wouldn’t be for everybody. I consider it a privilege to be able to work with these people”, he concludes.

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