I once received a referral for a 12 year old girl with cerebral palsy and developmental delay who was hospitalized but had no family at bedside. She was nonverbal, and I was told that she did not communicate. The nurse thought she “would enjoy some music.”
When I went into the room, I spoke to her the way I would to any other person. “Hi! My name is Lauren. I’m a music therapist. I brought my guitar. I’d love to play a song for you!”
Her eyes were open, and she looked at me. I played a simple hello song, using her name. “Hello, Kate! It’s nice to see you today!” I continued to talk to her as I transitioned to the next song. “It’s so nice to be spending time with you! Let’s do another song!”
She lay still and seemed attentive as I sang. I decided to offer her the chance to make music with me, and brought out some small percussion instruments. I showed her a colorful maraca, playing it for her and touching it gently to her arm so that she could feel it. I helped her open her contracted fingers to grasp the handle. Suddenly, she reached her arm up and shook the maraca. “Kate, that sounds wonderful! You are making beautiful music!” I started improvising a song in rhythm with her playing: “Kate makes beautiful music. Kate can shake the maraca! I love to hear Kate play!” She began to smile and hum along with me.
Through music, Kate could interact, communicate, and express herself – things that her medical team said she couldn’t do.
Noticing that she was vocalizing, I started to improvise about her voice: “Kate can sing a song. Kate can sing all day long! She sings ah-ah-ah!” I incorporated large pauses in the song, during which Kate would smile and improvise her own vocalizations, each one louder than the last.
15 minutes later, her medical team walked in to round on her, and many of them seemed astounded to see Kate humming, smiling, and engaging with me. I don’t think it had occurred to many of them to attempt to interact with, or even speak directly to Kate.
Her nurse thought she would simply enjoy hearing a song. Instead, she expressed herself and communicated through music therapy.
I strongly believe that all people – nonverbal, verbal, infant, elderly, and all in between – deserve to be spoken to directly, respected, and given the opportunity to express themselves. Some of my most treasured music therapy memories involve patients surprising their caregivers or medical team by responding in unexpected ways.
Music transcends language. Music therapists communicate with people who don’t speak and help them express themselves through music.
Do you know someone who would benefit from increased emotional expression? Contact Joyful Melodies to see if a music therapist might be able to help.