Disability Story- Music Therapy

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By Jennifer Buchanan

Kate lives independently in her own apartment near a busy university with lots of youthful activity.

Every morning, Kate uses the support that had been attached from the side of her bed to the ceiling to pull herself up, swing her legs to one side, and sit on the edge of her mattress. Then she uses all her remaining strength to lift herself into the wheelchair waiting beside her bed.

Next she maneuvers through the various nooks and crannies of her small apartment to complete her morning routine of getting dressed, brushing her teeth, making herself breakfast, checking her work messages and texting her friends.

I knock on her door every Wednesday and often welcomed with a cheerful, “Come in.”  

I set up the instruments I had brought, placing them near her keyboard, lowering the table a little so she could lean in and see everything.

“How are you doing today, Kate?”

“Not too bad for a shut-in.” she said with a twinkle.

I looked up at her beautiful, young, thirty-eight year old face. She struggled with the brake on her wheelchair as her fingers were no longer able to move the way they once did. She was attempting to use the heel of her hand to get it into place.

Kate was first diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS) ten years earlier. When we first met, she described her disease to me. She said, “Multiple Sclerosis is like a body snatcher leaving only your mind and a carcass to lug around.”

You would not recognize any grief or loss at first glance, as Kate takes extra care in her appearance, presenting herself as a a professional full of assurance, regardless of her disability. She would describe herself as a teacher by trade with the heart of a poet who loves to philosophize and remain a student of life. Her favourite leisure activities include listening and participating in making music and writing poetry.

When she could no longer continue her career as a teacher she began to explore new opportunities, one of which was an evening group guitar class I was facilitating. Kate felt that learning the guitar might lessen the deterioration she was feeling and keep her connected to those in her community. It is easy to remember that particular guitar class as it was full of laughter and fun. It was a group of ten, 30 to 50 year olds learning guitar for the first time. They relished the learning of music and thoroughly enjoyed re-living their high school years. By the end of the class they performed “House of the Rising Sun,” “Blowing in the Wind,” and “Brown–Eyed Girl.” What they lacked in guitar skills they made up for in enthusiasm, often singing above the sounds of a missed or altered chord. Kate was still walking at that point.

Today, Kate started by selecting one of her favourite pieces from her personal soundtrack—songs that were important to her at different stages in her life. It took us several weeks to compile the list, and it was a highly emotional experience. Some of the stories accompanying the songs were humorous, some heartbreaking, and all were layered with strong emotional memories that Kate would openly share with me.

After we discussed the instruments I had displayed on the table, Kate picked up her special mallet that wrapped around her wrist, gave me a quick smile and a wink, and focused again on the table. When she was ready, she hit the right note on a chime. The sound resonated in the air. She struck another instrument made of wood and then the drum. Slowly each sound reverberated through her tiny ground floor apartment. As she gained momentum, she nodded slightly, indicating that it was time for me to join her. I responded and matched her rhythms and several minutes later accompanied her on the keyboard.

Her music creation continued without words, only tones, sounds, and the occasional wink and smile. Many minutes later it came to a natural close. She placed the mallet back on the table. Without turning towards me she said, “It is amazing that how I am feeling today was reflected in the music we created together. I still love life. How can I have MS and still find happiness? People think I am crazy.”

Her face glowed as she spoke. We talked about the positive energy she was able to muster as she coped with the day to day moments that were often difficult. As in all sessions, she ended by writing an impromptu poem that would later be put to music. Her song for that day went like this:

I’m on the ocean of life.

I see the depths to freedom. Realizing where I am –

And what I am here for.

I am a vessel of truth.

Kate often comments that making music, singing and writing her own lyrics gives her an opportunity to express who she is – not as someone with MS – but as a musician who dreams, loves, and lives. 

Jennifer Buchanan, Founder and President of JB Music Therapy

” JB Music Therapy is an award recognized Canadian company based in Calgary, Alberta. JBMT is a team of Accredited Music Therapists (MTAs) who design treatment plans for people of all ages to foster change: boost mood, decrease stress, improve speech after injury, increase focus, develop learning, lessen anxiety, and recover lost memories.”

To find out more information about JB Music Therapy check out www.jbmusictherapy.com/

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