When Alyson Roblero’s son Cooper was 15 months old, the Evansville mother noticed some unusual behaviors: The toddler paced, stared at the ceiling, and was preoccupied with the Weather Channel and the lint screen in the dryer. At age 2, he was diagnosed with autism, a developmental disorder marked by problems with social and behavioral skills. Cooper didn’t talk or make eye contact, and he threw frequent temper tantrums — but when his mother played music, his demeanor changed. Sometimes, he danced to it.
“Cooper always has been drawn to music,” says Roblero. That’s why she sought help from Integrative Music Therapy, an Evansville-based agency that provides music therapy to children and adults with developmental and learning disabilities. Owner and senior therapist Casey DePriest and her staff of three full-time music therapists believe that music makes a big difference in the lives of the 120-plus clients they serve each week.
IMT works with clients of all ages who have Down syndrome, stroke complications, traumatic brain injuries, depression, Alzheimer’s, rare genetic disorders, and many other disabilities and illnesses. Therapists work in tandem with a client’s other care providers (including case managers and residential care staff) to help clients reach non-musical goals: from improving attention span to developing better social skills to controlling motor movements. A music therapist’s job is to creatively use music in pursuit of these goals.
“Music is a universal language,” says DePriest, who in 2002 started a private practice from her Newburgh home. “Music, unlike conversation, speaks to the brain in a very different way.”
The belief in music’s healing powers dates back to the writings of ancient Greek philosophers. (Aristotle once wrote, “It is evident what an influence music has over the disposition of the mind, and how variously it can fascinate it.”) But the first music therapy degree wasn’t founded until the 1940s, when therapists were in high demand to help World War II veterans recover from physical and emotional trauma sustained in combat.
The field of music therapy has continued to grow as research and success stories have demonstrated its credibility in addressing physical, emotional, cognitive, and social needs. In “Recalled to Life,” an essay published in The New Yorker, neurologist Oliver Sacks revealed how music therapy helped a woman learn to speak again after suffering a stroke. When a therapist sang familiar songs, “this would ‘release’ her voice,” Sacks wrote, “and give her the ability to say some of the words, in a singsong fashion.”
And at this year’s Sundance Film Festival in Utah, attendees watched the premiere of The Music Never Stopped. The movie follows a family who seeks music therapy after a brain tumor and subsequent surgery leave their son unable to form new memories. (The story is based on another Sacks essay, “The Last Hippie.”)
As awareness of music therapy has grown, so has demand in the Evansville area. In 2009, DePriest, who serves as chairman of Indiana’s Music Therapy Task Force (a division of the national American Music Therapy Association), moved her growing business into spacious offices on Cullen Avenue. The staff at IMT also includes board-certified therapists Jaley Montgomery, Carletta Gregory, and Eric Lund.
Three of the four earned their music therapy degrees from the University of Evansville, one of around 70 schools nationwide offering a music therapy curriculum approved by the AMTA. In addition to studying music, aspiring music therapists also take courses in psychology, human development, and social and behavioral sciences. Then, they must complete 1,200 hours of clinical experience through undergrad fieldwork and a post-college internship lasting at least six months before sitting for a board certification exam.
IMT employees often hear misconceptions about the field. One of the main ones: “We are not music teachers, so to speak,” says DePriest. “We’re not trying to teach kids how to play the guitar or learn how to sing. They do not have to have any musical ability.”
Music therapy sessions can include live, recorded, instrumental, vocal, and accompanied music during each session. “We might sing a few words, then stop, so they can finish the song on their own,” says DePriest. “Or we might do a call/response where we play a rhythm, and they play it back to us. Improvisation also is a great way to work on a range of motor skills.”
Music’s healing influences aren’t limited to individuals with disabilities. (Ever felt calmer and more focused while listening to classical music? Or used high-energy pop beats to motivate you through a tough workout?) IMT recently has added a group program for adults and children, Music Together, which is open to all infants, toddlers, preschoolers and “the grown-ups who love them,” says DePriest.
The opportunities in music therapy are exciting to DePriest, who sees her profession at the forefront of the healing arts. “We are seeing the future open up,” she says. “As a state, we are trying to provide more access to music therapy for Hoosiers and make more connections with medical professionals in hospitals and hospices. We also want to connect with schools to help students with special needs, with early childhood providers, and with mental health services. We would love to see children benefit from music therapy at an earlier age.”
For Alyson Roblero’s son, Cooper, nine months of weekly one-on-one sessions with DePriest dramatically have improved his communication skills. “He has just started talking and making eye contact,” Roblero says. “He will string together sentences now after Casey has taught him to ask for what he wants.”
One of the sentences Cooper has learned? “I want more music, please.”
Learn more about Integrative Music Therapy at www.inmusictherapy.com.