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The joys of music

“The voice tells us about one’s past, memories, and life story. It is the sound of our feelings and the timbre of our life. And when a person’s voice is awakened with all of these memories, we can hear the person’s life story in this sound,” – Sylka Uhlig

Over my years as a music therapist, I have spent many hours with individuals unable to speak, walk, or engage meaningfully with others for a variety of reasons. I have been face to face with a person’s disconnection and loneliness. I have been at the bedside of individuals who have taken their final breath. In all of these moments, I have been so grateful for music.

I have been the Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College Program Coordinator of the Undergraduate Music Therapy Program since 2002 and a doctoral student in the Doctorate in Applied Health Sciences (DHSc) program at Indiana State University since 2016. A doctoral internship can be individualized, so in the summer of 2018, I had the opportunity to work with the Sisters of Providence and Providence HealthCare (PHC) to complete such an internship. My time in this role was one of tremendous growth and development both personally and professionally. As the internship progressed, and I learned more about the culture of PHC and how this intersected with the Sisters of Providence and their Helping Ourselves Meaningfully Engage (HOME) Team initiatives, I began to immerse myself in both direct care opportunities through individual music-based sessions with residents along with training some staff in how to use music to calm residents, to connect with them, or to change the environment for more conducive care. I provided feedback and consultation on the use of music with residents and brainstormed opportunities for future growth through discussions about the feasibility of developing a clinical music therapy program.

As a music therapist, my training and education is specifically connected to understanding how music can support and assist someone, and to be observant in how someone is experiencing the music. It isn’t about prescribing a song someone might like, but about developing a trusting relationship through engaging in a range of music opportunities (instrument playing, songwriting, moving with music, etc.) while supporting a person’s health and well-being. Examples might be increasing movement, increasing energy, calming someone who is agitated, encouraging interaction with others, and more.

I experienced many meaningful and beautiful moments while working at PHC. To model and teach staff how music might be used in meaningful ways, I often used unaccompanied singing on the unit. There were moments when a resident with dementia would be calling out, distressed, and I would approach and gradually interact through singing meaningful songs. By gaining attention of the resident, and adjusting the music tempo, volume, and timbre of my voice based on their responses, I would be able to often decrease the distressed behavior and engage them differently. Songs could bring out relevant words, phrases, and memories, often allowing a resident to express missing someone from long ago while feeling comforted at the same time.

One morning, I said hello to a Sister of Providence resident, merely as a greeting. As I started to leave, she asked me to stay. I could sense her loneliness. I sat with her and we talked about what she used to do (she had been a teacher) and the discussion shifted toward God and spirituality. Knowing prayers can be recalled in a similar way as music sometimes (they are repeated often, spoken in a chant-like manner, and embedded in our long-term memory), I initiated the Lord’s Prayer and we spoke it together. I asked her if she had ever sung the Lord’s Prayer and she said, “Oh yes!” I started to sing it and she joined in, looking at me and holding my hands. It is difficult to explain the connection felt when singing with another person with intention, but we experienced it together. Music therapists do address spirituality as a health domain in their work, but it is based on the needs and perspective of the client. I am a music therapist, not a music minister. Yet, during my time at PHC, I was immersed in the experience of music and spirituality. While Sisters of Providence have a strong spiritual foundation, spiritual needs exist for many in long-term care. There were times when I would just play a piano in a dayroom and residents would find their way to me to listen and we would start to sing together. Each of us innately understands that music connects us, pulling us together through a common, yet profound, need for beauty, emotion, love, and community.

While I have been a musician a majority of my life, and long been a music therapist and music therapy educator, my time at PHC allowed me to see the role of music with the elderly, particularly the Sisters of Providence, with new perspective. Music is at the foundation and heart of how the Sisters of Providence express and experience God; music is bedrock of their Community. I miss my time with them, but I am grateful that I continue to be connected to PHC and the Sisters of Providence through supervising my students as they facilitate music therapy groups and sessions during the academic year. As I reflect on my internship, I hope I was able to inspire new ways of thinking about the use of music for the well-being of all the residents and staff, solidified more connections to Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College, and further supported their sense of Community.

“As we have come to learn, perhaps the most unique quality about music therapy is the deeply rooted relationship between the patient and therapist through what is created and revealed in the music,” – Mary Kidwell

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Sharon Boyle

Sharon Boyle

Sharon R. Boyle, MM, MT-BC, is an Associate Professor of Music Therapy at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College

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  1. Avatar Donna Butler on July 17, 2019 at 7:57 am

    Sharon, thank you for this wonderful sharing and your service to the Sisters and PHC.
    You are so right about the importance of music in this community that goes all the way back to Mother Theodore’s insistence on teaching music in our schools.

  2. Avatar S. Paula Damiano on July 17, 2019 at 10:17 am

    And thank you to you and your husband, Michael Boswell, for helping to keep alive the tradition of music here at the Woods!

  3. Avatar Mary Carroll Blocher on July 17, 2019 at 6:33 pm

    Loved this. I absolutely believe in music therapy. I have a group that sings in the nursing home and we see little “musical miracles” all the time.
    Keep up the good work!

  4. Avatar Robin Royce on July 17, 2019 at 9:45 pm

    You certainly serve as an inspiration to our Sisters and staff. Interactions were amazing to watch and impacted our environment in a positive way. An awesome example of meaningful engagement! Thank you Sharon.

  5. Avatar Michelle Barrentine on July 18, 2019 at 1:14 am

    Wow! Sharon, you’ve given me a whole new perspective on music therapy. Thank you so much for that. And thank you for your service to the Woods and Sisters of Providence.

  6. Avatar Karrie Hardin on July 18, 2019 at 6:22 pm

    I love that you spent your internship with PHC and the Sisters of Providence. The SoP came to Indiana at the same time my ancestors were moving into Texas, making me 10th generation Texan. I love knowing what they endured to create such a loving and beautiful place for education, and perpetual prayer. I look forward to visiting campus next spring, for graduation from the MTED program, and (hopefully not) one last visit.
    Thank you for your service, and sharing some of the many ways WE use music. I am about 6 weeks away from taking the exam!

  7. Avatar Elizabeth Collins on July 22, 2019 at 11:01 am

    You are inspiring! What a gift we have in music… and you!

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