She sits in her wheelchair in a small, one bedroom apartment, the sun is barely visible through the closed chocolate brown drapes. I unpack my tools for the day, percussion instruments, plain paper, a variety of art media, a songbook and my guitar. Janis has been talking to me since I entered the room. She had a terrible sleep and woke up feeling frustrated. “I don’t want to be a shut in,” the beautiful young 40 year old passionately exclaims to me. “I am feeling so much loss today.” Janis was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis only 3 years ago. She is well-groomed, confident and even though she is in a wheelchair she possesses a grace in her movements. She is a teacher, a poet, a philosopher and a student of life.
I have selected a few instruments and placed them on a small table. Tone drums, zen chimes, wood blocks, a tambourine, along with other instruments are laid out in front of Her eyes sparkle. Our relationship has grown over the year and I know that when this amount of pent up frustration has accumulated a mallet is in order. I pass it over to her. The room stills and when she is ready she strikes the first note. I match and respond to her rhythm patterns on a solo drum and several minutes later I move to the piano. We improvise, never speaking a word for 20 minutes. All of a sudden we make eye contact and her lip curls until she releases her infamous laugh, infectious and charming. We laugh together as the music ends. Janis knows herself well and is great at processing what just transpired for her. “It is amazing that how I feel is reflected in the music we create together.”
Researchers have observed that this two-person interchange has physical ramifications including an external coordination of heart rate. Robert Zatorre, PhD, of the Montreal Neurological Institute concludes that music affects almost every cognitive ability that neuroscientists are interested in, including: multi sensory interactions, memory learning, attention, planning, creativity and emotion.
Dr. David Aldridge, a US Music Therapy researcher and professor, describes active music therapy, such as improvisation, in the treatment of multiple sclerosis as a significant opportunity for the individual to improve in the areas of self-esteem, depression and anxiety. Dr. Aldridge along with a team consisting of a doctor, a nurse, and a statistician summarized their findings by presenting comments made during post music therapy interviews:
Nine out of ten participants described that it was very important for them to become personally active.
All ten participants reported an immediate improvement in their well-being during the sessions. For eight of them this state continued till the next day and was confirmed by partners or colleagues.
Seven participants described an enhanced perception of themselves with an increasing self-confidence over the course of the therapy. They were increasingly able to let themselves be surprised by their music and by their own previously undiscovered skills.
Music and music therapy are experienced as something moving “that reduces negative thoughts about the disease and offers a means of expression for feelings of security, freedom and pleasure”.
Music making is a shared human experience. And the experience, the commonality that all humans are equal whether coping with MS or not, is cranked up even more when one can share in the making of music.
Jennifer Buchanan is a professional speaker and music therapist. She is Past-President of the Canadian Association for Music Therapy and owner of JB Music Therapy (www.jbmusic.ca).