Who I Am
Elton John once said: “Music has healing power. It has the ability to take people out of themselves for a few hours.”
I couldn’t agree more.
My name is Kathy and I am the Music Therapist at Women’s Crisis Services of Waterloo Region. In my role, I use music therapy to help women and children who have experienced trauma due to domestic violence.
Music Therapy is a discipline in which accredited professionals use music to support development, health and well-being of a client’s quality of life. Music therapists use music safely and ethically to address human needs within cognitive, communicative, emotional, musical, physical, social and spiritual domains. They conduct client assessments, develop treatment plans, implement therapy practices and evaluate progress.
Although traditional talk therapy can be a powerful tool, it does not work for everyone. Music therapy is an accessible alternative to talk therapy because music is a universal, non-verbal language. It appeals to everyone who comes into our shelters – children, youth and women alike.
A Journey with Domestic Violence
Every week, I visit each of our shelters (Anselma House and Haven House) for 6 hours to provide music therapy services to women and children. The music therapy services I offer are designed to support each, individual person.
Family music therapy includes sessions with mothers and their young children and babies. The music therapy techniques that I use are based on attachment and bonding between mother and child. This is so important because through studies, we know that trauma can have a significant negative impact on the bond between a mother and child. A big part of my role is to strengthen that relationship.
It is a relief for many young mothers to engage in guided play and music-making with their young child. This may seem simple, but unfortunately for many of the women we support, their trauma has overwhelmed their ability to meet these seemingly basic needs of their children.
According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, children who have endured trauma early in life are more vulnerable to develop psychiatric afflictions like depression, anxiety, mood disorders, addictions and high-risk behaviors later in life. Highly-respected physician and researcher here in Canada, Gabor Mate, states a similar case in his book “Hungry Ghosts”.
Children who have experienced trauma and abuse can also have real difficulty expressing their feelings. Music therapy offers an outlet for self-expression that is often immediately accessible, in that it does not rely solely on talking. Children and youth are encouraged to let out their emotions, rather than bottling them up. Painful memories, abuse and trauma, and expression of feelings and thoughts that are typically socially unacceptable can all be released during music therapy. Guided drumming, piano improvisation, song writing, lyric analysis, and learning an instrument are each used to support children and youth in their emotional processing.
I met Harry, the youngest of 10 children, when he was seven years old. He was struggling with a significant stuttering problem – an issue that can be associated with experiencing trauma at a young age. During Harry’s first music therapy session we began drumming together on a djembe. It quickly became apparent that when Harry chanted short phrases in combination with his rhythmic drumming, his stuttering dramatically reduced.
The look on his face as we both took notice of this was priceless. Harry had big tears in his eyes as he tried to express his frustration with his stuttering, especially at school, so you can imagine the power of this moment.
During the next two sessions, we worked on Harry’s speaking to a drumbeat while he tapped his hand on his leg. Again, his stuttering greatly diminished while he spoke to this steady beat. During our last session, Harry’s mother joined us. Tears quickly came to her eyes as she recognized how this simple, rhythmic technique could equip Harry with a way to overcome his stuttering. I showed her how she could play a role moving forward by reminding Harry to tap his leg while he spoke.
Harry now had a strategy to help him with his stuttering – and his mother had the opportunity to strengthen their bond by playing a role in his continued success.
Moving Beyond Violence
Through my work, I also have the opportunity to connect with women who moving beyond violence. These women who come into shelter can be struggling with depression, anxiety, addiction and mental health issues, as well as shame and grief. These issues have often developed as a direct result of the trauma they experienced due to domestic violence.
Music therapy offers a safe, non-threatening exploration of emotion; it can be an expressive and creative outlet, as well as a cathartic release of pent up emotions. It can also work as a tool for transforming things like anger and conflict into something powerful, energizing and strengthening. Guided Imagery to music can be a powerful tool to assist in relaxation. Songwriting, lyric discussion, improvisation, and singing can engage our women to access a deep part of themselves that they may have lost or repressed.
One woman who benefitted greatly from this is Rhonda. During her stay with us, Rhonda was struggling with intense grief. Her 17-year-old son had decided to leave shelter to live with his brother because he was frustrated with his mother’s addictions. The residential staff at the shelter asked me to assist them in their interactions with her. Rhonda had not left her room for an entire day and night and staff were concerned with her suicidal ideation.
I went into her room to speak with her, gently encouraging her to come for music therapy. We were very relieved when she agreed. First, she had some juice and a little food, as she had not eaten in two days. Rhonda then began to unload, telling me about her experience, her sadness due to her son leaving, the deep shame she felt because she had not been able to give up her addictive behavior, as well as her depression. I simply held space for her and listened, validating her very real emotions.
Life As A Survivor
Rhonda agreed to take part in some deep breathing while listening to some simple improvised piano music that I played. She closed her eyes and visibly relaxed into the breathing and while concentrating on the live music washing over her. We then began to talk about music and I asked her if she’d heard of “Fight Song” by Rachel Platten. She said that she had. So I played it for her and we sang some of it together:
“This is my fight song
Take back my life song
Prove I’m alright song
My power’s turned on
Starting right now I’ll be strong
I’ll play my fight song
And I don’t really care if nobody else believes
‘Cause I’ve still got a lot of fight left in me”
Through tears, Rhonda told me that she identified with the lines, “I’ve still got, a lot of fight left in me.”
After we sang the sing together, Rhonda started talking about making some positive life choices. We loaded the song into her phone so that she could listen to it whenever some of the negative self-talk emerged. Three weeks later, I ran into Rhonda as she was packing up her things. Her son was back with her and she told me they were moving into their own place. “Thank you for that time I came to visit you,” she told me. “It helped me a lot”.
She gave me a hug, and I knew that she still did, indeed, have a lot of fight left in her.
I Am Your Neighbour
These are the kind of moments that remind me we do this work and why it is so important.
For many women who experience domestic violence, their journey doesn’t end when they leave the relationship. There are lots of women like Rhonda who have a long road ahead of them as they re-build their lives. The abuse from their partner may be over but effects of the trauma they endured can linger for much longer.
My job is to provide these women and children with the tools that they need to move forward, especially once they leave shelter and they are no longer receiving our support. I feel confident that Harry and Rhonda now have the tools they need to live a more safe and happy life.
As a music therapist, it is an honour and privilege to help my clients. I’ve always thought that I have the greatest job in the world. I am grateful to be able to bring the healing elements of music to women and children who need it most.