March 1, 2022 – When we think about therapy, we often believe it involves talking and sharing experiences. But what about therapy with a child? It is unrealistic to expect a child to sit down and verbalize all their feelings and then heal from their trauma. This is where all the diverse types of therapy methods and specialties step in to assist the child to recover from abuse, with a combination and variety of non-verbal and verbal approaches. And the same is true for adults. Most people who are healing from abuse or the abuse of their child, are not neurologically prepared to process their trauma. We even see people who cannot make simple decisions or solve problems that would have been easy to deal with before the abuse.
Here at CACCC, we have many different modalities that help children and their non-offending family members heal from trauma. Music Therapy is one of those modalities. So, what exactly is Music Therapy and how does it work? Music therapy is the clinical and evidence-based use of music interventions to accomplish individualized goals for people of all ages and ability levels within a therapeutic relationship by a credentialed professional who has completed an approved music therapy program.
When music is introduced in a session, the elements of music are processed throughout the brain. The general therapeutic goal is to use music therapy interventions to build neurological resources within the victim’s brain to assist in creating new coping skills that lead to a healthy adaptation of trauma memories. Music is a safe container for the feelings and experiences of a client when it is guided and facilitated by a trauma informed music therapist, whereas random experiences with music can sometimes bring pain to a survivor of trauma. For example, when they hear a song that reminds them of the trauma or the perpetrator. Therefore, having someone skilled in using this sensory stimulus that we call “music” is incredibly impactful at CACCC!
E. Thayor Gaston, considered the father of music therapy, stated that “rhythm is the energizer and the organizer”. Ongoing neuroscience discoveries about the brain and trauma are proving this to be true in applied practice, as therapists and counselors use methods that include aspects and principles of rhythm to help clients establish mastery and recovery.
So how does this work in an actual therapy session?
Trauma in early childhood can impact the brain’s ability to “cross-talk” between hemispheres which can negatively impact IQ and the ability to regulate emotions. This can lead to a child feeling unsafe and fearful and they may not understand why. Music naturally engages all hemispheres of the brain. A music therapist utilizes the natural properties of music to help children heal.
Everyone remembers the ABC song, right? Along that same vein, using the principles of melody, harmony, and rhythm along with basic composition I can help my clients write original songs that help them remember their coping skills. It is easy and fun, and the clients leave their session with something that stays in their brain that they can access when they need it. So, we think “Wow, music is so amazing. It can be used by anyone, and it is so healing. Music is always good, and nothing can go wrong.” Almost! With trauma clients, I use clinical skills and judgment to guide them. For example, one thing I will never do is have my clients write hooky, memorable songs with catchy choruses that describe their trauma or anything that I DO NOT want to stay in my client’s short or long-term memory. I keep them focused on the skills I want them to remember.
Listening to music and learning about diverse ways to express feelings using songs, instrument playing, and the innate expressive tool of music, I can help my clients learn how to connect with their feelings and communicate them to their caregivers. The increased ability to communicate thoughts and feelings is one of the most important tools a child or teenager can possess. This decreases the chances of future victimization and ensures their ongoing health and safety after trauma occurs. Communication from the client is essential for us in providing safety, healing, and justice.
There are other music therapy interventions that I can apply in a trauma-informed manner to help my clients express their feelings about their trauma that do not involve putting things in their memory but allow a road “out” so that they can feel better. Some of the music therapy interventions include a variety of improvisation exercises, guided drumming, instrument playing, vocalization, movement and music, and music-assisted relaxation with live music designed to match the clients breathing and music preferences. But do the memories really go “out”? No, they actually don’t. Their memories are instead “processed” and are put in their rightful place in the long-term memory – where memories exist and can be recalled, if necessary, but do not come back with the same amount of emotional pain as they did before. Much like the pages and chapters in a book, the client’s trauma memories move further and further back across their lifespan, and if we process the memories with care, we can help them put all of their trauma memories in their rightful place in the timeline of their lives.
Listening to music in a trauma-focused music therapy session is very different from leisurely listening to music. Sounds, music, tones in voices, images, and even the time of day can be triggers for a victim. Based on the modern understanding that trauma is a whole-body experience, music therapists have a unique opportunity to support trauma recovery through sensory, neurological, physiological, and psychological processes. Music Therapists are trained to understand how music functions within the brain, and therefore can determine when music can be contraindicated or should be avoided (examples: “background music” or generic “relaxation music” can be upsetting if the client’s abuse occurred at the night, or in times reserved for calm and relaxation. The music therapist guides the client through listening to preferred music and songs to process traumatic memories. Music therapy interventions such as songwriting are used to create healthy coping skills. Music therapy improvisation is used as a method to enhance the creation of healthy memories and thought processes using the naturally expressive and time-ordered structure of music. Using the rhythmic qualities of music, the therapist can assist the client in adapting to the demands of their environment by stimulating the brain’s response and guiding the experience so the client can process the memories and sensations of their trauma with a sense of control.
At CACCC, music therapy has played a role in the development of one of our community education programs. When The Kids Count Players, a program that provides children with critical information to help them stay safe from abuse, was being developed, I got involved in the musical development for the program. I wanted to use the principles of music and music therapy to create songs that would be both memorable and informative for the children listening to the program. The songs used in The Kids Count Players performances have helped educate over 120,000 children in Collin County on staying safe from abuse.
How does one become a Music Therapist?
Music therapy is a unique profession because music therapists practice in many different types of healthcare communities and educational facilities. Additionally, music therapy is a leveled profession in which a music therapist can become certified to practice in many settings with a bachelor’s degree. Then, there is a Master of Music Therapy degree that can be pursued to encompass more specialized training and research. The career of a music therapist begins way before college. A typical student enters their degree program with many years of private music lessons and performance experience.
Music therapy students must pass a music audition to be accepted into any university’s school of music and are required to continue their principal instrument while in the program, in addition to becoming skilled in using the piano, guitar, and voice as a therapeutic tool. Music therapists are independently certified through the Certification Board for Music Therapists after completing a bachelor’s or higher degree from a music therapy program approved by the American Music Therapy Association, 1,200 hours of clinical training, and passing a national board exam. A qualified music therapist will hold the credential “MT—BC.” A therapist who has obtained a master’s level of training will also hold the “MMT, MT-BC.” In many states, music therapists are also licensed in the same way that counselors, social workers, nurses, and other health care professionals work under licensure.
Written by: Tania Cordobés, MMT, MT-BC
Tania Cordobés is a Board-Certified Music Therapist. She received both her bachelor’s and master’s degree in Music Therapy from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas where she attended on full music and academic scholarship in addition to a teaching fellowship when she was working on her master’s degree. She is in Neurologic Music Therapy and holds the Music Therapy Supervision level designation. She recently completed EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) basic training and is in the process of becoming certified in that specialty. Tania recently celebrated her 20th anniversary at Children’s Advocacy Center of Collin County. Tania is bilingual in Spanish and offers treatment for Spanish and English-speaking clients of all ages in individual and group sessions and has mentored some highly successful music therapy interns through the program that she created at the CACCC.
Tania completed her therapy internship at Camarillo State Hospital and Developmental Center in California. She received a teaching fellowship from Southern Methodist University where she taught the music therapy practicum class and supervised the clinical practicum students. Upon completing her program, her master’s thesis clinical research was accepted and published in the Journal of Music Therapy. Tania worked as a Music Therapist in California in a forensic setting and in hospice and then in Texas in the hospital setting before joining the staff at Children’s Advocacy Center in 2001.
Tania has earned awards for practice from CAC of Texas and has been awarded CACCC Professional of the year. Tania has been a member of the American Music Therapy Association throughout her professional career and received a service award in 2018 for her work with the Texas State Task Force for Music Therapy. She has been a member of the Texas Task Force for Music Therapy for several years, working to maintain and increase appropriate credentialing for music therapists in the state of Texas. Tania has also spoken at the State Capitol of Texas House Public Health Committee on the importance of mental health and trauma-informed care. Additionally, she has presented and taught continuing education workshops on music therapy and trauma at the local, state, national, and international levels. She has been an invited guest speaker at the Texas Medical Centers/Houston Methodist Arts in Medicine Program in Houston, Texas, the University of Miami Music Therapy Program, Coral Gables, Florida, the Music Therapy program at Southern Methodist University, and the Music Therapy program at Sam Houston State University. She is an invited author for an academic book on Treatment Planning in Music Therapy.
In her personal time, Tania writes, records, and performs music. One of Tania’s memorable performance experiences was as an invited singer at Willie Nelson’s annual Picnic in Luckenbach, Texas. Mr. Nelson heard Tania’s singing on a recording for a band slated to play at the picnic and requested that she join the band for their performance. Tania went and sang on that stage with Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson standing by. These days, Tania plays at her church every Sunday. If you walk by her house, you might hear her singing, playing her piano, ukulele, guitar, or cello. To hear more of Tania’s original music just search “Tania Cordobés” on Spotify and Pandora.
Also, in her free time, Tania occasionally writes on her own blog about music therapy – https://amusictherapyblog.wordpress.com.