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  • Karlene M. Francis

Music Therapy Evolutions

Working as I do at the moment with palliative patients, it is particularly important to attune to how the person is feeling from session-to-session and respond with appropriate, supportive techniques to facilitate a positive overall shift from dis-ease to feelings of ease, from discomfort to comfort.

Questions about the power of music on the human system were posed and data was exposed as evidence that demonstrated the science behind it. Trained music therapists use this knowledge to administer music interventions intentionally and safely.

When I began my education as a music therapist in 2012, it was daunting from the perspective of going back to school after a significant time away from the university culture. Also, I had to figure out how to navigate full-time studies combined with family responsibilities.

At that time, Acadia University was the closest program for me to consider as the school is in the province of Nova Scotia where I live just about two hours away from Halifax. I was able to drive down although challenged with chronic pain. I did this for two years and don't regret my efforts.

Why music therapy? Well there was more than one reason. For instance, I found this field offered me a great opportunity and potential to use my training and skills as a musician in a recognized health profession that could help people in a direct way. I had been earning a living with full-time contracts in Administration as an Executive Assistant in the Nova Scotia provincial government and previously in corporations and organizations in Toronto.

This non-music employment was necessary as I was not able to give full-time focus as an artist in music or theatre as I had intended when I started the journey to make performing my profession. Years passed and I knew going back to school would be necessary to position me with a career. It was preferable to expand my knowledge in areas I already had invested so much of time and energy into because of a passion and love for being a creator and communicator through music and drama.

For over a decade I always wanted to go back to school and finally the opportunity was in front of me.

My Dad, Errol Francis came to Canada from Trinidad and Tobago in the early-1960's after working and saving for a number of years. Around the age of 30, he landed in Halifax, with all of five hundred Canadian dollars and was the first of anyone in his lineage to go to university. He studied Chemistry at Dalhousie University and earned Bachelor of Science degree. He always wanted to be a scientist however for him a first degree was an unbelievable feat and a masters was probably out of reach given he needed to work to contribute to the family. For me, going on to do more schooling directly from graduating with my bachelor's degree was not a possibility as well for financial limitations and otherwise.

So once I was accepted to the Music Therapy program at Acadia and thankfully received a student loan to assist me with my education expenses, I decided to go for it regardless of the challenges. I drove to Wolfville, Nova Scotia to be in class for 8:00 or 8:30 am start time Monday to Friday. The program did deepen my knowledge and prepare me for working as a music therapist.

During the 1970’s is when the governing association for music therapy in Canada was formed and this allowed for greater organization and building awareness of the profession of music therapy.

Even so, many of my colleagues could attest that even as we provide the music therapy services in our various communities across the nation, most people do not really understand how we practice no matter how many times we recount positive evidence-based outcomes and benefits that engaging in music therapy has for the majority of those who are treated. Yes I used the word treated as music therapists are required as part of our clinical process, to create a treatment plan for and oftentimes in consultation with our clients.

As well, a music therapist develops specific goals and outcomes for the sessions, over a certain period of time as part of this treatment plan following a detailed assessment of the needs of the client. This plan is an overarching guideline, however we meet the person where they are in the moment physically, emotionally, and psychologically, then actively choose interventions that will be supportive even if they don't align with the goals in the treatment plan. This approach calls us to be fully present to every nuance of the individual in each moment of time.

It very meaningful to observe real-time shifts in individuals who are engaging with music applied skillfully and directly for a specific therapeutic benefit. I've witnessed so many transformative moments in sessions where a person goes from having emotional walls to release, from physical tension to relaxation, for example.

As I deliver my service, music therapy interventions are facilitated primarily through live singing accompanied by an instrument, usually guitar.

It is very challenging to sing with a mask, and I have adjusted by using more curated recorded music in sessions alternating with live music applications which has worked well. When utilizing recorded music the same principles apply, offering the client choices from their preferred genre, or specific preferred song. Also this year, use of a portable keyboard allows me to play instrumental versions of patient-preferred songs to minimize the amount of singing I must do wearing a mask and shield.

When the ability to offer in-person music therapy sessions was curtailed, due to living in a world with Covid-19, it became crucial to create frameworks for offering Virtual Music Therapy (VMT) sessions. Certain interventions will not be effective virtually. However others such as music-assisted relaxation, lyric analysis, songwriting, therapeutic singing combined with verbal processing have proven successful.

Increasingly, the field of music therapy has demonstrated is legitimacy among the healthcare industry and is a growing profession. It has been a worthwhile investment for me to become a Certified Music Therapist (MTA, MT-BC) and I look forward to bringing this beneficial wellness tool to more people in the months and years to come.


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