Minimal verbal interaction. Full musical participation.

“Minimal verbal interaction. Full musical participation.”

I find myself writing these two short statements pretty often. If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know that I work primarily with older adults in various living settings, but I also have quite a few younger clients that share a similar long-term need with many of my older adult clients – they have a need (like all human beings) to engage socially with other people and to communicate with others, but they don’t have the ability to do so effectively through speech. Whether my client is a thirty-something with severe autism, a forty-something living with the help of a ventilator, or an eighty-something in the later stages of dementia, they all have the need to get something out to the people around them.

Luckily for us, music is perfect for helping people connect without the use of speech.

Musical interaction can occur in a variety of ways. Some people sing (even if they don’t speak.) Some people vocalize without words. Some people tap their toes or wave their arms or follow the movements demonstrated in a structured movement to music activity. Some people play instruments, sometimes spontaneously, and sometimes with a few verbal or tactile cues to help them get started. My role as the music therapist is to provide the musical material to elicit and support these interactions.

These musical interactions vary widely, but I can say that I am frequently amazed and humbled by what happens because of music. Take, for example, the times when I have a client who does not easily engage in conversation – who might answer questions with one word or none at all – but who still shakes a maraca with a steady beat for the duration of a song, starting with the group and stopping with the group. Or when I am with a woman who sits in a chair most of the day barely moving, and I hold her hands and begin singing a tune while we sway our arms together, and soon I am following her tempo and her movements. Or when a man just looks at me and smiles when I ask his name, speaks not a word in conversation with other group members, but sings all the words to “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”

These moments happen frequently in music therapy sessions with the clients I serve. These moments offer a special opportunity for a person to connect with others, while also serving as a powerful reminder to caregivers, family members, and others that there is still a musical person inside the man or woman that might not be able to say or do much. This recognition helps to strengthen relationships and improve quality of life for all involved.

When have you seen music experiences help someone interact with others in a new way? How did that affect the people around him/her?

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7 thoughts on “Minimal verbal interaction. Full musical participation.

  1. Peggy J Lewis says:

    So true! Music communicates in so many ways to most people. I’ve seen the general mood of a room go from solemn to joyous in a matter of seconds by our residents just hearing a song! They reminisce, cry with tears of joy or nostalgia, make social connections with others in the room; just by beating out a rhythm, humming along or singing. Thank you for saying it so well Rachelle.

    • soundscapemusictherapy says:

      Peggy! Thank you so much for your comment. I know that you’ve seen the difference music can make for seniors. How wonderful that we have such a tool to use with these folks. Keep up the good work!

  2. Belinda says:

    Thanks for this post Rachelle. I can really identify with that phrase as it’s something I often find myself writing in client’s notes. For many of our clients it is so important that they are able to experience that musical interaction and it’s also important for us to communicate to others about what we are observing in out sessions. Very interesting post 🙂

    • soundscapemusictherapy says:

      Thanks, Belinda! Yes, it’s so true that we need to be communicating as well as possible the changes we observe during sessions. Sometimes it’s hard to put this into words, though, isn’t it? We’ll keep trying, though!

  3. Kat Fulton says:

    I’m right there with you, Rachelle. So many great examples that you are providing here! Just today, I sang a song to a lady who makes no eye contact and rarely even opens her eyes. She hums, but never sings the words. She engages in conversation, but it’s the kind of conversation that wouldn’t make sense to most.

    Today, she had her eyes wide open, and I sang songs with her name and the attributes of her big blue eyes. She kept them open longer than I’ve ever seen, and she hummed *every* single song. Plus she actually threw in a few words here and there. ~very unusual today.

    Thank you for reminding us of even those slight subtleties, AND even those times when there is absolutely no response or engagement. The processing goes on. Great post!

    • soundscapemusictherapy says:

      Thanks for your story, Kat. It’s true that the smallest musical responses can mean a connection is there. Very cool!

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