How I Start Group Music Therapy Sessions

Do you know this song?

Sing along with me!

He’s got the whole world in his hands

He’s got the whole wide world in his hands

He’s got the whole world in his hands

He’s got the whole world in his hands

This song forms the basis of how I start many of the group music therapy sessions I lead, especially those with seniors who have dementia. You can use it to start any kind of group activity, whether you’re an activities professional, a music therapist, or another caregiver working with seniors. Here’s my procedure:

  1. I introduce myself to each person in the group and shake their hand. I ask the person’s name and write it down.
  2. I introduce the song “He’s Got the Whole World,” saying that we’re going to sing it together to get ourselves warmed up. We sing the first few common verses together (e.g. He’s got the little bitty baby, He’s got you and me sister).
  3. I say, “we’re going to put some names in the song.” Taking two participants at a time – let’s call them Mary and James – I draw everyone’s attention to them by saying, “He’s got Mary” (gesture to Mary) “and James” (gesture to James) “in his hands.” We then sing the verse, filling in their names: “He’s got Mary and James in his hands,” etc.
  4. Two by two, we repeat a verse for each pair of people in the circle. If we have an odd number of participants, I include my own name in the last verse.
  5. We finish by singing the verse, “He’s got everybody here in his hands.”

This experience has several benefits as an opening exercise.

  • I get to learn and practice everyone’s names. By writing the name down, then repeating it in song three times, I’m able to learn everyone’s names by the end of the first song. Then, I can call participants by their names for the rest of the session. This does wonders for the music experiences we can have together.
  • I can catch people’s attention with this song. Even folks who were snoozing before the session started usually wake up when I shake their hands, then again when we’re singing a verse with their names. This signals that they really get to be part of this music-making group and it helps them get alert enough to participate.
  • This song brings people into the music that might not be able to participate actively in music-making. Sometimes people who cannot speak or who have significant physical impairments get left at the edge of a group activity because it seems they can’t do much more than that. By greeting each person with a touch to the hand and by making their names part of the music, I can let these folks know that they are part of the group and its music. This, combined with insisting that all people be included in the circle in the first place, is a powerful way to let even those folks with very advanced dementia know that they matter.
  • This song is familiar to most of the folks I serve. Some people who don’t sing any other song during a session will still sing this one.
  • This song provides an important spiritual affirmation to those who believe in a God, which includes the majority of my clients.

Of course, no experience is perfect for every situation. Here are some of the drawbacks to consider for this song:

  • This song does assume belief in a God, otherwise it doesn’t make much sense. (Who is “he” anyway?) You need to be aware of folks who might be offended or confused by this song and support their spiritual needs as well.
  • This experience does not work well with large groups. I really only use the name verses if I have twelve or fewer people in the group; otherwise, this song takes entirely too long, and people start losing attention.
  • This song does not usually work well with groups of younger adults. It might feel like too much of a kids’ song for people younger than 60 or so. A different welcoming activity would probably work better for a group in a nursing home that includes younger adults.

I have tried to find another, non-religious song that is easily singable for folks with memory impairments and that will easily integrate participants names. I haven’t yet found one that works as well. If you have a good one, please let me know! Otherwise, let me know what you do to start group activities with seniors. What are your strategies for affirming the presence and capturing the attention of every group member? Please share in the comments section!

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4 thoughts on “How I Start Group Music Therapy Sessions

  1. Stephanie says:

    This is fabulous, Rachelle! I’ve been struggling with the use of “Hello” songs (even non-childish sounding ones) in adult groups, and this is a great song that can incorporate everyone and get people singing – it’s a greeting without the actual word “Hello” 🙂 Thanks for the tip!

  2. Emily MacPherson says:

    I usually take the song “Goodnight Ladies” and turn it into “Hello Ladies” since often-times my dementia groups are all women. If there are men I’ll tweak the words a little bit…

    Hello Ladies, Hello Gentlemen, Hello Ladies, It’s nice to see you today!

    Hello Mary, Hello James, Hello, Hellen, It’s nice to see you today!

    This works nicely for me because my groups are usually around 15 or so and it goes through the names somewhat quickly. And they also catch on quickly to the alteration of the lyrics, or just sing the version they know best!

    Thanks for your idea! I’ve been looking for something for my smaller groups!

    • soundscapemusictherapy says:

      I like the “Goodnight Ladies” idea, Emily! I’ll have to try that one with some of my larger groups. Thank you!

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