Shall We Dance? When the therapist is vulnerable, too.

Here’s a tale of a music therapist becoming vulnerable in order to fully engage in the musical process with a client.

Warning: If you thought therapists should be somehow all-knowing and perfect, you should stop reading here.

A new member joined a monthly music therapy group that has been going for a few years now. He told me his name, and he participated in the first few musical experiences we shared as a group. Then I turned on a recording of B.B. King’s “Rock Me Baby,” encouraging the group to play drums and other rhythm instruments along with the music. I intended to provide hand-over-hand assistance to some of the residents who needed more help in playing their instruments. Once the music kicked on, though, this new resident could not stay in his seat, and he stood up, made a bee line for me, and asked me for a dance. Continue reading

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Music Therapy Does More Than Address Non-Musical Goals: Part Two

In my last post, I started explaining how music therapy is different than other forms of therapy that also address goals like pain management, increased socialization, and decreased anxiety:

Music therapy involves music.

Not only does music therapy involve music, but music is what you do in music therapy. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the music experience is what makes pursuing music therapy worth it in the first place, even without considering progress towards “non-musical goals.” Those goals are important for sure, and we music therapists take care to assess those needs and measure progress. We also have research showing that music therapy interventions can be more effective than other interventions in making that progress. Still, if those goals were the only aim of therapy, then sometimes it would be much easier to take a pill or spend more time with another therapist than to spend time (and money) on music therapy.

The music experience is inseparable from music therapy. Attaining those meaningful music experiences is one goal of music therapy.

What is the role of the music therapist, then? In my last post, I talked about how one of my jobs as a music therapist is to help you get your music out. Here are two more ways that I can help you in my role as music therapist: Continue reading

Music Therapy Does More Than Address Non-Musical Goals: Part One

The idea of music therapy can be confusing. What does a music therapist do, exactly? A common answer is to say we use music to address non-musical goals. For example, we might employ a particular method to help someone regain walking speed after a stroke, or to help someone express and explore their feelings of anger, guilt, and sadness following a divorce.

This description – using music to address non-musical goals – is truthful, I think, but it’s also incomplete. Our focus is not only on physical, emotional, and social goals.

As music therapists, we’re also there to help you create, enjoy, experience, and live music. Then, through the music, people can find many other positive outcomes. Continue reading

How to Create the Ideal Environment for Group Activities for Seniors

As a music therapist, I facilitate group sessions in a variety of settings. Every nursing home or assisted living facility or senior apartment building I go to has a different place for activity programming, and some are definitely better than others. Of course, some of the advantage or disadvantage comes from the construction of the building itself, and unless you have a hand in planning for renovations, you don’t have control over that. What you DO control, though, can make a HUGE difference in the success of a group activity experience.

No matter what activity or experience you are leading, you want to make sure that everyone can SEE and HEAR what is going on so that they can be ACTIVE PARTICIPANTS. Here’s how to do it: Continue reading

How Music Therapy Brought a Couple Together Again

I started seeing this couple because he was on hospice and she was his caregiver. He had dementia, and his disease was causing him to be agitated and angry and sometimes even aggressive towards his wife. She was invested in keeping him at home as long as possible. As a nurse, she knew what she was getting herself into, and she wanted as much help as possible in helping her husband to stay calm. That’s why the hospice called me, the music therapist.

In our first session, he was dozing in his recliner, late in the afternoon following a dose of something sedating. I asked her about his music background and preferences, and she showed me his collection of CDs and the Bose stereo system that made him so proud. Continue reading

What Happened in One Group Music Therapy Session

Music therapy with seniors is incredibly valuable, but it can be difficult to understand and to explain. How is what a music therapist offers different than what any musician could offer as an entertainer?

Let me describe the session I just had today as one example.

Today’s music-making session was with a group of seniors who meet in a church basement once or twice a week for a day program that offers a range of activities, including exercise, craft projects, games, music, and a meal.  These folks live in their own homes but have some long-term health concerns, incuding the cognitive difficulties that accompany the early stages of dementia.  Group members generally need some extra social support, especially the opportunity to share their lives with other people.

I come to this group twice a month for music-making sessions. Today was the group’s Valentine’s Day party, so the room was already decked out in red and white. We started our session as we usually do, with “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” as our welcoming song. I then told the group that we were going to have LOVE songs for Valentine’s Day, an announcement met with smiles and perhaps a few eye rolls. Continue reading

When Seniors Say “That’s Just Kids’ Stuff”

Here’s a conversation I’ve had a few times before:

Scene: Assisted living facility, immediately following a music therapy group that included singing, movement to music, and instrument playing

Me: (picking up instruments) Thank you for coming today, Marta.

Marta: (handing me a djembe) I didn’t like that. That was just kids’ stuff. A bunch of noise.

Me: Oh, okay. Well, thank you for trying, Marta. I know that was something different than usual.

Florence: (another group member passing by, whispering conspiratorially) We really liked it. Come back soon. (wink)

This brief interaction serves as a reminder for me for two main lessons. Continue reading

Tools of the Trade: Ocean Drum


I am always looking for musical materials and methods that will capture the attention of my older adult clients with moderate to late stage dementia. Because of where they are in the disease process, these folks often have a harder time engaging in singing, sharing in discussion, and instrument playing. Some clients also have more severe physical impairments that make it harder to participate in music-making experiences, such as worsening muscle contractures, declining trunk control, and weakening motor skills. Enter the ocean drum.

The ocean drum is one instrument that I think every facility specializing in dementia care should own. Even people with severe motor impairment and very low cognitive functioning can play this instrument with some physical assistance. The reward is a pleasant tactile and visual experience, and a soothing white noise, which is an extra bonus for people who are living with greater levels of anxiety.

Here’s a short video demonstrating how to use the ocean drum and spelling out just why I think it’s so useful for people who have dementia:

You can buy an ocean drum like the one I showed in the video here, or you can buy one with a fish pattern that is visible underneath the beads here.

I definitely prefer the manufactured drums for use with older adults for their quality, durability and more adult feel, but if you are looking for a craft project or are working with children or an intergenerational group, you should check out this tutorial for making your own ocean drum from my fellow music therapist Meryl Brown. Even more ideas on how to use the ocean drum and why it works so well are also available from fellow music therapist Davida Price – just click here.

Have you played an ocean drum before? Why do you think it works so well with older adults? Please leave a comment below!

P.S. For a video on another great instrument for music-making with older adults, check out my previous Tools of the Trade post.

Song Spotlight: “The Caissons Go Rolling Along/The Army Goes Rolling Along”

  • Mood: Patriotic
  • Themes: Military, U.S. Army, United States
  • Tempo: Brisk
  • Genre/style: March

This coming Friday is Veterans’ Day, so I have been participating in ceremonies honoring veterans in local nursing homes along with Care Alternatives Hospice, one of my partner organizations. Today, we honored veterans at Valley Manor in Excelsior Springs, Missouri, and Friday, we will honor veterans at Trinity Nursing and Rehab Center in Merriam, Kansas. Today’s event was particularly special because several soldiers from Fort Leavenworth attended the ceremony. They presented each veteran with a special award and a salute, bringing tears to the eyes of many people in the room. 

These soldiers also threw me for a loop, though. I led all those in attendance in the songs for each of the military branches represented. The vets sang right along with me for the Army song – but the active duty soldiers were singing completely different words! After the ceremony ended, a couple of them very politely informed me that I had the words wrong. Thus, I had to start a little historical digging.

Here are the words I sang:

Over hill, over dale
As we hit the dusty trail,
And those caissons go rolling along.
In and out, hear them shout,
Counter march and right about,
And those caissons go rolling along.

Then it’s hi! hi! hee!
In the field artillery,
Shout out your numbers loud and strong,
For where e’er you go,
You will always know
That those caissons go rolling along.

These words and the famous melody were written by Brigadier General Edmund L. “Snitz” Gruber* in 1908 for the field artillery in the Philippines. The song became popular almost immediately and was adopted by all of the regiments then making up the U.S. Field Artillery. Near the end of the first World War, an artillery officer who didn’t know Gruber passed the song along to composer/bandleader John Philip Sousa, believing that the song dated back to the Civil War. Sousa added a short introduction and released the song as “The U.S. Field Artillery March,” which became a huge hit during World War I. (Gruber later cleared things up with Sousa to get his share of the royalties!) This is the version of the song that was popular through the second World War.

Fast forward to 1948, after the second World War had ended. The Army decided that it wanted an official song, and held a nationwide contest to find one, but none of the five winners gained any popularity. Four years later, the Army appealed to the music industry for compositions, but again found no songs worthy of being the official Army song. Finally, the soldier H.W. Arberg was asked to come up with something. He wrote new words to the old melody of “The Caissons Go Rolling Along” to become the official Army song: “The Army Goes Rolling Along.” Here is the first verse and chorus:

First to fight for the right,
And to build the Nation’s might,
And The Army Goes Rolling Along.
Proud of all we have done,
Fighting till the battle’s won,
And the Army Goes Rolling Along.

Then it’s hi! hi! hey!
The Army’s on its way.
Count off the cadence loud and strong;
For where’er we go,
You will always know
That The Army Goes Rolling Along.

This version became the official Army song in 1956 and is now the song played at the end of every U.S. Army ceremony. (And, yes, the soldiers are expected to stand up and sing.) This explains why I hadn’t run into these lyrics, though – this version came about after many of my veteran clients were already out of the military. Of course, this will change as younger veterans begin to move into the long-term care facilities that I serve and more people know the newer, official version.

For now, it looks like I might be singing both versions of the song, along with a historical aside. 

You can read more about the Army song and download free instrumental and choral versions of the song here. They’re meant to be used when a U.S. Army Band is not available, so play them away for your Veterans’ Day events.

I don’t mean to leave out the other branches of the military, so rest assured that their songs will be covered in future posts. For now, though, leave a comment to let me know what songs you associate with the military and, if you’re a veteran or a veteran’s spouse, the songs that you associate with your time in military service.  

This post is part of an occasional series on special songs to share with your loved ones. For more song spotlights, click here.

*Fun fact: Edmund’s relative Franz wrote “Silent Night.”