Two young participants in the music therapy program at the Victoria Conservatory of Music are all smiles as they bang on the drums. The VCM is supported in this program by the renowned Music Heals initiative and hopes to one day offer it at its West Shore campus in Langford.

Music as medicine: the healing benefits of music therapy

The Victoria Conservatory of Music has a busy therapeutic program for clients.

By Kristi HoffmanWest Shore Arts Council

Residents of Vancouver Island enjoy constant exposure to live music, with a lineup of incredible talent constantly at our fingertips. While experiencing music as an audience member or performer may be entertaining or even therapeutic, do many of us recognize the benefits of music, namely through music therapy?

Music therapy is the use of music and its elements by a qualified therapist to promote, preserve or rehabilitate an individual’s physical, emotional, spiritual or mental health.

People who access music therapy range from pre-birth to palliative care. Every ability or disability can be catered to, including those with cognitive impairment, autism spectrum disorders, learning difficulties, conduct or behavioural disorders, and physical challenges. Individuals suffering from Alzheimer’s disease or dementia have also seen improvement after experiencing music therapy, as well as those recovering from strokes and brain injuries.

Despite numerous studies revealing its benefits, music therapy doesn’t always get the recognition and support it needs to thrive in communities. Fortunately for Canadians, Music Heals, a Vancouver-based charity, works to support and expand existing music therapy programs throughout the country, including on the West Shore.

“There is no music centre of the brain,” said Chris Brandt, executive director of Music Heals. “We have the math centre and the speech centre and different areas that do different things. And when we have damage to certain areas, there can be damage to those things. But music is everywhere. So if there’s a damaged brain through concussion, stroke, car accident or dementia, music can often be used to rewire the brain.

“People who are forgetting the names of their children will often still remember the lyrics from a song when they were 13,” Brandt continued. “So using music can help people be themselves longer.”

Music Heals also redistributes used iPods through the iPod Pharmacy program.

“All of the iPods collected on Vancouver Island stay on the Island,” said Brandt. “Skull Candy gives us brand-new headphones, we buy iTunes gift cards, and we give those to local music therapists.”

The charity also holds a fundraiser every March, when bars across the country raise funds and awareness for music therapy. “If we raise money in Victoria, it gets spent in Victoria,” concluded Brandt.

On Vancouver Island, many feel the benefits of music therapy through the Victoria Conservatory of Music (VCM), a recipient of funding from Music Heals.

“The department at VCM started with one participant,” said Johanne Brodeur, who founded the program in 1993, “and we currently offer music therapy sessions to over 1,800 participants weekly.

“We tailor what we do to meet the needs of each participant. Sessions are offered in private or group settings depending on condition and individual needs.”

The VCM music therapy studios are equipped with hundreds of instruments, including grand pianos, percussion instruments, and a full recording studio. The department also boasts a state-of-the-art multi-sensory studio.

“The multi-sensory studio offers a peaceful retreat for music therapy participants with various needs,” Brodeur noted. “The studio includes laser-projected lighting (like a starry night), a Sumatran vitro-acoustic recliner, bubble tower, fibre optics and more. In this studio, the participants can create, express themselves, find respite from their daily amnesty or pain, meditate and use guided imagery techniques all under the care of a VCM music therapist.”

For more information on the program visit musicheals.ca. To donate your old iPod or inquire about the potential benefits of music therapy, visit the Conservatory’s website at vcm.bc.ca/program-areas/therapy.

Kristi Hoffman’s column appears courtesy of the West Shore Arts Council.

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