Music provides a unique soundtrack to our daily lives. It’s a lullaby to sooth a fussy baby, a way to jumpstart our day, energize our workout or inspire us during worship. Everyone has a favorite song that can change their mood or take them back to a specific memory. For Rachel Nowels, a deep appreciation of the power of music led her to a career as a Certified Music Therapist. Nowels joined the staff at The Children’s Center Rehabilitation Hospital 12 years ago and rebuilt a stalled music therapy program. “It has been amazing to watch the music therapy program grow. We now have three full-time music therapists on staff as well as a full-time internship for music therapy majors finishing their degree,” she says.
Although Nowels loves classical, jazz and worship music, she also has a love for the scientific side of her field, which makes music therapy the perfect career for her. Music provides the foundation for the research-based, highly technical therapy that she uses on a daily basis at The Children’s Center Rehabilitation Hospital.
“We have studies and the numbers to back up everything we do. It’s great to be able to pull out a research article and say, ‘here are pictures of scans showing what is going on in the brain during this technique, so you can see why it is so effective,’” Nowels shares.
Nowels explains that music therapy allows therapists to work on functional goals with patients in unique, non-traditional ways which often help to motivate patients and enhance their success in a rehabilitation setting. Music therapy offers numerous benefits to patients, as music stimulates and utilizes many parts of the brain. It can help create a positive attitude about therapy, intensify the involvement of the patient and the activity, and provide an outlet for emotional expression.
“Music is something familiar and something that we have in common, so oftentimes a patient will open up to the music therapist faster than to other staff. We can help younger patients understand emotions through selected instrumental exercises like ‘how does mad sound on a drum?’ Music provides an alternate means of expression through song writing or instrumental play. We can also use lyric analysis and discussion with older patients to lead into deeper discussion about emotions,” Nowels says.
As a part of comprehensive treatment, music therapy works cooperatively with physical, occupational and speech therapy to create goals for each patient, which could be related to communication skills, motor abilities, cognitive functioning or social skills. “Every member of the treatment team does a specific evaluation for their particular discipline with each patient,” she explains. “All patients are individually evaluated for music therapy. Based on the results, individualized functional goals are written for that particular patient.”
Paying attention to a patient’s musical tastes can also play into the success of music therapy. Nowels says that both research and her personal experience have shown that a patient’s preferred music is the best to use during music therapy sessions. Nowels recalls working with an agitated patient with a brain injury whose mother shared the fact that he loved “heavy metal” music. “When I softly played a recording of a Christian heavy metal song, his heartrate immediately lowered, he appeared to calm and he smiled,” Nowels shares.
So, the next time you feel the emotional lift from your own favorite song, celebrate the music therapists who use the power of music to change lives. Nowels says, “Our motto at The Children’s Center Rehabilitation Hospital is ‘Miracles Happen Here’ and it is very true. I’ve had patients in a coma-like state one day who start talking the next. Having said that, we celebrate all the small steps here, too. My patients amaze me every day!”