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When you’re prescribed a song: Part I
10 January 2015

When you’re prescribed a song: Part I

Children under the Star PALS programme at HCA Hospice Care are provided with several sessions with music intervention trainer Serena Lo. What’s music therapy? We find out more from Serena.

HCA: What’s the theory behind music therapy? What makes music an effective way to help an individual?

Neurologic Music Therapy is defined as the therapeutic application of music to cognitive, sensory, and motor dysfunctions. In scientifically-based research, it’s been shown that music can stimulate multiple parts of the brain at one time, and even reconnect them. Through various techniques, music therapists make use of different kinds of music and its components to help patients in different ways – like in speech, gross and fine motor skills, and social skills.

Besides this, everyone knows how music can soothe the body, soul, and spirit. I see music as a vehicle, a language, and a tool, that can convey messages of love and emotion, and facilitate reconciliation and healing in relationships.

HCA: How do you tailor the therapy sessions for our Star PALS patients?

In Olive Tree Developmental Center, where I work with children with special needs, I compose songs and teach phonics, numbers, and reading through rhythm and music. Sometimes, I incorporate dance, movement, speech and drama when it’s appropriate to the challenge of the child.

The patients at Star PALS, however, are often bed-ridden with much more serious conditions. We need to be very observant of the parts of their body that can move and respond to beat and rhythm – it could be a foot, or even a finger. We then use a small drum or small percussion instrument so he or she can participate. I encourage caregivers to sing or play recorded music, massaging or performing their usual physiotherapy with the music.

I also use the sessions as a platform to bring the whole family together as a band. The more sounds from different instruments, the more the child’s brain is stimulated.  Often, siblings may feel neglect or jealousy. It’s also a good opportunity to give them some attention, and rope them in as musicians to help. Sound is energy. When it is done with love and joy, it can do wonders to bond the family, bring comfort, and restore relationships.

HCA: Give us a rundown of what you’d normally line up for a one-hour session.

We begin with a greeting song, and songs of assurance for the patient, which we personalise by changing lyrics. I find out what are the child’s favourite songs, sometimes modifying lyrics to address the family’s needs and alleviate the tension the family is going through. Sometimes I compose new songs to encourage the child. I also ask the child if they would like me to sing to their family, to communicate their love on their behalf.

Throughout the sessions, I encourage family members to join in with percussion instruments, to sing along, and to gently tap or massage the child with the music. Caregivers can also help their child play the musical instrument by moving their hands and feet if the child is unable to do so themselves. It’s also great for parents to take videos of the session so their child can see their own face and the faces of their parents, and feel the music and joy any time.

I often end the session with a debrief, observation, and feedback from the child’s parents. I share links and information on music therapy and the latest research. I teach them how to perform the therapy and intervention, and encourage them to do it as often as they can. I believe in empowering these families with the ability to bring this joy into their child’s life.

HCA: Would you be able to share a particularly memorable moment with one of our Star PALS patients?

I recall fondly sessions with Sandra (not her real name), and her family. Although she couldn’t normally move her hand, she would respond and try to lift her hand to touch the drums, laughing. Her condition deteriorated rapidly and she became unconscious. One day, I visited her at the ICU with my keyboard, and began singing to her. She started tearing and gripped my hand tightly.

I asked her mother what she wanted to communicate to her, and put these feelings into words. Her mother then sang this song to her in tears.

I’ve kept in touch with Sandra’s family, even after she passed on, and have been glad to hear that their family is doing well!

HCA: What challenges do you face?

Sometimes, parents do not see how music therapy can improve their child’s condition. After a couple of sessions, though, most would begin to see the joy their child experiences.

HCA: What’s your own background, and how did you get involved in music therapy?

Since young, I’ve had plenty of exposure to music through my parents. I have a background in piano, and as a church musician. Together with my husband, Philip, I was involved in music ministry, youth work, pastoral work, and counselling. I’ve also been teaching students, including those with special needs, piano. I recently did a Public Performance Diploma in Teaching Pianoforte to Physically & Intellectually Challenged pupils.

Four years ago at a music therapy symposium, I met Dr Deforia Lane, who recommended that  I attend the 28th Advanced Neurologic Music Therapy programme with the Colorado State University.  I’ve never looked back since.

It was very painful and traumatic for my family and me when my own husband died suddenly in 1998. My three children will still very young at that point.

My family was blessed and fortunate to have the support and love of family members, pastors, and friends from church to help us cope in the earlier years, for which I am very grateful. I am especially grateful for the faithfulness and help of my children’s Godpa. I am, most of all, thankful to God for seeing us through. Money and status can never buy love and time. Everyone will die one day – it’s not when or how we die that counts, but how we live our lives. Every moment and every life is precious.

God is love. As a recipient of God’s unconditional love and grace myself, it has been an honour and privilege to now be able to let love and restoration flow through my music and my work.

Enjoy singing, dancing, and making music!

Look out for the next part of our report on music therapy in the next issue of HCA Connect, where we bring you views from our Star PALS parents. Star PALS (Paediatric Advance Life Support) is a paediatric palliative care service dedicated to improving the quality of life for children with life-threatening or life-limiting conditions, in the comfort of their homes. For more information, visit our webpage at www.starpals.sg.