How a local music therapist is helping clients get through COVID-19

Alyssa Blackburn, MT-BC, of NeuroSound Therapy may not be able to meet with clients face-to-face, but her music-filled lessons are still making their way across the region.

girl holding light brown guitar with green pencil and notebook
© panitan / stock.adobe.com

Dancing around to some of your favorite tunes, especially with your kids, might feel like a joyous escape from what can become a dull-and-drab routine of social distancing during these uncertain times. 

But when it comes to music therapy, it’s more than just allowing a dance-worthy tune to allow you to escape the moment, it’s about behavioral lessons, mental health and cathartic moments. These sessions require great sound and the ability to move around and adapt to different clients, so “tele-therapy” has become quite a challenge for many, despite the switch. 

To find out how a NoVA-based music therapist is coping during the spread of COVID-19, we spoke with Alyssa Blackburn, MT-BC, of NeuroSound Music Therapy in Fairfax. Highlights from our conversation are below. 

How would you define music therapy, and how does it differ from traditional therapy that readers might be used to?

Music therapy is the clinical- and evidence-based use of music interventions to accomplish individualized goals within a therapeutic relationship by a board-certified music therapist. My elevator speech for music therapy is that it uses music to reach non-musical goals, which can be social, emotional, cognitive, communicative, physical and educational. These goals are catered to the client’s needs, so it looks very different from population to population, and even from client to client. Everything we do in a session has a purpose, so when someone sees us dancing and freezing to a song, we aren’t just jamming out, but we can be working on a number of goals (joint attention, following directions, impulse control, group cohesion and more). The biggest difference between traditional therapy and music therapy is that while we may be addressing some of the same goals, we are doing it with music as the medium. Using music takes the focus off of the client and puts it on the artist or person in the song, making it easier for our clients to discuss problems. Also, because music uses the whole brain, music therapy allows for a multi-sensory experience. There are clips of older adults who have lost the ability to speak, form coherent sentences or recall memories but are able to sing songs verbatim from when they were teenagers or in early adulthood. It’s very real and visible there, but the same is true for all populations.

Are your clients primarily kids, or do they vary in age?

NeuroSound Music Therapy serves clients of all ages and abilities across the Northern Virginia region. There is a huge demand for music therapists for children here in NoVA, so my client base is largely children. I also have older clients ranging from high school to older adults. Most of my groups are adults or older adults, while most of my individual clients are kids. The same goes for the other music therapists at NeuroSound Music Therapy, with clientele that includes individuals and groups at schools, mental health facilities, rehabilitation centers, nursing homes and assisted-living facilities, and day programs for adults with disabilities.

What are a few methods of music therapy that you utilize with clients, and what are the benefits?

I come from a largely humanistic method of music therapy, meaning I really focus on the client’s needs and how to best reach their personal goals.  In addition to this, I believe my clients already have the ability to reach their goals and to become their best selves. I’m simply assisting them in finding that. Aside from that, a lot of our work with kids focuses on attention/focus, following directions and communication. Many of my clients use alternate modes of communication such as ASL (American Sign Language) or AAC (augmentative and alternative communication) devices. AAC devices are commonly iPads equipped with software that provides the child with a grid of words with images accompanying them. Many of these clients, however, are working on developing speech skills, so we work with ASL, AAC devices and verbal communication together to help the child practice producing purposeful sound.

For attention/focus, we have some mixed music therapy and adapted lessons that address this. I also include experiences that require joint attention, or paying attention to two things at once. For clients who are working to increase their attention span, I increase the length of our experiences and decrease prompting as they improve their skills. We also work on including directions within the music or with non-verbal communication as opposed to verbal, spoken directions. We use music as positive reinforcement, so we use preferred tasks as motivators to excel with non-preferred tasks. Also, music therapists use client-preferred music, so my sessions typically look very different from one another.

Have you noticed that your clients (whether young or old), are benefiting from working through music therapy sessions during these uncertain times?

Definitely! NeuroSound Music Therapy added some morning circle time groups and midday social group sessions since kids are out of school, which have benefited both the clients and their parents. Kids in general require structure, so adding these daily groups has helped add a sense of normalcy to their days. We have a lot of educational elements as well to keep them learning through this time. It also gives the kids something to do that their parents can choose to participate in or use that time to finish work or do things around the house while their children are occupied. Keeping our music therapy sessions present throughout this time can serve as an escape from any fear, frustration or confusion they may be experiencing due to being out of school, not being able to see their friends, etc. I know Virginia recently canceled school through the end of the year, so I will be helping my clients process this. It also allows them to continue working on their skills instead of stopping progress for however long this lasts. We’ve also added a free virtual parent support group to support the mental health and well-being of parents in a non-judgmental and encouraging environment to share resources, advice and support. 

How can music therapy help everyone?

Most people think of music therapy being just for kids or older adults, but it is actually beneficial for all populations from the NICU (which requires additional certification) to end-of-life care. Since music therapy can address a wide range of individualized social, emotional, cognitive, communicative, physical and educational goals, anyone who has a need in any of these areas, regardless of their abilities, can benefit from music therapy.

What are you hoping to achieve during these uncertain times with your clients?

My biggest goals with my clients right now is to help them feel secure. There’s so much fear surrounding the virus and the media, especially now that my younger clients have had their last day of school without knowing it. They miss their friends, teachers, custodians, lunch staff and everyone else they were expecting to see every day for the next few months. Some parents can’t give their children the time and attention they usually get during the school year as they are still required to work, whether in an office or remotely. Nothing is secure, nothing is routine and so much is unknown. If anything, I want our sessions to be the one constant in their lives; one thing they can look forward to each week.

Is there anything else readers should know about music therapy during COVID-19?

We are all learning together! Have patience with your therapists, your co-workers and your friends. We are all navigating this new normal, which is ever-changing. One thing I am constantly reminded of when planning and conducting sessions is that music therapists are flexible, adaptable and dedicated to serving you. We won’t let this stop the music.

For more on how COVID-19 is affecting the Northern Virginia region, click here. For more health-related stories, please subscribe to our weekly Health newsletter.

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