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2023 Apr

Improving Lives with Music

Discover how music therapists are improving the lives of others.

Tracy Bowdish’s work space is a music lover’s haven. Her office includes a guitar, keyboard, and small percussion instruments, as well as a blue-tooth speaker. Her work hours are filled with the sounds of everything from classic country and smooth jazz to heavy metal and rap.

Music in all its forms is the tool of her healthcare profession. As a board-certified music therapist at Sentara Neurology Specialists in Norfolk, Tracy treats adults with neurological impairments due to strokes, dementia, Parkinson’s, and traumatic brain injuries.

Tracy is part of a profession of more than 25,000 practitioners nationwide who work with patients who need help to manage pain, reduce stress, express emotion, enhance memory, improve communication, and promote physical rehabilitation.

Virginia is home to 256 board-certified music therapists and 25 of those live and/or work in Hampton Roads, according to the Virginia Music Therapy Association. Demand for the specialty is expected to increase substantially, according to healthcare experts. Here, we meet several music therapists in Hampton Roads, each one using the restorative power of music in his or her own special way.

Tracy Bowdish, Sentara Neurology Specialists

“There is a Lot of Science in Music”
Tracy Bowdish
Tracy Bowdish is a music therapist with Sentara Neurology Specialists in Norfolk. Photo courtesy Tracy Bowdish

“Music has rhythm and melody and emotion and is linked to our memories, and it activates a lot of the areas of the brain,” said Tracy, who has a master’s degree in music therapy from Western Michigan University and advanced training through the Academy of Neurologic Music Therapy.

“Music is also full of patterns, and our brain is pattern generated,” she continued. “There is a lot of creativity in music therapy, but there is a lot of science in it, too.”

We use more of our brain when we sing than when we speak, Tracy explained. Which is why she uses songs to help people who have had strokes and cannot find their words, but they are still able to sing. The process helps the brain create new neural networks, and gradually the person transitions from songs to speech.

For memory-challenged people, music offers patterns and chunky, organized information that our brain likes and uses.

“Think of the ABC song that we all learn our ABCs by,” she said. “I use music to create a system to help people memorize and remember information. For instance, you may write important things on a calendar, but you don’t remember to check the calendar. We can take a familiar melody and add helpful words to sing: ‘When I wake up every day, check the calendar and go on my way.’”

For people with gait issues, neurologic music therapy uses rhythm to improve balance and movement, thereby lessening the risk of injury from falls.

In her practice, Tracy dutifully records data to measure patients’ progress, but it’s the real-life feedback from them and their families that she really enjoys.

“After treating a patient to improve his gait, he told me he was now able to keep up with his kids,” she said. “When a patient with nonfluent aphasia (severely reduced speech) is able to tell his spouse that he loves her and call her by name, I know I have made a meaningful difference.”

Danielle Cavazos, Tidewater Music Therapy

Music Therapy Can Make a Difference in People’s Lives”
Danielle Cavazos
Danielle Cavazos frequently uses the guitar in her music therapy work at Tidewater Music Therapy in York County. Photo courtesy Danielle Cavazos

Communication and self-expression can be common struggles for children ages four months to 13 years, and even into adulthood. Tidewater Music Therapy in York County utilizes music to overcome those challenges.

“The methods vary based on the individual’s needs and goals,” said Danielle Cavazos, one of three music therapists at the practice. “Generally, our methods include improvisation, music making, songwriting, song discussion, relaxation, and teamwork through musical goals.” In addition to degrees in music education and arts in teaching from Christopher Newport University, Danielle attended Mary-of-the-Woods College to earn a bachelor of music therapy degree.

She recalls working with one young client who could not use words but could make vocalizations. Through the repeated use of songs with missing words, the young girl slowly began to sing the missing words. From there, she began to use those words in day-to-day life.

Musical games are often used to help middle school students with communication skills, Danielle said. A favorite game is “Original or Cover,” in which teams listen to a recorded version of a song and then they must agree if it’s the original version or a cover. Each client is encouraged to join the conversation in some way.

Adult clients sometimes play a musical game called Song Categories. Danielle creates a category such as “animals” or “sweet treats,” and the groups tries to come up with as many songs as possible that fit the category.

Tidewater Music Therapy also finds that music can play a major role in helping students improve their academic work. For example, the process of rewriting or co-writing music can help lengthen attention span and enhance their ability to follow multi-step directions.

“Music therapy is a valuable service that can truly make a difference in people’s lives,” Danielle said. “At home, parents can help their children using music by paying attention to their children’s preferences, providing access to music, and participating however possible with their children in the music they enjoy.”

Chris Byrd, CHKD Child Life Department

“We can use music to process complex emotions”
Chris Byrd
Chris Byrd works as a music therapist in the Child Life department at the Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters. Photo courtesy CHKD

Every mom knows the stress and worry of an agitated baby. Music therapist Chris Byrd has the simple solution: harness the power of music to soothe a fussy little one.

“I’ll sing quietly with guitar and watch their heart rate decrease until they fall asleep,” said Chris, who has been working as a music therapist in the Child Life Department at Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters in Norfolk since 2019 and has a music therapy degree from East Carolina University. “If a patient wants music to distract themselves in some way during a procedure, I can provide that.”

Because music means different things to different people, Chris said we can use music to feel our feelings or to distract ourselves from our feelings. A song that one person finds empowering can trigger another person’s unpleasant memory.

“I had a first grader who loved music therapy but hated lab draws,” he said. “They were an ordeal every time. I offered him the option of having music as a distraction during those unpleasant procedures, and he said, ‘No music during pokes’ because he didn’t want something he loved to taint something he hated.”

“We can use music to process those complex emotions and improve our physical and mental health,” Chris noted.

Jonathan Moore, Chesapeake Regional Healthcare

Helps Reduce Anxiety and Depression”
Jonathan Moore
Music therapist Jonathan Moore provides calming live piano music at Chesapeake Regional Healthcare. Photo courtesy Chesapeake Regional Healthcare

Chesapeake Regional Healthcare has believed in the calming power of live music ever since it hired pianist/music therapist Jonathan Moore in 2007. In his earlier years at the hospital, Jonathan worked with geriatric/psychiatric patients, using music to reduce their anxiety and depression. When that unit closed about eight years ago, he began playing live music in the main hospital lobby and the waiting areas of the adjacent cancer treatment center. His mission is to create a positive, relaxing first impression for patients and visitors.

“They are stressed, overwhelmed, maybe angry, waiting on test results,” said Jonathan, who spent 20 years as a pianist with the Navy and has a degree in music therapy from Michigan State University. “I see people when they are not at their best. There is something special about live music that helps people relax and connect.”

He also tries to play favorite songs for hospital staff, who may drop by to sit and relax a bit. “I try to know everyone’s favorite music,” he said. “If I see them coming, just like a bartender knows your favorite drink, I can play their favorite song—a little bit of stress relief.”

“Music is music,” he said. “As Stevie Wonder said, ‘Music is the universal language,’ and he was spot on.”

Hope Kumme: Hampton VA Center

“Music Brings Joy into Veterans’ Lives”
Hope Kumme
Hope Kumme is a music therapist with the Central Virginia Veteran’s Health Care System. Photo courtesy Hope Kumme

When military veterans leave the military and transition back into the community, life can be scary and challenging.

For the past nine years, Hope Kumme has helped veterans ease their transition through music therapy services for the Department of Veterans Affairs in Virginia, including the Hampton VA Center. Therapy interventions include songwriting and composition, music and movement, improvisation, singing, and playing instruments.

She worked with one veteran who had a history of PTSD, substance abuse, and depression. He created a song about what it was like living with PTSD and eventually found that he no longer felt anger and loss. “[He felt] alive and free from feeling the guilt and pain that had been haunting him for years,” said Hope, who has a master’s degree in music therapy from Arizona State University.

Hope has found music can also be beneficial in end-of-life care for veterans, as well as their caregivers and family members.

“I had a patient who loved playing the piano,” she said. “I brought a portable keyboard into his room, and I will never forget how his mood suddenly brightened. He would play the keyboard for the nurses and anyone who came into the room. When he passed his family, thanked me for bringing joy and music back into his life and for making his last days memorable and happy ones.”

Kathy Van Mullekom

Kathy Van Mullekom is a retired journalist, whose beats included gardening, women’s issues, restaurant trends, and fashion. Formerly a York County resident and master gardener, she now lives in southeastern Virginia Beach, where her leisure hours are spent golfing with husband Ken and exploring parks with her two grandkids, Mattie, 9, and Grady, 7.


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