Music as Medicine

By: Brandon Blackwell
Published: Tuesday, January 17th, 2012

Jaclyn Bradley Palmer - CSU Cauldron
Jaclyn Palmer performs for Joseph Lerario during a music therapy session. Photo by Brandon Blackwell.
Jaclyn Bradley Palmer - CSU Cauldron
Palmer uses Melodic Intonation Therapy to assist Jeff VanDerMaulen with speech. Photo courtesy Jaclyn Palmer.

Nearly a month after his stroke, Jeff VanDerMeulen sits on the edge of a hospital bed, struggling to do what most take for granted--speak. The 47-year-old registered nurse attempts to ask for a bowl of Corn Flakes, but only garbled sounds leave his mouth.

The stroke's damage to the speaking center of VanDerMeulen's brain has left him with a narrowed ability to understand or express speech, making a simple request for cereal a near impossible task.

At VanDerMeulen's bedside sits Jaclyn Bradley Palmer, a music therapy intern and recent Cleveland State University alum.

"What do you want?" Palmer asks.

VanDerMeulen replies in a confused cacophony of syllables.

Palmer repeats the question, and again VanDerMeulen fights to get the words out.

"Let's sing it," she says, and begins to hum a tune.

Palmer takes VanDerMeulen's hand and begins to lift it with each note, keeping time as she sings, "I...want...Corn...Flakes."

She repeats the melody a few times before asking VanDerMeulen to follow along. VanDerMeulen struggles, but he begins to build the completed sentence, his words becoming more coherent with each singing pass. Once VanDerMeulen is able to sing his request for Corn Flakes with little fault, the humming and the singing stop, and Palmer poses the question one more time.

"What do you want for breakfast?" she asks.

Flawlessly, VanDerMeulen replies, "I want Corn Flakes."

This musical miracle is made from the science of Melodic Intonation Therapy (MIT), one of many techniques Palmer became familiar with while studying music therapy at CSU. When a patient suffers damage to the brain's left hemisphere from a stroke or other injury, the speech center can become ineffective. However, if the brain's right hemisphere is undamaged, employing MIT can utilize the brain's music center to reroute the way the brain creates and sends speech.

The uninformed may simply envision music therapy as a way to use music to lift a patient's spirits, but as evident in VanDerMeulen's case, this couldn't be further from the truth. VanDerMeulen's wife, Teri, agrees.

"I think if you have somebody who has a brain injury, especially with a left hemisphere problem, music therapy really helps," she said. "It also lifts spirits, but getting the rhythm going and saying the words, it helps. It isn't a bunch of bull. I've seen it with my own eyes. It works."

For Joseph Lerario, a 36-year-old recovering from a four-month coma resulting from pancreatitis, music therapy wasn't something he believed could help with his hopelessness. The loss of four months from his life and the uncertainty of the road ahead sunk Lerario into an unforgiving depression.

When Palmer first showed up at Lerario's bedside with guitar in hand, she was turned away. Palmer persisted and the despondent Lerario eventually became receptive. The two created and spoke about music during Palmer's visits, inspiring Lerario and ultimately bringing him out of his depression.

"At first I didn't want [the music therapy]," Lerario said. "Eventually I realized that it really helps."

Working with Palmer not only yielded a complete reversal in Lerario's opinion of music therapy, but also his outlook on life.

Palmer explained that music therapy isn't only used to help those with brain injuries or depression, but also serves individuals with other cognitive, physical, emotional and social needs.

During Palmer's course of study at CSU and subsequent six-month internship with University Hospitals, she has used music to help stroke victims to rehabilitate speech, teach young children pre-literacy skills, assist terminal patients with saying goodbye to their loved ones, enhance the social skills of senior citizens, and comfort those who are sick or injured during their hospital stays.

From performing popular and original songs, to discussing lyrics and encouraging patients and family members to create music of their own, Palmer uses her education and raw talent to turn music into medicine.

Palmer said her success with patients is a direct result of the education she received at CSU.

"CSU completely prepared me for the real world," Palmer said. "It was beneficial to have professors who were not only qualified to teach about subjects, but shared first hand information about working in the field and in the community."

The university's Bachelor of Music Therapy program offered by the CSU Department of Music is traditionally a four-and-a-half-year program with a curriculum that includes courses in anatomy, psychology, special education, sociology, and music performance, history and theory. Students must complete a six-month internship at the end of the program and then sit for a national certification exam to become a board certified music therapist.

Because Palmer received an undergraduate degree in vocal performance from Indiana University in 2002, she was able to take part in an accelerated two-year program.

CSU's music therapy program is part of a consortium with Baldwin-Wallace College, so CSU resident students are required to take some of their courses at the partnering institution. A proficiency in vocal work, guitar and piano are a prerequisite for students entering the program.

"You have to be a musician first," Palmer said. "Then you learn to be a therapist."

Music is in Palmer's blood. She has been passionate about music and actively pursuing a career as a performer most of her life, but just before turning 30 she came to a crossroads.

"I was at a turning point in my life," Palmer said. "Am I going to pursue performance? Am I going to do something completely different? I couldn't let go of music completely though because I have been doing it since I was three."

One day Palmer curiously searched "music" on the job-finding website Monster.com. The search produced results for music therapist jobs, which piqued her interest.

"I found out that Cleveland State had a music therapy program, and light bulbs started going off," Palmer said. "I could fuse my love for music with my passion for helping people and being able to do that through my talents seemed like an amazing idea."

Palmer has relished every moment of her journey and is as thankful for music therapy as her patients undoubtedly are.

"I have gained insight into humanity and feel grateful and privileged to be a part of this magnificent field," Palmer said.

For more information on music therapy, visit the American Music Therapy Association at www.musictherapy.org.

To learn more about Jaclyn Palmer, visit her website at www.jaclynbradley.com.

To read this article on The CSU Cauldrom's website, click here.