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SMU student uses music therapy as bridge to serve Dallas' homeless

October 25, 2016

By Nancy George
SMU News

DALLAS (SMU) — SMU senior music therapy major Whitney Hewlett says her 12-week practicum at Dallas' Bridge Homeless Recovery Center last fall was the most humbling experience of her life.

"I had never interacted with this population and I was incredibly intimidated," says Hewlett, the first SMU music therapy student to complete a practicum at the Bridge. "I didn't expect to fall in love with the positivity and camaraderie of homeless people."

Whitney HewlettWhitney Hewlett

As a music therapy major, Hewlett is required to complete five practicums supervised by a board certified music therapist in areas such as gerontology, mental health and medicine, in addition to her coursework. Her practicum at the Bridge fulfilled the mental health requirement.

On her first visits to Bridge music therapy sessions, Hewlett was inspired by the infectious spirit and zest of her practicum leader, SMU music therapy graduate Kamica King, who developed the music therapy program at the Bridge. As Hewlett led her first sessions, however, she also began to appreciate King's authenticity and ability to build rapport with Bridge guests.

"I first tried to lead sessions with every minute planned, which inhibited me completely," she said. "When I learned to be more organic and authentic, I found the guests were much more responsive. The hardest part was learning to assess what was happening while I was leading the session, then improvising."

Music therapy sessions are much more than sing-a-longs, Hewlett says. Instead, board certified musical therapists use music as a tool to help clients work on nonmusical goals. Hewlett chose to discuss the lyrics from Simon and Garfunkel's 1970 hit, "Bridge Over Troubled Water" as a metaphor for the help available to homeless individuals in troubled times.

When you're weary, feeling small,
When tears are in your eyes
I will dry them all
I'm on your side
When times get rough
And friends just can't be found
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down.

"Everything about the song fit," she said. "Each guest talked about their own troubled water, something they had overcome, and what support had been the bridge that helped them."

Hewlett has been a musician since she was a little girl growing up in Austin. Like other Meadows School of the Arts music majors, she completed a music audition for acceptance to SMU's highly competitive music therapy program. SMU music therapy graduates are required to be proficient in guitar, piano and voice, complete five practicums and a six-month full-time internship to graduate. Music therapy students also have the opportunity to participate in professional conferences. Last spring, Hewlett was part of a panel with King and SMU music therapy faculty member Barbara Bastable, which presented "Building The Bridge: Collaboration between Community and University Music Therapists" to the Southwestern Region of the American Music Therapy Association."

Hewlett's love for music continues in her spare time; she is music director for SMU's female acappella group, the Belle Tones.

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