Retraining the Brain

Music therapy students help clients improve cognition, social skills and more

Last updated on October 13, 2017 at 1:31 a.m.

During her time as a music therapy student at SMU Meadows, Mi-Sun Bae interned at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, working with cancer patients and their caregivers. She worked alongside doctors, physician assistants, nurse practitioners, psychologists, massage therapists, physical therapists and acupuncturists for 40 hours a week, providing music therapy for a wide variety of patients. At the same time, she got a close-up look at how a hospital and its medical teams operate.

Every day at the hospital was different, she said.

“We tailored each music session to what the patient needed,” said Bae. “For example, if a patient rated his or her anxiety as a 9 out of 10, we used the iso-vectoring principle, which is basically matching the music with where the patient is. We would start with a faster and more complex beat song and then help them move into a more relaxed state by progressively slowing down the music.”

If a patient was having difficulty coping, Bae said, she often helped the patient work out his or her feelings through songwriting. Or, if a patient was having trouble with pain, she would play instruments with them or sing with them.

“Singing engages both sides of your brain,” said Bae, “and gives your brain a little more stimulation.”

Learning how the brain responds to music is an important component of the SMU Meadows music therapy program.

“The brain processes music differently than it does speech or exercise,” says Meadows Clinical Coordinator for Music Therapy Janice Lindstrom. “That difference provides us an avenue to help re-train clients’ thinking patterns to improve cognition, speech, language and motor skills, as well as improve psychological, social or emotional behaviors.

“In short, we can use music therapy to improve lives.”

The students learn that the brain can actually change and make new connections if you train it a certain way, says Lindstrom, a board-certified music therapist and host of the internet program The Music Therapy Show, which contains eight years of archived content about the field of music therapy. “The students learn how to do this in three different settings: in the classroom; here in our Meadows Music Therapy Clinic with actual clients; and off campus in therapeutic settings such as hospitals and long-term care facilities like Children’s Health in Dallas [formerly Children’s Medical Center], Terrell State Hospital and the Simmons Cancer Center at UT Southwestern Medical Center.”

Board-certified music therapists supervise the students in all locations.

Three years of hands-on practicums, then full-time internship prior to degree

Bae’s intense internship at MD Anderson was the final step she took before earning her music therapy degree at Meadows, one of only five schools in Texas that offers the degree. All music therapy students, who must also complete SMU’s required University Curriculum, follow the same path: observation the first year, then five semesters of hands-on clinical work held in a variety of settings, followed by an internship, after which they are eligible to sit for a national board examination in music therapy administered by the Certification Board for Music Therapists. Those passing the certification exam earn the “MT-BC” (Music Therapist-Board Certified) designation, a nationally accepted credential of qualification.

The first practicum focuses on clients with developmental challenges and is held in the first semester of the sophomore year in the Meadows Music Therapy Clinic. Supervised by Lindstrom, students typically work with children with disabilities. “There is never a lack of clients for the students to work with,” says Lindstrom. “There is always a waiting list.”

After the first semester of developmental work, students attend a succession of off-site practicums:

The second semester concentrates on gerontology, with sessions typically held in senior living communities.

The third semester covers psychiatric needs. Students work at Terrell State Hospital, the psychiatric unit at Children’s Health in Dallas or the psychiatric unit at Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas.

The fourth semester centers on medical care. Students work at various hospitals in North Texas, such as UT Southwestern Medical Center or Ft. Worth Cook Children’s Hospital, among others.

The fifth semester is for electives; the students decide what population they want to explore. “Sometimes we create a site for them,” says Lindstrom. “For example, we had a domestic violence shelter contact us for services, so I supervised the students there. We also work with a private school for children with learning disabilities. And in the past we did a refugee camp, working with people from Nepal and other countries, using music to help them learn about the citizenship test and to help them develop social skills in our culture.”

Internships: Like Bae, after the students complete their senior-level courses and practicums they do an in-depth, off-site internship, working approximately 40 hours a week for six months, typically at a hospital or care facility. This last leg fulfills the comprehensive clinical training requirements that qualify the students to sit for a certification exam administered by the Certification Board for Music Therapists.

Small program by design

The number of students admitted into the music therapy program is intentionally kept low: 20 to 25 students in all, with only five typically admitted to the program each year.

“A small class size is very important in a pre-professional degree program,” says Assistant Professor and Chair of Music Therapy Daniel Tague. “It allows for much more one-to-one mentoring and feedback as students learn and grow in clinical skills. SMU also has a unique program in that it offers up to five semesters of practicum experience, each with a different focus and population. We have built strong relationships with music therapists in the community and the small program size enables us to build good rapport and communication with our community partners.”

Bae says the small student-to-professor ratio in the Meadows music therapy program has been a plus for her, and the weekly practicums helped her develop and gain insight into her own therapeutic style.

As fulfilling as her MD Anderson internship was, Bae wished she could have done more.

“My prayer list got longer and longer each day I was there,” she said, “but I wouldn't have had it any other way. The most rewarding aspect of my internship was being a part of the patients' lives and the treatment process toward a hopeful survivorship.”

Mi-Sun Bae graduated from SMU in 2014 with a B.M. Music Therapy and B.A. Psychology summa cum laude. She is now a board-certified music therapist at The Harrison Center for Music Therapy in Houston. Upon completing her internship with MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston in December 2014, she started working for The Harrison Center in January 2015.

Learn more about the SMU Meadows Music Therapy Program, established in 1974 and fully accredited by the American Music Therapy Association and the National Association of Schools of Music.

Learn more about Janice Lindstrom, tips for caregivers of those with disabilities, music therapy resources and more.