Music Soothes the Soul


As appeared in the Charlotte Observer on Feb 26, 2011

Note: Cooper is a young boy with Kabuki Syndrome

Hailey's songs help special-needs children learn, remember and engage.

Hailey Douse is teaching a 5-year-old girl to spell her name, but instead of talking to her, Hailey strums her guitar and sings. For 30 minutes, Hailey sings her way through a lesson plan, using music to reach out to the child, who doesn't talk much, and to another student who doesn't talk at all.

Wilcox_1Hailey is a music therapist and uses her voice, guitar, piano and other instruments to help children with autism and learning disabilities. Music therapy is also used to treat people with Alzheimer's disease and brain injuries. Though it's not as well-known as other therapies, its popularity is growing. The rehabilitation center where Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords is being treated uses music therapy to stimulate patients' brains. In the new film "The Music Never Stopped," Julia Ormond plays a music therapist who discovers that a young man re-engages with the world when he listens to rock music. And in Jodi Picoult's newest book, "Sing You Home," the main character is a music therapist.

"Some kids with learning disabilities and developmental disabilities can't remember all the steps, such as going to the bathroom, brushing their teeth, yet they'll remember them if there's a song," Hailey said. "It helps them remember the order of things. We learn our ABCs through songs. I do color songs, counting songs."

The healing power of music was recognized long ago by the early philosophers. During World War I and II hospitals hired musicians to play for wounded soldiers, and the first music therapy degree program opened in 1944 at Michigan State University.

"I define music therapy as a health profession that uses music as a treatment tool to address nonmusical goals," said Al Bumanis of the American Music Therapy Association in Maryland. "The trend has been fairly steady that music therapy is being recognized more and more, and more and more third-party insurance reimbursement is occurring."

The music and the mind

Hailey enrolled at Winthrop University, intending to get a degree in music education. But she quickly realized she wanted something different. A teacher told her about music therapy.  "It sounded like something that I would love to do," Hailey said. "I've always loved music, and I just really like working with people. I was thinking about switching to psychology, and I saw that this did both things, the music and the mind."   She got her degree in music therapy from Charleston Southern University in May 2009. During a college internship, she worked with CarePartners Hospice and Palliative Care in Asheville and sang hymns to calm a patient in distress because of pain. She said she coaxed a 101-year-old woman who hadn't played piano in years to play a keyboard.

"Sometimes I would visit people who were nonresponsive," she said. "If they were breathing really hard, I would bring my guitar and play at the same pace they were breathing. Gradually I would work down to a more relaxed state and breathing would calm down." Whether someone is young or old, Hailey said, music reaches them in ways more traditional therapy cannot and through the senses - hearing, seeing, touching, feeling. Studies show music can reduce blood pressure, heart rate and respiratory rate.

Hailey now works for The Cyzner Institute, a therapeutic school for children through sixth grade. She said she coordinates her therapy plans with the school's speech and occupational therapists. "It really gives the children a different kind of opportunity to work on the same skills they're working on in the classroom, but in a much more creative way," said Lisa Cyzner, director of the school. "Many of our children are very calmed by the music. There are children who will do things in music who won't do them in any other venue."

Wilcox_2Good. Bad. Happy. Sad.

Hailey sits on a multicolored rug, strumming her guitar and singing to two boys.

"I'm feeling good. I'm feeling bad. I'm feeling happy. I'm feeling sad. Good. Bad. Happy. Sad." She smiles when she sings "happy," and frowns at "sad." "Cooper, how do you feel?" she sings to one boy. "Good!"   Next she sings a song about February. And then she gets the boys to clap and stomp while she sings about clapping and stomping.

Hailey tailors her techniques to the children. "If a class comes in raucously, I'm not going to immediately play calming music," she said. "I will meet them at their boisterous level with an ... activity or song where it's okay to be loud, and gradually bring them down to a 'calmer' state of mind."

She's the superstar

Hailey has a beautiful smile and a beautiful voice, and the children obviously adore her. One boy has a tough time not wrapping his arms around her every few minutes in a big hug. "The kids ask for her," Cyzner said. "She's the superstar. Music is the universal language. It creates meaning for these children that we don't even know."

Thirty minutes passes quickly, and class is over. Another teacher comes to get Cooper. He is reluctant to leave. Hailey hasn't sung goodbye yet. She picks up her guitar. "It's time to go. Oh. Oh. Oh," he sings. "Music is over for today.  What do we say?"  "Goodbye!" Cooper shouts and happily walks out and on to his next class.