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When I was in high school, I knew I wanted to pursue music as a profession. I was involved in orchestras and choirs, I played guitar and sang, and had started writing my own songs. Music was an integral part of who I was, but I knew that I didn’t want to be a performer. The act of performing didn’t fill me up, and I knew I wanted to use music to more directly connect with people. I thought that music education was probably the only path that I could go, and though that didn’t seem like it was a perfect fit, I planned to become a music teacher in the public school system.
It was also during this time that my grandmother’s dementia started to progress. My family would visit her every summer, and every visit, she would remember less and less, and hardly recognize who we were. We would visit her at her nursing home in Southern Illinois. There was a piano there and I would pull out the books of show tunes and hymns from her youth and play and sing them with her. We would sit together and sing, and she would remember all the words to the songs — even the most obscure verses. And then she would start to tell stories about her youth — how she and her sister sang these songs in church and all the mischief they caused together. She would share memories of her parents, or of my father and aunt during their youth.
A spark was lit for me. Besides knowing that something was happening in her brain for her to go from not remembering who I was to remembering all of these songs and stories, the piece that hit me the hardest was the fact that we were able to connect so deeply through the music. In those moments that we played music together, it didn’t matter that she didn’t know my name — we were connected through song.
These experiences stirred something in me. I wanted to understand why and how this was happening, and how to harness it. Would others respond to music the way my grandmother had? Who else could music help? When I finally heard the words “music therapy” put together for the first time, it hit me like a train. I knew it was what I needed to be doing with my life — all the pieces came together. A profession actually existed where I could use my passion and skills in music to connect with others and help people reach their fullest potential. I did my research, found a good school that offered a degree in music therapy, and began my path to becoming a professional music therapist.
I quickly discovered that the training to become a music therapist was rigorous. The information and skills needed to effectively do the work far exceeded what can be done with a four-year degree. After my undergraduate degree, I pursued a master’s degree to deepen my understanding of how music affects us, and how to access that as a therapist — the musical skills, the clinical knowledge and the necessary therapeutic touch. Even with the years of training I received to become a music therapist, and the years I have spent in the field, I still walk away at the end of every day feeling like I have done something significant.
Fortunately, this path also led me to Primary Children’s Hospital, where I have been working for more than five years. There is nothing like Primary Children’s. As a music therapist, the work is invigorating, challenging, heartbreaking, exciting, fulfilling and above all else, beautiful. The children and families that we get to interact with on a daily basis are beyond words — the strength, resilience and wisdom we witness during our music therapy sessions is unparalleled.
Then, of course, there’s the music — helping a child speak again after a brain injury through singing their favorite song, writing a song with a patient who is learning to cope with a new diagnosis of cancer to express their feelings, singing to a baby on the NICU as they are held by their mother for the first time months after their birth, creating songs with families to memorialize their child as they pass from this life, allowing a child who is non-verbal to express themselves through instrumental music making — how could this work not be an honor?
Some might see a music therapy session in passing and think that music therapy must be so much “fun,” but it is so much more than that. The depth that can be accessed through music is hard to describe in words, it must be witnessed and experienced. In the ten years that I have been practicing as a music therapist, I have found the work to be continually rewarding, day after day. I can’t imagine doing anything different with my life. It started with those moments connecting through song with my grandmother, whose memories were fading, and has led me to being fully invested and committed to effecting change through music for all the patients and families I have the privilege to work with.
This post was written by Amanda Maestro-Sherer, the music therapy team lead at Primary Children’s Hospital