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Illinois State University music therapy student Noelle Ortega playing guitar on a bench

Illinois State University music therapy student Noelle Ortega

Healing through music: Music therapists cover the lifespan

Noelle Ortega quietly moves between patients in the chemotherapy room at the Community Cancer Center in Normal. As patients wait for their IV drip to end, or radiation treatments to begin, she sits with them, lightly strumming her guitar. One patient did a little drumming. When someone starts singing, others may join in.

Ortega is a senior music therapy major and is doing one of her practicums in health care. Music therapists work across the lifespan, from neonatal intensive care units to hospices, and practice in schools, addiction recovery centers, physical rehabilitation facilities, nursing homes, and correctional facilities.

Illinois State offers one of only two music therapy programs in the state and has the only master’s program. Of the 95 students enrolled in the program, 80 percent are women. Not only do they have to be proficient in piano, voice, guitar, and percussion, students take psychology courses and have to practice empathy, patience, and creativity as well, said Professor Cindy Ropp. She has taught music therapy at Illinois State for 17 years, led the program for 11, and worked as a music therapist in a hospital mental health unit, and in a school district.

“It’s powerful,” she said. “Most people have a reaction to music, and most have a positive association with some kind of music.”

Therapists choose music based on the client’s preference but some of it is intuitive, she said, adding, those who choose this field “are very special people.”

The idea that music can affect health and behavior is at least as old as the writings of Aristotle and Plato, according to the American Music Therapy Association (AMTA). After completing a bachelor’s degree and a six-month postgraduate internship, music therapists are eligible to take the national board certification exam, with certification required for professional practice.

Music therapy can trigger memories among those with dementia, words for those struggling to regain speech following a stroke, and movement for those with debilitating diseases like Parkinson’s, Ropp said. Humans have a physiological response to music, which she notices on the Quad in the fall.

“My grandpa had Alzheimer’s, and I saw how music could affect him. He couldn’t tell you my name or what day it was, but he could sing along to music. That’s my inspiration.”—Noelle Ortega

“When the marching band starts practicing, and if they have the windows open, you can watch people on the Quad, and most of them pull right into rhythm. It’s not just people like it so they move with it, it’s a physiological cellular response. It’s fascinating.”

Ortega hopes to work with the elderly, especially those with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia.

“My grandpa had Alzheimer’s, and I saw how music could affect him,” she said. “He couldn’t tell you my name or what day it was, but he could sing along to music. That’s my inspiration.”

During an initial assessment, Ortega asks about music preferences, favorite artists, and meaningful songs.

Music therapists have to able to connect with people.

“You are with all ages and circumstances,” Ortega said. “You’re like social workers.”

Laura Hanson is also a senior in music therapy, and is president of the American Music Therapy Association of Students at Illinois State, which hosts workshops and participates in community events. In her practicum, she’s working with preschoolers at an elementary school.

“With early childhood, we can work more on academic skills but also behavior management, getting them to follow directions, listen, learn their numbers and alphabet,” she said.

Her primary area is percussion, which she started in fifth grade “because I could not make any sound on a trumpet,” she said, laughing. Growing up in a small town, she had experience volunteering, and that made her think about how she could combine service and music.

“I was very big on helping others,” she said. “I can use music to help change lives, make them feel better, and it’s what I enjoy. There’s always been a moment each semester when I thought, ‘This is what I was meant to do.’”

And she does have a favorite song, which she falls back on for all ages: “You Are My Sunshine.”

“Kids and older adults always appreciate that song,” she said, adding she grew up singing it with her grandmother.