Written for my course in Narrative Non-Fiction, this assignment required six weeks of extensive interviews, shadowing and general conversation with the main character. The result was a 3000-word story filled with the sights, sounds and scents of the protagonist’s life. Every description, every quote, is real. No creative license was taken, just many, many notes!
Healing Through Music
Anna Plaskett sits on a faded rug in the middle of her small studio, leaning over a faux leather-bound notebook. Sarah, 17, sits nearby. The room smells of warm wood, like a rustic cabin, and is filled with instruments: drums, an upright piano, tambourines, a guitar. Anna copies words from a list Sarah brought, of letters carefully printed in red on a page torn from another notepad. The words will become lyrics to the song Anna and Sarah write together.
Anna is a music therapist. After seven years in the field, she has recently started her own business. Together, she and two other music therapists form Heartsparks. During her busy days, Anna works with many different clients: children and adults with developmental disabilities, youth at risk, elderly people struggling with dementia.
Due to a brain injury when she was young, Sarah has difficulty translating the words in her head into writing, and she suffers from anxiety. Her mother says music therapy has been absolutely wonderful, and Sarah admits she feels pretty happy after a session with Anna.
Sarah is drawn to songwriting – not uncommon for a teenage girl – and Anna thinks she has a real knack for it, a creative mind. Anna has noticed changes since they started working together. Sarah didn’t used to sing along, but now her voice is coming out – she’s gaining confidence.
Anna deftly weaves simple chords among the lyrics, and she and Sarah sing it through. Later, they will record the song together.
Anna has been exposed to music all her life. She was raised by musical parents: her mother used to be a dancer, and her father is a musician. Her older brother is a singer-songwriter.
From a young age, Anna was immersed in the local music scene in her hometown of Lunenburg, Nova Scotia. Her father was one of the founders of the Lunenburg Folk Harbour Festival, and Anna’s earliest musical memory is from a Festival after-party at the Plaskett home. Visiting fiddle player Emile Benoit stamped his foot to the beat so hard and so long that the next morning there was a spot worn down on the hardwood floor.
Anna is led to the sitting room by K, a man with Down syndrome, and his six-inch kangaroo action figure from the movie Warriors of Virtue. Comfy couches and armchairs are arranged in a rough circle, with wooden dining chairs interspersed for extra seating.
Ten men at various developmental stages await the music therapy session. They range from completely non-verbal to quite conversational.
As the opening notes of a Rankin Family song flow out of her iPod and around the room, colourful plastic maracas are passed to the men. Anna greets each of them by name. A bespectacled fellow in a red sweater chooses the only set of bells, which a staff member helps strap to his hand. A few refuse instruments altogether.
The care home staff are there as well. It has taken time for Anna to convince them to join in. She is adamant everyone present be part of her sessions. When someone sits apart, Anna finds her clients can get distracted.
Anna dances a bit, to the music. One man lets her take his hands and sway. sMost of the men stay seated, watching the others with smiles, or remaining visibly unmoved by the scene. One young man’s red-socked toes begin to tap along, despite the apparent disinterest in his vacant gaze.
A tiny old man’s hands move continuously over one another, almost in time to the beat. During a previous session, Anna shared a special moment with this man. In the midst of one song, he rose to stand in front of her, making wordless noises. Anna began to vocalize with him, harmonizing along with his sounds. Though he was unable to verbally express himself, Anna is sure a connection was made that day. As they sang, the old man’s eyes brimmed with tears. Anna felt certain he was listening and connecting; harmonizing together stirred something inside him. The staff seemed uncomfortable with the raw show of emotion, “but I kind of wanted to lean into that discomfort. Not discomfort – it was just emotion. Because tears aren’t always a bad thing.”
Near the end of the session, Anna rounds the circle. She leans down so each man can strum her guitar as she presses the chords. Some of them mimic her movements, dragging their hands up and down at the appropriate spot. Others slide their fingers along the strings, or try to coax sound from the upper frets. When their hands move out of actual music-making range, Anna unobtrusively slips her right hand back into place and strums. Regardless of where the men are touching the guitar, music is made. Their music.
Anna studied music at Michigan State University, which happens to be the first university to offer a music therapy degree program, back in 1944. During her second year of study, Anna began to question whether she wanted to pursue a music degree. One day she stumbled upon a presentation by a South African woman who was using music therapy to help children in her country heal from the terror and destruction of apartheid.
“It was like a light went on in my head, hearing about the work she did.” After attending a few more presentations, Anna knew music therapy was her calling.
Though, in the end, she decided to finish her music degree, the idea of music therapy remained prominent in her mind.
In the basement room of the expansive split-level, chairs and couches line the walls.
Out of a cloth bag decorated with sheet music, Anna pulls a string of indoor Christmas lights. She dislikes the harsh glare of the overheads and has manufactured a new atmosphere. The lights are draped over two wall sconces. Another string adorns the wooden cabinet behind her. With these and a couple of lamps, the tone changes from a well-lit family playroom to a sultry jazz club, or maybe a piano bar.
Six men and women, and a handful of staff, file in. One woman, D, has a small, plush cat with her: Georgie. D is oblivious to the discussions and greetings around her. She stares lovingly at her pet, giving his nose gentle kisses and laughing at things only they can hear.
Anna selects an instrumental Celtic song on her iPod. She picks out a few complementary notes on her mandolin, then shakes her head.
“I can’t play along,” she says to L, one of the more talkative of the group, with a wry smile. “I thought I could.” They both laugh.
Anna plays a host of well-known songs. L sings along to Twist and Shout and Yellow Submarine, loudly and off-key. He knows most of the words.
During another song, Anna goes around the room asking each guest what they love. Trumpet music, painting, Shreddies. When she comes to D, she has to repeat the question.
“D, what do you love?”
“Um …” D pauses, as if deciding between multiple, equally relevant, answers.
“Me,” she says at last, softly.
“You!,” Anna says. “That’s a great thing to love. That’s the best thing to love.” She works D’s choice into the song.
After the session the men and women file out in much the same way they entered. But changes have occurred since the music class began six years ago. A client who was reserved in the beginning is now very outgoing. Another, who never used to play the maracas, now joins in. These changes, deceptively small to an outsider, are evidence of real progress.
Of one client, an aide says: “He loves this class more than anything. You can see it going on inside him.”
Upon graduating from Michigan State with a Bachelor’s degree in music, Anna came home to Halifax, music therapy still on her mind. Acadia University in Wolfville, a mere hour away, offered a post-degree certificate program. After taking a year off to work, Anna returned to school.
She enjoyed every minute of her program at Acadia, and “just soaked it all in.” She loved learning about different techniques and diagnoses, and she returned from internships inspired by what she had experienced. Her chosen field felt meaningful and engaging.
Willa London thinks Anna is one step down from God.
London’s six-year-old daughter Kymiah was born with only a brain stem and a few pieces of brain, and is unresponsive to most interaction.
But there is little question Kymiah loves music. She presses a multipurpose button on her wheelchair only when it is hooked up to her MP3 player. After beginning her sessions with Anna, London says, “it’s like she came alive.”
London has no doubt music therapy is the biggest contribution to her daughter’s development. Even though, these days, Kymiah only sees Anna once a week, her music therapist is the person she responds to most consistently.
Working with Anna is one of the only activities that stimulates Kymiah, London says. Her daughter needs this stimulation to keep her from retreating into herself. Though she rarely vocalizes, at times she sings wordless sounds along with the music, on pitch.
Both Anna and London recall a specific breakthrough in Kymiah’s treatment. Anna was sitting close by with her guitar, while a colleague held Kymiah. As the result of an involuntary reflex, the child’s hand brushed the guitar, provoking a sound.
It was clear to Anna Kymiah understood the cause and effect: her action had created music.
She had never reached for anything before, but Anna counts at least three times Kymiah has reached for the guitar, since that day.
“Do I think Anna is a miracle worker?,” London asks. “You betcha.”
Anna had a breakthrough of her own a few years ago.
After going through a difficult time in her personal life, she was facing a challenge she had not encountered before. Since beginning her music therapy career, she had not dealt with any private crises. Now she needed to work through her own troubles while still helping clients work through theirs, day to day.
During a session with Kymiah, something Anna had always known about the small, physically compressed little girl dawned on her with a new, revealing clarity. Kymiah is so vulnerable, Anna realized. She can’t do anything for herself – she can’t even lift her arms. She relies on those around her for everything.
“I just had this moment like, ‘oh my god, this kid is so open right now. She’s opening her heart to us.’ That’s hard to do as an adult.”
The realization prompted Anna to consider her own heart, and the walls she had unconsciously built over the years. She began reading about body energies, the idea that “our body speaks our mind.” Those walls could affect her relationship with clients. She considered the ethical significance of being well herself, as a therapist. If the people she worked with each day could pick up on her emotional energy, then that energy needed to be positive.
Anna had always enjoyed listening to music, but had not been doing so outside work for awhile. She began to look for songs and songwriters that resonated with her. It was her own, personal healing process.
Thinking about the client-therapist relationship in this way prompted Anna to write a presentation, “Open Heart Music Therapy”, for a regional conference. The presentation was a self-reflection about the importance of taking care of oneself, brought to life with stories about clients like Kymiah. Anna believes “you really do your best work when you’re giving to yourself just as much as you’re giving to your clients.”
Anna loves working with people with developmental disabilities, who she describes as “primal – almost pure.” She thrives on the challenges her job presents. Embracing and encouraging their gifts, the wellness behind their disabilities. Letting go of preconceived perceptions of what is normal. She sees what her clients can teach society: love, openness, a different way of being and seeing the world.
Anna is dedicated to understanding these “complex and beautiful” people. And when the breakthroughs happen, she is rewarded with the knowledge that she helped them shine as themselves.
“It’s like breaking through their disability. It’s tapping into that well place in them. I think everybody has that – a voice somewhere.”