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Using music as therapy: Award-winning student explores power of music to restore health

John Stennes / Forum News Service Carly Flaagan, a music therapy student at the University of North Dakota, sings a Christmas carol to Darrell Jensen of Langdon, N.D., while he receives his chemotherapy at the Altru Cancer Center in Grand Forks.

By Pamela Knudson

Forum News Service

GRAND FORKS — With a fleece blanket across his lap, Darrell Jensen listened intently as the woman seated near him sang and played the John Denver hit “Take Me Home, Country Roads” on her guitar.

He smiled. Through the expansive window behind him, bright midday sunlight flooded the small room at the Altru Cancer Center in Grand Forks.

Jensen was receiving chemotherapy to fight the cancer that had upended his life with no warning last summer. The retired Langdon banker said he enjoys music of all kinds, but is partial to country and easy-listening.  

“It uplifts you,” he said. “Makes you feel good.”

Chemo sessions can last up to seven hours.

“It helps the time go, too.”

The singer-guitarist, Carly Flaagan, is a University of North Dakota music therapy student preparing for a career that will use her love of music to help people improve their health and well-being.

Playing guitar and singing for cancer patients is part of a required class to earn a bachelor’s degree in music therapy.

Practical experience

She has also gained practical experience working with children on building speech capabilities and with stroke patients.

Flaagan, of East Grand Forks, Minn., provides music therapy to young children at the East Grand Forks Campbell Library.

“It’s been wonderful,” library director Charlotte Helgeson said of her class. “We’ve had a waiting list … and have added sessions, it’s so popular.”

“She wants (the kids) to be creative and enjoy it and move with the music. At the same time, it’s very structured. They’re really getting something wonderful from her.”

Music is processed “everywhere in the brain,” Flaagan said. With music therapy, “you can set goals — emotional, cognitive and physical — it’s fascinating.”

Music therapy has been used in the treatment of children with autism, for example, to motivate learning, she said. “There’s so much going on in their brains, music sustains their attention.

“The most impactful, for me, is its use in palliative care,” she said, the area of health care that focuses on relieving and preventing suffering, such as the pain, symptoms and stress of serious illness.

Pain alleviated

“Music is processed in the same area of the brain as pain,” Flaagan said. In the simplest terms, music “takes up some of the room, so pain occupies less room. It has the effect of blocking some pain receptors, but not the massive pain.” 

There’s a lot of research being done in music therapy, she said, “and anyone can be a part of it.”

“It’s finally getting to the point where people have heard of it, and some have read articles about it. ... People are requesting it when determining the hospital they’ll go to (such as) to have a baby or for medical treatment.”

Flaagan said she was inspired by Gabrielle Giffords, the congresswoman from Arizona who was shot in the head in January 2011 in Tucson and has relearned how to speak, in part, through music therapy.

“I’m amazed at how music and speech are so similar,” she said. For example, “when you speak there’s a certain rhythm and pitch or when you ask a question, your voice goes up at the end.

“You can reflect the same things in a musical phrase that you can find in a spoken sentence.”

Ultimately, she would like to work with stroke patients.

A good fit

Music therapy is a good fit for her interests, Flaagan said.

“I’ve always loved music. I always wanted to go into a helping profession.”

She was intrigued several years ago when Andrew Knight, an assistant professor of music at UND, visited her high school choir class to encourage students to consider music therapy as a career.

“His presentation made me realize it was just the right fit,” she said. 

In high school, she played flute and piano, she said. As a music therapy major, she is required to be proficient in guitar, piano and singing.

The field of music therapy is becoming better known and “more mainstream,” she said.

Before completing her degree, she will take a six-month internship, which she’s considering doing in a hospital where there’s “a diverse population” of patients and various music therapy approaches can be applied.

Favorable response

Meanwhile, her work at the Altru Cancer Center is well-received and gives her real-world experience.

Patients, like Jensen, who’ve requested music therapy are appreciative, said Nancy Klatt, manager of the Altru Cancer Center, where UND music therapy students have shared music and song with patients for the past couple of years. 

“Our patients have really enjoyed the music therapists. We’ve had a lot of positive comments,” Klatt said.

Chemotherapy nurse Amy Werre said, “It’s wonderful. Patients really enjoy it. You can see when they come in, if they’re not feeling well or they got a report that wasn’t so good, you see a smile right away.”

Some patients don’t have family members who sit with them through chemotherapy, Werre said, “so to have someone sing to them, it’s good.”

One patient, a World War II veteran, especially enjoys songs from his youth, she said. He and the music therapist “sing together, and it brings back the past …”

“It’s fun to see, it’s very touching,” Werre said. “You just hold back your tears and go to the next room.”