POTSDAM — Music inspires, it motivates, it makes hard tasks easier to do — and it can help us heal.
“We seek music for our own therapeutic health,” said Michael D. Viega, president of the Mid-Atlantic Region of the American Music Therapy Association and an assistant professor at SUNY New Paltz.
Professionals trained in both therapy and music can use this aspect of music to achieve specific goals for people of all ages and conditions. There are about 7,000 of these certified music therapists in the country, but only one in the north country — Tracy Wanamaker, a visiting instructor at the Crane School of Music teaching special music education and board-certified music therapist.
Ms. Wanamaker first learned about music therapy at Shenandoah University, Winchester, Va., where her roommate was a music therapy major. Originally planning to study voice performance, Ms. Wanamaker quickly decided to change tracks.
“I knew that I wanted to work with kids, I knew that I liked people with disabilities, I knew that I wanted to use music,” Ms. Wanamaker said. “And music therapy kind of brought all that together.”
Ms. Wanamaker has been in Potsdam for 20 years, and continues a private practice on top of her teaching at Crane.
“Tracy is such a gem that we have here,” said Linda T. Reece, whose daughter, Katelyn A. Reece, is one of Ms. Wanamaker’s clients. “Music therapy isn’t all that common ... and she has done a fabulous job of finding ways to interact with the community and provide services in a wide range of settings.”
Music therapy as a profession goes back to treating shell-shocked soldiers returning from World War I, Mr. Viega said. It started to become formalized in the 1950s and has developed from there. Now music therapy has two dedicated journals and is practiced around the world, including in South Africa, Korea, Europe and Israel.
The licensing process varies, but in New York, there is no state licensing process. There are, however, professional requirements among music therapists, who have to obtain an MT-BC license, given by the Certification Board for Music Therapists. In New York, a music therapist who wants to practice psychotherapy also has to become a state-licensed creative arts therapist.
“Music therapists in New York ... work in ways that are akin to mental health professionals,” Mr. Viega said.
Even without the creative-arts license, music therapists can work with a wide variety of demographics.
“Music therapists work from neonatal to end of life,” Ms. Wanamaker said.
Much of her work is with children and adults with disabilities, but music therapy has also been used for veterans, people in rehab, and others.
Because people tend to have misconceptions about music therapy, Ms. Wanamaker is clear about what music therapy is not.
It is not music education — the goal is not to get people better at playing an instrument. It is not music for entertainment. It is not even therapeutic music, provided by trained professionals, often to some of the same demographic.
“There’s plenty of therapeutic musicians that are out there that do some pretty amazing things where they go in and they make music with people, but they’re not really working on goals,” Ms. Wanamaker said. “We’re trained not only as musicians, but we’re also trained as therapists to identify goals, to evaluate, to assess.”
Using that assessment, therapists create treatment plans and work with clients to achieve those goals. Ms. Wanamaker compares the difference between therapeutic music and music therapy to the difference between a physical trainer and a physical therapist — both can be useful, but they fulfill different functions.
A music therapist also can avoid hurting clients.
“People have difficulty understanding you actually can cause harm with music,” Ms. Wanamaker said. “We all have those music experiences that bring back memories,” and those memories are not always good.
The ability of therapists to monitor situations and adjust treatment plans helps clients make clear progress towards their goals.
For Katelyn Reece, who has Rett Syndrome — a rare genetic condition that severely limits her mobility and prevents her from speaking — the goal of working with Ms. Wanamaker was maintaining and restoring some of her dexterity.
“Back in 2012, Katie had a series of severe seizures and lost a lot of function, so we really have relied almost totally on the music therapy to help restore some of that lost movement,” said Linda T. Reece, Katelyn’s mother. “Kate’s way of participating in most anything is using a switch, and she had lost some of that ability use her hand ... so Tracy has worked really hard to get the left hand movement back again.”
Ms. Wanamaker does a number of music-related programs outside her private therapy practice. She teaches at Crane three days a week, teaching future music educators how to adapt to students with disabilities. Crane does not offer music therapy as a major.
Ms. Wanamaker also leads recreational music programs of the St. Lawrence County Arts Council for children and adults with disabilities.
Her therapy sessions, though, are all one-on-one. Most of her clients do a variety of therapies, and music therapy can connect them — like for 6-year-old Taygen E. Clark, who has cerebral palsy and epilepsy.
“Music therapy just kind of pulls everything together,” said Jennifer L. Clark, Taygen’s mother. “So it works on her speech, it also works on her physical motor, her gross and fine motor skills, and it helps with her academic learning and it makes it in a more fun and motivating manner for her.”
Music therapy also works particularly well for students who find music to be a strong motivator to begin with, like Aiden Jagger Hernandez, 5, who has cerebral palsy and is clinically blind.
“When I was pregnant, any time there was some classic rock going on he was jumping around and moving, hence Jagger,” said Jennifer H. Hernandez, Aiden’s mother. “And he fits it well, I really think he fits it well.”
For children like Aiden, who may have difficulty speaking, music can help unlock other parts of the brain to help them communicate. Ms. Hernandez works for New York State Office for People with Developmental Disabilities, and has seen a number of children benefit in this way from music therapy.
“In one case a child might not be verbal ... but yet completely can sing a song and sing it perfectly and have no issue,” she said. “With us, we found that Aiden kind of gets his voice a little bit more, he will memorize songs and be able to reiterate those during therapy.”
As the only therapist in the north country, Ms. Wanamaker is busy. She teaches Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays in the morning and sees clients in the afternoon. On Tuesdays and Thursdays she visits sites outside Potsdam, where she runs educational and entertainment programs.
“Tuesday and Thursday I’m traveling, going to all of my sites around the area,” she said. “I travel as far as over to Ogdensburg, up to Massena, down to Watertown, so I’m in the car a lot.”
Ms. Wanamaker says she gets requests for new sites almost weekly, and now has a waiting list for clients.
“Our music therapist Tracy Wanamaker is stretched very thin,” Ms. Hernandez said. “Fortunately she has a great heart and allows herself to be stretched very thin, but she is our only therapist up here.”
While she does a lot of work with community groups, like the St. Lawrence Arts Council, the only music-therapy clients she has are private. No schools locally offer it to students.
Ms. Wanamaker says there is a call in local schools for music therapists, both to work with individual students and from music teachers looking for help in teaching music to children with disabilities.
Some BOCES districts have music therapy as a provided service, including some in New York state, but St. Lawrence-Lewis BOCES does not.
“We’ve continually fought to try and get it into the school system,” Ms. Hernandez said. “So that’s something as parents and as advocates we fight really hard for in all of our (individualized education program) meetings and really push for it ... And then we might be able to get some more therapists up here.”
According to officials at BOCES, however, no school districts — each of which oversees the IEP process for its students — have requested music therapy.
“Quite frankly, we haven’t done our homework in regards to music therapy, because it hasn’t been requested by any of our districts,” said St. Lawrence-Lewis BOCES Superintendent Thomas R. Burns.
If a district decided that music therapy was beneficial for a student’s IEP, then BOCES would try to provide that.
“Where we can, we’re the people that say yes, not the people that say no,” Mr. Burns said. “When the districts come to us and ask for something, we do our utmost to provide it. What we’re running up against in all areas, but particularly in special education, is a lack of providers.”
There is also the issue of funding, which is always short in local districts.
“A few years ago our schools were having trouble keeping paper and pencils where they needed to be,” Ms. Wanamaker said. “So adding anything is always tricky at the schools, simply for that funding reason.”
And then there are the challenges of living in the north country.
“There was a music therapist who grew up in the Massena area that I talked to briefly,” Ms. Wanamaker said. “When I asked if she was coming back, her basic response was, ‘Why?’”
Despite all these challenges, Ms. Wanamaker has no intention of stopping her work any time soon.
“I have one gentleman at one of my facilities that, according to the people that work there, the only time he really brightens up in his week is when I come in the door,” she said. “It’s February, it’s snowy, it’s horrible, you don’t want to get in the car and drive anywhere. And so I come in the door, thinking, ‘Why do I keep doing this?’ and then I see his face and I’m like, ‘This is why I keep doing this.’”