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Interview with Music Therapist, Sarah Chilcote

WriteChristianSongs.com is growing!  In September of 2013, WCS re-launched with a new look, new site, and a new trajectory.  As one of the changes, it became a multi-author blog.  So may I introduce to you, my sister, Sarah Chilcote.  Sarah works as a Music Therapist and has a unique perspective on music and it’s power to influence a person’s well being.  We are thrilled to have Sarah join the WCS team of writers!

Sarah-ChilcoteWCS: Tell us about yourself and what you are currently doing

I grew up in a small town in Ohio, the youngest of a big family. Music was always part of my life and now I’m making it full time with a career in music therapy (MT). I have just begun the second half of my internship at a hospice agency in Ohio.

WCS: What is your music background and experience?

I grew up in a musical family and participated in all things music growing up – church choir, school choir, band, and musicals. I began taking piano lessons when I was 9 years old. I received a bachelor of music in piano performance from Bowling Green State University in 2004 and then took a few years away from music before going back to school in 2011 at Shenandoah University in Winchester, VA for MT. In performance my specialty is accompanying, and I have experience accompanying several kinds of events, from auditions to church services to voice lessons to musical productions.

WCS: What led you to get into the field of Music Therapy?

I can’t recall the first time I heard about MT, but I knew of it when I was in high school. I was more focused on piano at the time so I didn’t pursue MT right away. After living in Washington D.C. for a few years with several different jobs, the idea of MT started creeping back into the forefront of my mind. I was attracted to the profession because it combines my two favorite things – music and helping others. Performing wasn’t completely fulfilling, but the idea that I could legitimately help someone using the unique connection and gift of music was fascinating and exciting for me. I began to research schools around the DC area and came upon Shenandoah. A couple years later, while on a mission trip, I got a clear sign from God that it was time to drop everything in DC and pursue this path. A year later I was accepted into the program and started that fall.

WCS: What has been the most interesting thing you have learned about Music Therapy?

That’s a tough one! I don’t know if this exactly answers the question, but to me, the most interesting thing about music therapy is figuring out a way to explain it. Music is considered a hobby, form of entertainment, or creative outlet. It’s hard for most to wrap their brains around the idea that music can be used as a tool in rehabilitation and medical professions. Several aspects of music, such as rhythm, personalization, emotion, self-expression, and teamwork can all be utilized to help someone towards a goal. As a music therapist, I have been educated on the methods and strategies in which I can use music as a tool, and have learned how to apply these methods in a clinical way, so that my patient’s needs can be met, whether that need is to learn how to use the left leg again, to prepare for death, to be able to grasp a pencil, or to climb out of depression.

WCS: How have you seen the power of music in what you do?

Here’s a couple stories from my internship:

I currently serve a hospice patient who is in his 20s. He had a tragic accident and has lost all mobility and forms of communication except opening and closing his eyes. The patient is pretty restless and has muscle spasms due to his neurological condition. When I visit him, I sit at the bedside with my guitar and sing songs that his mother has said are familiar and meaningful. When the patient isn’t too tired, he maintains eye contact with me for most of the session. Once, while I was singing to him, he had a spasm that seized up his whole body. I can’t prove this scientifically, but I felt that through our eye contact, he understood me communicating to him to focus on the music. I kept my eyes on him while playing and singing and slowly, he relaxed, keeping his eyes on me. At the end of the sessions, when I talk to him, I perceive his acknowledging of my statements by his purposeful opening and closing of his eyes. To me, this shows the power of music in distraction, relaxation, connection, and communication.

A powerful, yet logical, aspect of music happens all the time with patients who have dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. Often times, these patients can’t remember what happened five minutes ago, and will repeat the same thing to you 10 or 12 times in a session. But I can say, “Why don’t we sing ‘Let me call you….” and they will finish my sentence with, “Sweetheart.” Many of them know all the words as well, especially to hymns. The reason for this is because the part of the brain that stores song lyrics is in the long term memory and is usually not the part that is damaged, unlike the parts of the brain that control short term memory, motor, and sensory information. The benefit of this for the patient is to bring comfort, good memories, and most likely an emotional connection to the song. (This is why knowing the patient’s musical preference is our biggest asset.)

WCS: What one bit of encouragement would you give to songwriters as someone who uses songs on a daily basis?

Don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone. One of the hardest things for me right now is learning new songs. As an MT, I will be learning new songs for the rest of my life, because I will sing what the patient wants to hear. Stepping out of my comfort zone means two things: 1) playing in keys other than G and D and 2) country music. The broader and more versatile you can make your catalog, the better musician and songwriter you will be.

Sarah’s blog, Melodic Remedies, can be found at sarahchilcote.wordpress.com.

About Ben Chilcote

Ben Chilcote is a husband, dad, full-time minister and online singer/songwriter. He is a lifelong student of music and the founder of WriteChristianSongs.com.