by Andrew Hibel
Friday, July 28, 2017
Music therapy is a field that few people know about, but makes a large impact in the lives of the people it benefits. In this month’s interview, Andrew Hibel of HigherEdJobs spoke to Kathleen Howland, a professor of music therapy at Berklee College of Music. Howard discusses what drew her to the field of music therapy, why music therapy is so important, and best practices in music education.
Andrew Hibel, HigherEdJobs: Dr. Howland, You currently teach music therapy classes at Berklee College of Music. Please tell us a little about your background and the path that led you to work in higher education.
Kathleen Howland, Ph.D., Berklee College of Music: Following my Ph.D. in Speech-Language Pathology at the University of South Carolina, I maintained a clinical practice in music and speech therapy. I moved back to Boston and began to guest in classes at Berklee. My devotion to neuroscience as a means to better understanding the power of music was a compliment to the skills and knowledge base of my colleagues. Guesting became a way to becoming an adjunct which led to a full-time position three years ago.
Hibel: When you first learned about the profession of music therapy, what intrigued you?
Howland: The stories of how people were drawn to the profession are quite fascinating. In fact, I have filmed many of these stories for an advocacy website called Music Therapy Tales. For me, it was an epiphany to conjoin my love of music in the service of others. This was back in 1979/80 when music therapy was barely known. A former high school classmate said that she was a music therapy major at Emmanuel College in Boston. I was immediately intrigued and quite certain that that was what I wanted to do even though I was very uncertain of what it meant or entailed. It was just a natural fit and a leap of faith. I transferred colleges late in July, which was problematic, but happily I was able to begin my studies at Emmanuel in September. I have never regretted the choice and honestly can’t imagine a work life that could be more rewarding or satisfying 35 years later.
Hibel: In an article you published, you noted the numerous capabilities music therapy has such as promoting skill learning in stroke patients, decreasing the time premature babies spent in the NICU, or decreasing the level of pain felt after surgery for some patients. What are other potential benefits music therapy can provide?
Howland: Music therapy is a powerful opportunity to serve many disorders and diseases. People with Parkinson’s disease can walk better with music than without. This helps break the isolation and limitations of the disease as it progresses. It also helps these patients speak more clearly and supports their swallowing integrity. With children who are autistic, particularly very young ones, sung cues are often more attended to than spoken ones. This attentiveness to music can facilitate their speech and language development. Music is a natural and common approach to relaxation. When this is used clinically, we can support patients preparing for surgery, cancer treatments, and those who are in pain, anxious, or traumatized. Honestly, the possibilities are endless. Some of it has been formally investigated and there is much more to do but we stand on good ground.
Hibel: In that same article, you discussed how you are preparing the next generation of music therapists and you stated, “For many students, it’s an attractive opportunity – a chance to use their artistry to make the world a better place.” This is a powerful statement. What teaching methods do you use to inspire the students to do this?
Howland: I work to get to know my students on a personal level. In the first week of class, I will ask them questions about their aspirations and plans in the field as well as the observations they have made in their clinical rotations that inspire them to continue in a rigorous curriculum. Throughout the semester, I will try to continue to tailor the classes to those stated points of interest. Every semester then, the content is slightly shifted.
In the classroom, I also speak frequently about the power of music to heal and transform society. I match that vision of the role of music with a call to action both in their musical lives and their clinical lives. I speak to my students about the kind of leadership roles they can assume. When I read assignments that are well-written, I always suggest that they consider writing in the future as a contribution to the field. When I observe people who are particularly organized and innovative, I invite them to consider how those skills can serve the profession in leadership roles at the state and national level. I work to tailor my comments of the day to be an anchor in their future possibilities.
Hibel: You wrote, “[Music Therapy] is this fusion of what many consider two distinct, incompatible entities – art and science – that ultimately elevates both; and the two, as one, can more readily accomplish their shared purpose: the healing and betterment of humanity.” What do you say to those who don’t believe that art and science can’t be combined?
Howland: Neuroscience has been studying music perception and production extensively for the last 20 years or so since the advent of imaging technology. One neuroscientist told me that he felt that musical functions in the brain are beyond fascinating and feels that understanding the brain during music experiences will help scientists understand the brain better in general. That’s because music processing is diffusely activated throughout the brain and is not localized like other domains (speech, language, vision, etc.). Because of this comprehensive engagement, diseases and disorders rarely impact music functioning. Further, music processing shares neural anatomy and physiology with other skill domains (e.g. singing and speaking) as well as holding distinct areas of function (e.g. pitch perception). Because of this, we can leverage music toward rehabilitating the other skill. An excellent example is the case of aphasia (a speech/language disorder caused by a stroke or traumatic brain injury). Many expressive aphasics can sing but cannot talk (Gabby Giffords is an example of this). We can use therapeutic singing and other music-based interventions to help repair the neural connections related to communication and optimize recovery.
I have always felt that science was an asset in understanding the importance of the arts. I believe and assert that music education should be a primary subject for optimizing brain development as well as engaging cooperative and empathic behaviors in the K-12 system. It also develops a skill and passion that will be a gift for life. I’ve seen it personally when bringing music therapy to hospice patients. Nina Kraus’ website at Northwestern Univeristy gives extensive information in support of music as an important asset in child development for lifelong gains. Science, in its irrefutability, demonstrates the utmost importance of its inclusion and prominence.
Hibel: I am always interested in how (and why) musicians have incorporated philanthropy into their messages. Over the past couple of years, we have been following and supporting the efforts of Tom Petersson of Cheap Trick as he and his family explore the autism of his son. Their efforts have resulted in a project called Rock Your Speech where they use music and music videos to help children with autism. What would you recommend to influential members of the music industry on how they can use their efforts, and voices, to further the field of music therapy?
Howland: I am familiar with the Rock Your Speech efforts and applaud Tom and his family! I think and teach that musicians, who have the microphone and a following, have an opportunity, if not a responsibility, to speak to social justice and environmental issues that they care about. This generation of students has grown up under the dark cloud of global warming data, the annihilation of animal, insect and bird species, caustic political discourse, hunger, and violence. They are big hearted, globally minded, and action oriented
I have never really understood why celebrities didn’t commit more time, energy, and attention to issues of music education and music therapy. It seemed to be so natural. I have been greatly heartened and rewarded recently by my very favorite artist, Renee Fleming, becoming interested in my beloved profession. Ms. Fleming is devoting her considerable influence to bringing a brighter light to shine on music therapy. She recently hosted a marvelous event at the Kennedy Center with the head of the National Institute of Health, Francis Collins, called ‘Sound Health.’ It was the most heavenly two days I have ever spent professionally. It is my hope that this light will attract other artists to consider the power of their music to influence wellness and well being. Artists should know how important their songs have been in the treatment of people in both medical and educational settings.
Hibel: Berklee College of Music has fostered some well known musicians, such as John Mayer and Charlie Puth, in addition to 114 almuni receiving 275 Grammys. Obviously Berklee’s approach to music education is successful. What are some of the key competencies and best practices that Berklee follows?
Howland: The core music curriculum at Berklee is a system that has been tried and true. It is extensive and focused. The faculty are active musicians, therapists, and educators who live a robust life in music, often maintaining their own careers recording and performing while teaching.
Hibel: What keeps you engaged working in the field of music therapy in higher education?
Howland: The hope and firmly held belief that music therapy is reaching a place of honor and that the field is being positioned to be included extensively in both medical and educational settings. It may no longer be a service that only people with means can access. It will be made available to all equitably because it has proven benefits. It is to this that I maintain my commitment to teaching and cultivating the next generation to assume roles in leadership, to contribute to research, to advocate for the profession with science as the basis for their assertions, to be deeply skilled in the interventions we have developed, and to be innovative in adding to that base of efficacious practices. It gives me great joy to work toward this every day I step in the classroom.