Drum mallets pound inches from Nicholas Fice’s face and he is grinning from ear to ear.
It’s a music therapy class at the Sensity Resource Centre in Paris, Ont. and 19-year-old Nicholas has his chin on the skin of a big table drum in the centre of the room. He craves the intense, room-shaking vibrations given off by the instrument during the energetic playing by his peers.
But it wasn’t always this way for Nicholas. When he started coming to music therapy about one year ago he was not able to stay for more than 10 minutes before he would become overwhelmed and want to leave.
“He now not only stays for the entire hour – but actively and independently participates throughout,” said music therapist Amy Di Nino.
Placing his head atop Di Nino’s guitar to feel the vibrations as she strums the strings, Nicholas signs “more” at the end of the song.
“He now expresses his desires and makes choices because he can access the music in a way that is meaningful to him,” Di Nino said.
Just as each individual’s deafblindness is unique, each benefits in different ways from the music therapy sessions.
John Westerterp Jr. assists his peers and engages with them in a more musical way – both verbally and non-verbally.
“He has grown as a musician and feels comfortable supporting others to do the same,” Di Nino said, describing the leadership skills she sees evolving in John Jr. during the classes.
For Alecia Purkiss, another of the regular participants, music therapy is a confidence booster. At a recent class, she joined Di Nino in a duet in front of her peers.
“It’s fun for me and I love it for sure,” Alecia said.
The energetic classes are clearly fun but there’s much more to music therapy. Why does it work?
Di Nino, who is an accredited neurological music therapist, says technological advances in the field of brain anatomy and cognitive science such as magnetic resonance imaging have allowed neuroscientists to make significant advances in explaining how the human brain converts sound waves into music. These findings are adding to an impressive body of evidence that suggests music can trigger physiological changes far beyond the purely cognitive.
“If we think about neurotransmitters such as dopamine – critical to the co-ordination of movement, the regulation of mood and the brain’s reward system – and serotonin – known to regulate mood and sleep – these are both triggered by active and passive music making and have such a powerful influence over mood states and body functions,” she said.
There are four steps to how people process sound. There is an awareness that something has begun to vibrate. It’s followed by how the sound makes them feel, then recognition of the sound and finally comprehension of the sound.
“No matter how isolated one might be within their world, the elements of music – rhythm, timbre, melody, harmony, tempo, meter, texture, dynamics – stimulate the auditory cortex of each individual’s brain, and I cannot think of any other stimuli that does that for each and every deafblind person,” Di Nino said.
Kristi Clark, special projects intervenor at Sensity, met Di Nino while attending music therapy with a consumer several years ago.
“I just saw the overwhelming change in the person’s demeanor and her attitude throughout the evening when we attended,” Clark recalled.
The memory stuck with Clark and she was happy to reconnect with Di Nino to provide weekly music therapy to consumers as part of Sensity’s special projects intervention programming.
“It has absolutely exceeded my expectations,” Clark said.
Music therapy pushes new boundaries and experiences for consumers.
Each week there are examples of independent behaviour; some spontaneous and some encouraged by Di Nino.
“Sunshine,” sang Matthew Healy, smiling after a dramatic pause, as he finished the line “You are my …” started by Di Nino.
“Don’t take my sunshine,” sang Meaghan Severs to more cheers.
Other times consumers follow Di Nino’s lead with an instrument such as a hand drum. The music therapist described it as “call-and-response” playing. It may be a striking the same number of notes or following her changes in tempo.
Di Nino explained that anticipation, curiosity and imitation are motivators for communication. All are in play during music therapy.
“If they can anticipate, then they’re going to be more likely to communicate,” Di Nino said.
“So here we are having a conversation with consumers who may be non-verbal … they’re able to understand that we’re playing together and they’re able to express themselves in ways that they wouldn’t be able to do,” she said.
Clark agreed wholeheartedly, citing the experience of participant Allison Kimmerer.
“When Allison (Kimmerer) first started with music therapy she would become very red in the face and almost shy and almost withdraw when it was her turn,” Clark said.
“But now she is so comfortable, she knows what to anticipate. That is a big thing with a lot of our individuals – anticipation, knowing what to expect, what’s next. Allison, you can see her making those independent choices,” she said.
The vital role of intervenors
Both Di Nino and Clark acknowledge the vital role of intervenors during music therapy.
“I can't emphasize enough with our deafblind men and women participating in music therapy – goals wouldn’t be achieved without the dedication and ‘Do With, Not For’ approach of each and every intervenor,” Di Nino said.
To help them, Di Nino held special sessions of music therapy solely for intervenors, leading them through the same types of activities the consumers would experience.
Intervenors Brittany Malcolm and Tarisa DeBoer put the lessons to use, demonstrating quick thinking and creativity with consumer Andreina Rodrigues. Because of the height of her chair, Andreina’s feet weren’t quite able to reach the floor to tap to the beat of I Will Survive, so the intervenors placed one of Andreina’s feet over their own, moving them to the beat. Instead of hand-under-hand, they called it “foot-under-foot” intervention.
Parents were also treated to a session of music therapy at Sensity’s annual Parent Conference in Collingwood, Ont. last October.
It inspired one attendee to anonymously donate the Remo Tunable Drum Table that so enthralls Nicholas, imported from California.
Parent Patty Coleman said she appreciates what music therapy provides for her daughter, Kimberly, who has no vision and some residual hearing.
“She is very tactile defensive, it’s very hard to get her to do things. This isn’t forcing her to do it but it’s exposing her to it,” said Coleman, who watches and smiles when Kimberly places a hand atop of the drum table or reaches for an instrument held by her intervenors.
Coleman said she also appreciates the social aspect of music therapy for Kimberly, who is an only child and doesn’t have a lot of contact with others except for her intervenors and parents.
“It gives her more of a normal life,” her mom said.
“There’s just such a spiritual feel with everyone playing at once,” said Marjorie Odell, one of Kimberly’s intervenors.
The social aspect extends to other staff who work at the Resource Centre, many of whom duck their heads through the door to observe when they hear the music echoing through the building.
“That’s my favourite day at work, when I can come in and hear everybody having a great time and I get to listen to music all day. There is always great anticipation from all the people who have been to Amy’s classes at the Resource Centre,” said Leah Cameron, director of services.
Di Nino had no experience with deafblindness before taking a job with W. Ross Macdonald School in Brantford, Ont. 15 years ago.
“The learning curve was very steep … it took me at least five years to feel comfortable in my abilities to be connecting effectively through music,” said Di Nino, who received a provincial award for teaching excellence in 2012 for her work at WRMS and is one of the few music therapists in North America working with individuals who are deafblind.
She is now completing her master’s degree in therapy at Berklee College of Music in Boston, has her own private practice, ADD Music Wellness, and is creating an interactive music book that can be used by educators, intervenors and music therapists working with deafblind individuals.
Di Nino encourages other organizations working with individuals who are deafblind to explore adding music therapy. Almost every country and within that, every state or province, has an organization where they can find a music therapist, she said. In Canada, it’s the Canadian Association of Music Therapy (CAMT) and the Music Therapy Association of Ontario (MTAO).
“Music therapy allows everyone to participate without any experience required. In every music therapy session I observe deafblind individuals being empowered through music,” she said.
Sensity held its first-ever Christmas concert in December 2016, building on momentum from the music therapy program. Consumers performed to a packed room at the Resource Centre. Clark said one of her goals is to have more group performances for the public.
“There is nothing better than when the consumer can say, ‘Hey, look at me, this is what I’ve accomplished. This is what I’ve done. I can do this,’” she said.
“There are melodies and rhythms that these men and women need to create that give them and deafblindness a voice within our world,” Di Nino said.