Music as a lifesaver
Going through music therapy isn't always relaxing, fun or easy.
Cpl. Demi Bullock, 25, a former Marine, experienced post-traumatic stress disorder after her second deployment in Afghanistan. In summer 2011, music therapy was part of her treatment program.
At first, Bullock, who had played the guitar since she was 15, hated music therapy. Her therapist, Rebecca Vaudreuil, would organize activities such as a drum circle, lyric analysis, listening exercises or instrumental playing for service members in the program.
Impatience, and a desire to withdraw from emotion, quickly overtook Bullock. She refused to participate.
"I did not like playing music, having something make me feel that pain and that sadness, that can be completely overwhelming," she said.
Such resistance isn't unusual among returning military, Vaudreuil said. Some people can connect with music more than others, but in some cases it takes time and "soul-searching" for music to become a beneficial part of recovery.
Bullock rediscovered music therapy more than a year after her initial encounter with it. In January, Vaudreuil invited her to join the Semper Sound Band, a musical program through the nonprofit Resounding Joy Inc. that helps service members reintegrate into the community and promotes group cohesion. Vaudreuil was the band director at that time.
The invitation came at a particularly dark moment. Bullock was in the process of getting evicted and continued to struggle with PTSD and depression. She had also recently attempted suicide.
Bullock came to discover that jamming on a guitar, keyboard or drum set helped her cope with stress or intrusive thoughts. The band also provides a social support system and an outlet for self-expression.
"The songs that come out of it, and the process they go through, is so genuine," Vaudreuil said. "The songs are a direct reflection of their emotions, their trials, what they've been through, their experiences, and it's completely cathartic for them."
Bullock continues to play with the band, and works as an intern at Resounding Joy. Her job allows her to be on the facilitator side of music therapy, and connect with other veterans.
"If I hadn't gotten into it (music therapy), I'd literally be dead or still be homeless," Bullock said. "It literally did save my life."
Other therapists are exploring technologies that allow them to see what effect music has on the human body, and use that information to guide clients. This is called biofeedback.
Eric B. Miller, a music therapist in Phoenixville, Pa., uses real-time data about patients' physiological responses to inform how he runs sessions. He recently discussed a biofeedback method at the Interdisciplinary Society for Quantitative Research in Music and Medicine conference in Athens, Ga.
"The idea is that this information is informing me as a music therapist how I want to be playing my guitar, what tempo I'm going for," he said at the conference.
Conference attendees took turns listening to music while wearing a finger sensor. Through a computer program, a graph appeared on a projector screen showing relative heart rate, heart rate variance and skin conductivity in real time. The computer program then translated the readings from the sensor into tones, which could be heard overlayed with music.
Independent researcher Elijah Easton listened to another conference attendee (full disclosure: it was the author of this article) improvise on the piano. Easton said he found the activity relaxing; Miller noted that Easton's heart rate had decreased after the music stopped.
In a real session, Miller would create a physiological profile of a client by looking at his or her responses to sitting naturally, doing a cognitive task, relaxing and envisioning something emotional. After more relaxation, he would set up the biofeedback system of tones, and challenge the client to lower the tone, an indication of relaxation. Different tones can be assigned to different variables such as heart rate.
The point is helping clients learn the art of self-regulation, of adjusting their own bodies, Miller said.
"The music and the data are both co-therapists," Miller said.
Biofeedback-oriented music therapy can be used in a variety of conditions, including high blood pressure and seizures -- not necessarily instead of mainstream medicine, but in concert with it, Miller said.
"Western doctors may recommend it to complement existing treatment or as a trial in cases of adverse reaction to typical pharmacological remedies," he said.
In a more subtle way, Jantz also uses biofeedback with patients who are already hooked up to monitors at Boston Children's Hospital for medical reasons. When he plays music in the neonatal intensive care unit, he can see what impact strumming his guitar has by observing the heart rate graph.