Scott Smith can be a bit shy. But his eyes brighten and his hands turn joyous circles when music therapist Amy Davis pulls out a guitar. "Hello, Scott," she sings, "how are you today?"
The 10-year-old sings back with surprising clarity despite his tracheotomy tube: "I feel good . . . and you?" Scott has congenital myopathy, which means his disease slows muscle development.
"Today, we’ll be working on verbal skills, and fine and gross motor coordination," says Davis, of Mesa’s Therapy Zone. Science can map genes, find tumors and treat many illnesses before they occur. But mysteries remain: How to reach trauma victims, the autistic, the disabled or those without speech. Modern medicine is discovering, with increasing frequency, that those unreachable through mainstream science are often accessible though art.
Used therapeutically, music and art treat patients by reaching them on an emotional level. "Scott is a good example," says Davis. "He responds to music. We develop his verbal skills through singing, because he loves to sing."
Music has access because it communicates in a realm beyond words. "In nursing homes, you’ll see patients with end-stage Alzheimer’s, who can’t talk. But they’ll respond to a piece of music," says Davis.
"The basic response to music is hard-wired," says Barbara Crowe, a professor at Arizona State University’s School of Music. She says music touches us on a basic level. "The auditory nerve first impacts the brain at the level of the brain stem, where autonomic functions are." Auditory nerves also run through the midbrain, our emotional center. "If someone does a musicrelated activity, their whole brain just lights up, she says. "It activates many areas simultaneously."
Davis runs Scott through exercises combining music with treatment goals: Dancing incorporates various physical drills. Color-coded piano keys challenge his dexterity. A game in which he must demonstrate different emotions by making faces and pounding and bongo rhythms teaches Scott to correlate feeling, energy and facial expression. Scott performs each task with gusto.
"We think the program is wonderful," says Denise Schaefer, Scott’s caretaker. "Scott was kind of in this little shell when he began. Now, he’s really opened up."
Music therapy is often used as part of a team-treatment approach, to soothe patients and facilitate recovery. "Music doesn’t cure them," says Crowe, "but autistic children respond to rhythm and structure. A familiar song helps Alzheimer’s patients use the memory function they still have."
Banner Desert Medical Center and Scottsdale Healthcare hospitals employ music therapists. And music plays a role in everything from childbirth to traumatic brain injuries. "Stroke patients use rhythm to regain a walking gait," says Crowe. "I’ve seen awesome videotape of patients shambling, then the music comes on, and off they go."
AN ABSTRACT BAROMETER
Creative therapies can also cut through the static of conscious thought. Jackie Kahn, a Mesa-based counselor and art therapist, has an office full of plaster masks. "When a client comes in, I ask them to pick their favorite mask," she says. Kahn’s clients — mostly young people, referred through charter schools or Child Protective Services — select a mask and Kahn asks a few questions as they study it: Why that mask? What traits do you see in it? Does it remind you of anyone? What would you say to that person?
"Within a few minutes, I can know a lot about you," she says. "I know some details about your life. I know what traits you value in others. Art therapy is a nonthreatening way to release the subconscious and get to the core issues. Talk-based therapy carries a whole lot of selfconsciousness. But the beauty of art therapy is that you can cut right to the chase."
Art therapy takes two forms. Clients can create art for its therapeutic effects. "I work with a lot of [attentiondeficit (hyperactivity) disorder] kids," says Kahn. "I have them use markers. A nice, clean line gives a sense of control, and they always have issues with control. Stressed people get watercolors, and paper with lots of space. They respond to that."
Therapist Rebecca Wilkinson says client art can also be used as a diagnostic tool. "I work in a psychiatric hospital in Tucson," she says. "Our clients often have a difficult time communicating. Expressive therapies allow us a glimpse inside that’s inaccessible by other means."
Creative therapies are often used as part of a team treatment approach. Wilkinson says client art can be very revealing. "You get a tangible object that tells you, metaphorically, what the client is experiencing in a way more condensed than words."
Creative therapies continue to redefine themselves, but therapists like Wilkinson remain astonished by art’s ability to reach difficult patients. "A person who has shut down, even a psychotic, will sit with an art project and give you a completely different picture of their internal experience," she says. "They’ll go from agitation to introspection. Maybe they’ll jump right back afterward. But for an hour, they’re engaged. It’s phenomenal."