For this column, Daniel Lang, OTR/L, interviews the Brattleboro Retreat’s inpatient music therapist, Ayla Clark, MA, Ph.D.
What is music therapy?
Music touches all aspects of life — physical, emotional, psychological and behavioral. Music therapy is a treatment used in clinical settings as a complimentary or alternative therapy that helps develop coping skills, emotional regulation, leisure and recreation skills, and interpersonal effectiveness. Also, mindfulness, distress tolerance, the list goes on! What music can do is endless.
How long have you been a music therapist?
What techniques do you use, and why?
Number one is drumming. Drumming techniques are so important. They help the body fight against neurological and psychological disorders. It brings people together. It’s so important for socializing. Second is singing. Writing and singing songs. They say singing is so beneficial, it’s like a mega-vitamin for the brain. Even singing for a short duration. Third is playing a musical instrument or listening to music. This is helpful for learning and inspiration, memory building, cognitive skills and confidence, too.
What do you enjoy about music?
(Big smile) It is healing. I love it. It gives me calm feelings. We all have up and down cycles. When I play an instrument, I heal what’s happening in me in five minutes. My troubles have less effect on me, and I start to feel happy. That’s why I tell the patients it’s so important to be involved with music.
Do you think patients can tell music is having a positive impact on you, as well as them?
Oh yes. It’s like having an electric wire between you and them. Positive energy circulates between us. I feel it, too. If I see a person being healed by music in my group, I feel better, too. Patients often comment on how healing it is to play music, or to listen to a piece they like. They say, “Thank you so much. I feel better. I needed that.”
That’s beautiful! What is your favorite part of working with people?
Helping them. That’s it. I like to help them. It’s a very nice feeling to help someone going through something difficult, like depression. I can see they are healing. Then when the next session comes, they’re waiting for it. I never push them to come to the group. Whoever’s interested joins. It’s so important to me that they want to do it.
Yes, that’s right.
Does anything surprise you about the work?
Sometimes when people listen to music, they start to cry. It’s not really a surprise. I support them in what they’re doing, sharing their feelings. I leave them with their feelings for a few minutes. People apologize and ask if it's OK. I say, “Absolutely, it’s like laughing. Thank you for sharing your feelings.” Emotional expression can make people a little uncomfortable, so I use non-verbal language, presence and other skills to encourage calm in a supported process.
Can you tell me about the instrument you play?
In elementary school I started singing, then I wanted to learn an instrument. I was very attracted to the kanun (a 75-string instrument prevalent in Eastern Europe and the Middle East with variations in Japan and China). It’s a very cheerful instrument. Emotional and cheerful at the same time. Like Greek, Turkish or Irish music.
Do you have a nickname for your instrument?
(Laughs heartily) Not really. Maybe I should!
Thank you for what you bring to our patients, Ayla!
Thank you so much for giving me this opportunity!
Ayla Clark, MA, Ph.D., is a music therapist at the Brattleboro Retreat. She has a master's in music therapy and a Ph.D. in music therapy, with a focus on the elderly.
Daniel Lang, OTR/L, directs the OT Department at the Brattleboro Retreat. He has a master's in occupational therapy and is in his advanced year for Somatic Experiencing.