We use this word because it indicates the idea of change without assuming exactly how that change might come about or what its lasting effects might be. Everyone’s encounter with music, dance, or theatre is unique, and the impact made is just as personal. Arts can transport, invigorate, evoke emotions, cultivate relationships, educate, and connect.

And, arts can even heal.

The music and arts informed therapy department at the FIM Flint School of Performing Arts has been growing by leaps and bounds over the past year, both in personnel and in its connection to the community — and not by coincidence. Once clients and partners see the effects of music therapy and other arts-informed interventions to enhance traditional treatments and interventions, they are immediately won over by the proof in the pudding.

“I observe patients exploring and expressing emotions more in the music therapy classes than their everyday groups,” says Nakia Allen, nurse manager of Hurley’s Behavioral Health Unit. Both her adult and adolescent patients are visited each week by Taieshia Tindall, one of FSPA’s four board-certified music therapists.

“Studies show that, when compared to standard treatment, music therapy improves depressive symptoms, anxiety, and functioning in individuals with mental illness, and helps increase self-awareness, confidence and communication skills,” Allen adds. “And our patients eagerly anticipate the coming of [FIM] staff.”

Tindall, who once knew without a doubt that she wanted to be a pediatrician, is grateful for the opportunity to engage with patients at Hurley, among her other clientele. Instead of pediatrics, Tindall chose to pursue a career that combines work in psychology and special education with her passion and knack for music. “Music therapy is the best of both worlds,” explains Tindall.

Holly Taylor, a school counselor at Kearsley’s Dowdall Elementary, also stands by the decision to incorporate music therapy as an intervention for small groups of students. Taylor says the second and third grade students in music therapy groups at the school have responded very positively to the sessions.

“We have been incredibly grateful to have Miss Katie [Dunkelberger] working with small groups since September,” Taylor says. “Music therapy is much different than other behavior interventions as it taps into an art that many children have not had experience with, and Miss Katie bases her lessons and supports on the needs and temperaments of the students in the group. All of the children who have participated enjoy going,” she says.

Like Tindall, Katie Dunkelberger, the FSPA music therapist who assists at Dowdall Elementary as well as a number of other sites, gravitated to the practice as a unique way to balance her inclinations as a musician and healer. “I really wanted to do some kind of helping profession that supports the whole family,” Dunkelberger says. “And using music as a tool is something that I really enjoy.”

But what is music therapy?

That’s a valid question, and one that all music therapists are prepared to answer with regularity. In fact, Janelle Ballard, another of FSPA’s music therapists and chair of the department, says that she has to explain her job to others almost daily. “They tell you in school that you’ll be explaining this for the rest of your life,” she admits.

Simply put, music therapists use music as a tool to meet specific cognitive, social, emotional, behavioral and even physical goals. “We’re learning piano to work on fine motor skills, songwriting to work on processing of emotions, and so on,” Dunkelberger explains. Ballard adds that classes of young students will use small instruments like xylophones to practice following instructions, exercise patience and retain sequences.

All music therapists are equipped with skills in voice, guitar and piano and use instruments to engage clients in the music-making process according to their abilities. But every class looks different than the last, as the specialization requires them to work toward a broad spectrum of healthcare and educational outcomes for a variety of patients. Each patient is assessed and assigned a specific treatment plan, according to their needs, and therapists carefully document progress as they proceed through the prescribed treatment. According to the American Music Therapy Association, some general goals of a music therapy regimen may include managing stress, alleviating pain, expressing feelings, enhancing memory, improving communication, and promoting physical rehabilitation.

Ballard, who joined the FSPA staff last April, can attest to the breadth of skill and emotional fortitude required to practice music therapy across populations. She worked for 10 years at a hospice organization, during which time she used music to comfort patients during their end-of-life care. “Now that I’ve had some distance from hospice, I can look back and realize I was doing good things for people,” says Ballard. “It’s hard to see when you’re up close and personal, doing the work each day. But coming here, watching the therapists on my team make connections with kids, seeing all the pictures and drawings they get, getting to watch people make progress and thrive — I know we are doing something important.”

Dunkelberger agrees that the reward of her work at FSPA far outweighs the emotional toll it can sometimes take to serve populations of dysregulated individuals. While the practice does require a particular skillset to work toward defined goals, “at the end of the day, we’re just making music with folks,” she says. “So it’s never hard to roll out of bed and get to work. I just get to play some drums with some kids who are working on social skills. And really, that’s a pretty great day.”

But the best part about practicing at FSPA? “It’s definitely the tuition assistance,” says Ballard. Music therapy isn’t always recognized as a medical intervention by insurance companies, so billing for it is rarely an option, which makes treatment inaccessible to many families. At FSPA, Ballard finds great reward in knowing there are fewer barriers to reaping the benefits of her practice.

In her first year at FIM, Ballard has embraced the opportunity to educate the community on the benefits of music therapy and has added at least 15 new organizational partnerships to the FSPA music therapy roster. That number is sure to grow, now that the department has broadened its focus to include all arts-informed therapies. In addition to schools and the hospital behavioral unit, Ballard recently initiated a program at Voices for Children, a safehouse for adolescent victims of sexual abuse, and began an inclusive dance program at FSPA. She also hopes to incorporate music therapy into NICU care as an intervention for both parents and infants.

As if that isn’t enough paperwork for one year, Ballard also plans to establish FSPA as an internship site for students of music therapy in the coming year. “If we’re a national roster internship site, then anyone in America can come intern at FSPA,” explains Ballard. “It’s a great way to gain visibility for our program, and a good way to get new therapists to Flint.”

Additional therapists may certainly be in order if the FSPA music and arts informed therapy department continues to expand. And under Ballard’s proactive guidance, there is little chance it won’t. Now that word has spread about the healing power of music, more organizations are considering the practice of music therapy to enhance traditional treatments, and Ballard is open to discuss all possibilities — even when they are sure to land her music therapists behind bars.

Music IGNITES new hope

Country music star, Jelly Roll, recently made waves in Flint when he visited the Genesee County Jail to participate in a graduation ceremony and reward inmates with a brief, private concert. As a former inmate in jails across Texas, and now a rising celebrity musician, Jelly Roll is not only an example of the transformative power of music, but a role model for inmates who want to successfully reintegrate into society.

That’s exactly the goal of I.G.N.I.T.E., a program of the Genesee County Jail. The acronym stands for Inmate Growth Naturally and Intentionally Through Education, and the program model founded by Sheriff Chris Swanson has already spread to more than 12 sites in 11 states throughout the country. Through a series of vocational and academic courses, including both high school diploma and G.E.D. tracks, inmates are able to access knowledge and skills that enhance their ability to thrive, both during their incarceration and upon release.

It was a natural evolution, then, to introduce courses that would reinforce positive mental and emotional health among I.G.N.I.T.E. participants. And in February, Tindall and Dunkelberger began a six-week pilot program to incorporate music therapy into the educational regimen at the jail.

“Music is a part of everybody’s life. It’s therapeutic, inspirational, and educational,” says Sheriff Swanson of his choice to include music therapy in the I.G.N.I.T.E. course offerings. “For a population that impacts everybody in the country, what better tool to use for rehabilitation and freedom from addiction than the power of music.”

For Tindall, who has experienced the incarceration of family members, and Dunkelberger, who has worked as a therapist for juvenile delinquents, the potential impact of music therapy interventions with inmates are innumerable.
“This opportunity gives more visibility to the scope of possibility for music therapy,” says Dunkelberger. “So much visibility for the practice revolves around veterans or small children with disabilities or the elderly. But this program broadens the visibility and the benefits it can have on different populations.”

“There are no boundaries around who can be part of the group,” Tindall adds, noting that music therapy can have positive impacts on just about anyone. “They don’t have to have cognitive disabilities or special mental health disorders. It can treat anxiety, depression, trauma; anything.”

The small group of inmates meet with Tindall and Dunkelberger once each week for 45 minutes. They spend some time getting to know each other to build the trust and rapport necessary to be vulnerable with themselves, the therapists and each other. They continue by improvising on musical instruments, like a variety of drums, reflecting on ideas like leadership and support, and assessing any feelings that arise. And they finish with mindfulness activities that involve deep breathing and muscle relaxation.

For folks who rarely leave the confines of their small cell, treats like a change of scenery and listening to music are massive rewards that can impact their moods and behaviors.
“On a basic level, we talked with inmates about how the music therapy sessions break up the day,” says Dunkelberger. “They get to do things they don’t normally get to do, which does wonders for mental health.”
Tindall adds that the music experiences are an opportunity to humanize inmates and foster new coping mechanisms in their otherwise stressful environment. “It’s a great form of escape and coping. They learn they can take advantage of the music and the tools we give them to be creative and expressive, and that they can do it inside the jail and when they get out.”

Despite the restrictive entry protocol, the music therapists insist that this population is one of the most cooperative and safe they have worked with.
“These are people we don’t have access to every day. It’s really interesting to get into these corners of society that no one really sees,” says Dunkelberger. “But they’re all pretty regulated, we’re not seeing them at their worst point.

These are just some guys playing drums,” she says.

One important safety measure involves stationing an officer inside the room during the therapy session, but participants say the watchful eye doesn’t impede the progress of the group at all. “Even the officer gets involved, and they are always relating to the group on some level,” says Dunkelberger, who notes that it’s interesting to watch the musical connection break down barriers. “At the end of the class, even the officer on duty felt better for participating,” she says.

As Sheriff Swanson continues to improve and expand the I.G.N.I.T.E. program in the Genesee County Jail and throughout the country, he has every intention of making music an integral part of the curriculum. He even announced in March that he will be opening the Jelly Roll Jailhouse Recording Studio, named after the performer and role model who sparked the integration of music therapy classes and has promised special funding for the project.
“Now folks in the I.G.N.I.T.E. program can begin with music appreciation or music therapy and proceed into music production. At the end of their program, they’ll have something they can take home with them,” says Swanson of his vision to further uplift and rehabilitate through the arts with the new studio.

Even before they have access to a studio, Tindall is confident that the lessons learned in their music therapy classes empower inmates by instilling a sense of accomplishment. “They can take what we create in each session and have something to be proud of, something to take with them.”

“When we met with inmates in our first session, one mentioned he was focusing on rehabilitation and not reincarceration,” says Dunkelberger. “And we want to focus on how we can give them tools to process through music, and maybe help bring down recidivism rates. Or even spread the word that this cool music therapy thing is an effective resource and intervention.”

For more information, or to learn how you can support the music therapy program at FIM, contact Janelle Ballard, chair of the music therapy department at FSPA, at jballard@thefim.org.