Meet the locals who play a fundamental role in the fascinating world of music therapy
At Dominican Hospital, music is respiratory therapist Earl White’s secret weapon. With the stressful job of treating anyone—from infants to geriatrics—having difficulty breathing with medication, a ventilator, and/or a breathing tube, White is constantly surrounded by patients and families in distress.
Feeling desperate to restore their sense of hope and calm their nerves, White began to bring his fiddle to work with him every day.
“If a patient’s really worrying about their health, that sadness can lead to depression,” he explains. “I’ve found that playing music kind of helps to take them out of that zone for a little bit.”
He doesn’t just play the fiddle for patients, either. White often invites them to sing along with him, which doubles as a pulmonary rehabilitation technique to exercise their diaphragms. When a patient has shortness of breath, he asks him or her to try to whistle a tune with him. “The main benefit is taking them out of that mode of worry,” he says.
White compares his slightly unconventional methods to a movement that occurred a few years ago, in which there was a push to build greenhouses and daycare centers at nursing homes. “What they found was that when patients had exposure to gardening, music, or kids, they could greatly reduce the amount of medications they were on, like anti-depressants,” he explains. “That level of happiness contributed to rehabilitation.
“In the hospital, it works the same way,” he continues. “Music lifts their spirits. It makes the patients happier as well as the staff, and they’re often able to cut down on the medications they have to give.”
Rehabilitation can be a long, slow process, but with the help of people like White, patients can escape their health woes—if only for a few minutes—and also see their own progress. Now when White sees tears, he can find comfort in the fact that they’re tears of happiness.
“Being able to play for them and see an expression of joy, especially after you’ve worked with them for a week, and up until that day they couldn’t share in the experience—the joy from seeing the light and response makes it all worth it,” he says.
White is just one of several Santa Cruzans who harnesses the healing power of music on a daily basis to serve the community. From doctors, to trained music therapists, to choirs, the town is brimming with people who comfort and help rehabilitate the sick, the injured, the lonely, those with special needs, and people battling addictions, through song.
A Shared Language
When her sister died of cancer 10 years ago, Kelsey Ramage of Santa Cruz decided to join the local Threshold Choir in her memory. Founded 12 years ago this March, by Kate Munger in Oakland, the Threshold Choir is a nonprofit women’s organization that spans across the country, and sings a cappella at the bedsides of people who are sick, dying, and recovering from illness or injury. Considering it’s widely believed that hearing is both the first sense to develop, and the last to go before people die, it’s not hard to see why.
“The choir helped me through the end of her life, and when my son was in the military—it’s helped me through some rough times,” says Ramage. “I found this little community of women, and it’s been a real nurturing connection.”
Armed with a repertoire of 450 non-religious songs with simple messages that focus on love and life, the choir members travel around town from hospice facilities, to hospitals, to patients’ homes, in groups of two or three, and share the joy of music with people of all ages and walks of life. While the choir primarily does one-time patient visits, if requested they will sing for people several times over the course of a couple years.
“Singing cuts through all differences between us,” says Marti Mariette, co-director of the Santa Cruz Threshold Choir, which now boasts more than 100 members. Ramage adds, “It connects people elementally—there’s no judgment, it’s very non-threatening. It’s like a lullaby at the other end of life.”
Like a shared language, women in Threshold Choirs across the country and around the world can unite at gatherings, without having met previously, and be able to sing the same songs together. Similar to Ramage and Mariette, who found the choir when her mother was on her deathbed seven years ago, most Threshold members join through some form of loss. But, as Mariette attests, loss helps people to see what is most important in life, and the women end up staying in the choir because they want to serve others.
“The women in the group are called to it—if you can carry a tune and feel the shivers down your spine, it’s for you,” says Mariette. “I felt this incredible sense of relief the first time we sang. Dealing with death, and going through the emotions of losing a loved one, is not really integrated into our culture; it was a really consuming time for me. Helping families to find the grace in themselves is a big part of it.”
The Threshold Choir is trained to sing for those at the end of their life, but they also get requests to sing for people who are experiencing important milestones. From a big move, to an adoption ceremony, to singing for those who are healing, and even newborns, the Threshold Choir spreads joy through song to all who will listen.
The group, which rehearses four times a month at local nursing homes where they engage with residents, does not consider their singing to be performance, but rather a form of secular prayer. Simple songs like “Ocean Breath,” in which the lyrics consist of four repeating words (“Ocean breath breathing me”), are sung to soothe the patient with a soft, layered harmony and peaceful imagery.
“It’s very important that the songs are gentle and calm, so that we change our pace to theirs,” explains Mariette. “It’s important that the patient knows that we know they’re there, even if they’re nonverbal, and that they’re not alone.”
The choir sings without expectations of a response from the patient, however Threshold members have seen the impact of their music a few special times before. Mariette recalls a time in which they sang for a woman on her deathbed, who, after the choir sang for 30 minutes, opened her eyes and blew kisses in the air. In another instance, a woman with severe Alzheimer’s disease remembered the lyrics to the choir’s songs after they sang to her for a year.
“When the brow that is wrinkled ceases, and the fists that are clenched release, it’s that peaceful vibration that keeps us singing,” says Mariette.
A Whole New World
Santa Cruz-based music therapist Marya Stark had a hunch that her music was having an impact on her clients the day a non-verbal 7-year-old boy with autism made a connection with her, without using words.
“I remember thinking there was something special about him,” recalls Stark. “One day I was asking him to come over, and after a little while, he walked over, put his hand on my heart and his forehead on mine—it was beautiful.”
Whether she’s helping children with autism, people who are battling addictions, or groups suffering from trauma, her method remains constant: Stark always uses music.
At Morgan Autism Center in San Jose and in her one-on-one sessions, Stark sings songs with her clients to help them learn social skills, skill building, language development, routines, interaction, and self-esteem.
“Music intervention is a bridge for the music therapist to the client to build a relationship,” she explains. “Unlike talking, music activates the entire neurological system. If our brain is a machine, it is fully turned on in a musical experience.”
By exposing children to music, Stark is able to interact with them—even non-verbal children—on a personal and expressive level.
Stark’s journey to becoming a music therapist began as a child, when she would sing all of the time with her mother. Throughout her youth she attended performing arts schools in Arizona, and eventually moved on to Chapman University, where she planned to study opera. After expressing an interest in psychology, a friend suggested that she take an introduction to music therapy class.
“My whole worldview was blown open—that class was a spiritual initiation for me,” she remembers. “My whole life changed. It was like I had been asleep, and I was shook awake.”
In her own words, Stark defines music therapy as, “a modality that is based in the thought that our heartbeat is rhythmic, our bodies are built as instruments, and our voices are unique in frequency. It’s all about the ability to share your heart and voice.”
An established health profession, music therapy is used within a therapeutic relationship to address physical, emotional, cognitive, and social needs of individuals. The American Music Therapy Association describes treatment as anything from creating, to singing, moving to, and/or listening to music. Besides providing an avenue of communication for the individual, music therapy is known to increase people’s motivation to become engaged in their treatment, and become an outlet for the expression of feelings.
After taking the introductory class, Stark switched to the music therapy major, and became feverishly passionate about songwriting for the purpose of sharing and music therapy. Many of her original children’s songs, which tell stories and offer life lessons, are sung during her therapy sessions, and at the occasional school assembly.
“I have a client who is a little girl in Santa Cruz,” says Stark. “We do a lot of storytelling. We make up stories about how to be kind and overcome obstacles, and we do a few of the songs. I found out just the other day that she began teaching her friends the games we played and singing the songs at school.”
Just as music can give children with autism a sense of identity, it can help groups that are battling addiction and suffering through trauma to get back their sense of identity. Locally, Stark has brought music therapy to Janus of Santa Cruz drug and alcohol treatment center.
“Music therapy is a modality that can work with any group, but how we use it as therapy greatly depends on the population being served,” explains Stark. “Music is a way to let go. People can reclaim their power and parts of their spirit that are inhibited. Music also allows people to access different emotional realities.”
According to Stark, other groups that can benefit from music therapy include people with special needs, stroke rehabilitation patients, those suffering from grief or loss, anyone who is dying, and people in intensive care. However, she adds that music therapy can do wonders for people who are simply stressed or conflicted.
“Music therapy works on so many levels,” she says. “If you have a heartbeat, music therapy can benefit you.”
For more information about music therapy, visit musictherapy.org. To join, request a visit from, or get more details about the Santa Cruz Threshold Choir, email Marti Mariette at [email protected], or call 227-3781. For details about Marya Stark and her music therapy practice, email [email protected]