Beat the blues

PUBLISHED : Friday, 16 November, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 16 November, 2007, 12:00am

Janice Kwan Man-kiu's face fell when she learned her music lesson would be delayed, but the 10-year-old regained her smile as soon as instructor Joanna Chan Mei-yuk walked into the classroom.

A pupil at the Ebenezer New Hope School which caters for children with special needs, Janice happily beats out a tune on a set of drums under Chan's guidance.

Many people confuse Chan with a music teacher: she's a music therapist. 'Our aims are different,' says Chan, a certified therapist with 10 years' experience. 'Music therapy isn't about getting the rhythm or key right. It's a health-allied treatment.'

To promote better understanding and use of music therapy, Chan and her fellow professionals have set up the Hong Kong Association of Music Therapists, which is being launched today. 'Some people think music therapy's like aromatherapy or playing classical music albums to clients, but it's not the case,' she says.

The idea of music as a healing influence was first noted in the writings of the ancient Greeks. But its therapeutic value was only recognised in the 1940s in the US, when musicians were hired to play for war veterans who were suffering physical and emotional trauma.

Music therapy is now used in the US for various communication and physical disabilities and for people ranging from the elderly to infants.

Chan says treatment can applied in two ways - music in therapy and music as therapy.

In the first case, music may be combined with counselling to lift a person's mood and improve self-esteem. For example, she used Mariah Carey's Hero during a session with a group suffering from depression. 'Some patients had a low self-image, so after listening to the song we encouraged them to talk about their heroes and their personal strengths.' They became more upbeat and open after the session, she recalls.

Children suffering delayed speech development may also be taught songs, often incorporating their name in the lyrics, as a way to stimulate brain activity. People with motor disabilities may be taught to play instruments such as drums to help muscle co-ordination.

As therapy, specially composed music can help slow the heart and reduce stress when combined with relaxing exercises.

Qualified therapists are not only educated in music theory and proficient in at least one instrument, they're also trained in health care, psychology and counselling.

So after assessing a person's functional levels - whether it's emotional, physical or in communication and cognitive skills - they devise a course of treatment.

This may involve common activities such as listening to music and playing instruments, but they also prescribe music-related games and perhaps songwriting, depending on patients' needs.

Chan, who volunteers her services at schools and health centres, in addition to running her own clinic, works primarily with children with special needs.

Music therapy is particularly effective with autistic children because it's non-threatening, she says. For example, the mother of an autistic boy who wanted him to brush his teeth couldn't get him to open his mouth.

Chan helped her overcome the problem by teaching the child to play some wind instruments to relax his oral muscles.

Another autistic child who wouldn't eat outside his home was taught to sing songs about food to arouse his interest in food.

However, children's problems could also arise not from health conditions but from parenting-related issues, Chan says, citing the example of a mother who sought her help over her son's constant abdominal pains. The boy's ailment was psychosomatic: his pain was induced by stress and anxiety.

'Many children don't know how to express their emotions because they're often discouraged from showing discontent in families and schools,' Chan says.

'We teach the children to write songs as an avenue for emotional release.'

Songwriting alone won't resolve matters, so the therapists also advise parents on how to deal with their children's emotional issues.

Music therapy is in its infancy in Hong Kong, with just 20 qualified professionals. To provide the public with greater access to their services, the Hong Kong Association of Music Therapists has set up a community music therapy clinic at the YMCA building in Yau Ma Tei. Consultations are by referral, and priority will be given to special needs people from low-income families. Fees are set on a sliding scale based on income.

Gloria Wong Hiu-yan, a volunteer therapist who worked with elderly people while training in the US, says music therapy can also benefit patients with Alzheimer's disease, helping to reduce their agitation and propensity to wander.

Music provides a good way to tap into memory, Wong says. Therapists stimulate patients by playing songs they're familiar with and getting them to talk about experiences that they associate with the music. Wong says patients dulled by dementia often perk up after hearing old songs and will start to make eye contact with other people.

Music therapy can also help city dwellers to get through the grind of everyday life. However, despite music therapy's power to help reduce pain and anxiety caused by illness, it should not be viewed as a magical cure-all, Chan says. It complements the work of doctors.

'We use music to improve people's physical and mental well-being like the way physiotherapists may use certain equipment. It's just that our tools are different.'

For more details about the Hong Kong Association of Music Therapists and Community Music Therapy Clinic, e-mail or call 6014 0440