Amidst the static drone of construction equipment and the sharp hiss of street sweepers pushing away the last remnants of winter in the Highfield commercial district in southeast Calgary, a Monday morning passerby might hear the subtle sounds of wind instruments and light percussion seeping out into the street. It provides a soothing soundtrack to an otherwise bleak morning.

The music, a slow, rhythmic mix of rhythmic melody and light, purposeful percussion, originates from the offices of JB Music Therapy —  one of the largest and longest running music therapy practices in Canada. A typical Monday morning at the office will find the 16 staff members in a circle, wielding various drums, tambourines, flutes and other odd assorted instruments, performing a group music session that serves as an intro to their weekly meeting. Much like for the patients they work with, these improvised jam sessions are supposed to create a more open and engaged atmosphere for the group discussion to be held in.

While some might scoff at the idea of using music as a form of medicine, the effects it can have on those whose condition has proven difficult to treat with prescription medicine, traditional therapy or surgery alone are pronounced and often immediate. Jennifer Buchanan, owner and founder of JB Music Therapy and former president of the Canadian Association of Music Therapy, says “people are often surprised that we work in mental health and palliative care, as well as rehab programs, and dementia care and cerebral palsy, they are surprised by the scope of what we treat and the goals of our sessions.”

For many dealing with the symptoms of a stroke, dementia, autism, depression or other mental illnesses, traditional therapies are often ineffective. Not that long ago it was common practice to simply ostracize these people, rather than seek any sort of treatment. However, modern advances have led to an unlikely solution that has proven to be surprisingly effective, and therapists like Buchanan and her team are, at the forefront of using music as a means to prevent and manage the symptoms of mental and physical illness.

Patients who might have been marginalized by society and medicine alike in the past can often find a sense of relief and connection to others through music therapy, allowing the practice to gain substantial ground in the modern context where mental health is considered an issue worth tackling in alternative ways. Modern medical science has proven music can have profound and often immediate effects on both mind and body alike — if the right music is used in the right setting.

“I have always had a deep desire to work with some of the more marginalized people,” Buchanan says. “I grew up at a time before this big transition was happening around mental health, now we are including students with special needs or disabilities or mental health problems in a way society perhaps didn’t 20 years ago. When I went to school, kids with disabilities were kept very isolated: in their own classroom, they came on their own special bus, they arrived after us and left before us, there was no interaction whatsoever. I had an opportunity to work with one of those students on a project, a special case, and I can remember being so inspired by their capacity.”

Though she would eventually become the founder of one of the largest music therapy organizations in Canada, serve as president of the Canadian Association of Music Therapy and present keynote speeches at conferences around the world, the 47-year-old entrepreneur and mother of two’s career springs from humble origins. Time and time again she would show an ambition to succeed and a willingness to put in the effort required, even if that meant settling in a new province and spending a few nights sleeping in the back seat of her car while she set about creating opportunities for herself.

The shelves lining the walls of JB Music Therapy’s small office in the Stratchona industrial district in SE Calgary are packed full of books that can serve as inspiration to both patients and therapists. From volumes detailing the practical mental health benefits of art to more compact paperbacks centred around interacting with troubled youth, these well-used volumes showcase a commitment to learning more about their profession and practice. Photo by Jodi Brak.

Starting Out

Growing up in Langley, B.C., Buchanan was fond of music from a young age and practiced both singing and guitar for most of her life. She started her career as a music therapist more than 25 years ago, though she first accepted the idea of music having healing properties as a teenager, while her grandfather was in the hospital shortly after having a stroke. Her grandmother asked if she would play a song for him, and, despite being unresponsive to other attempts at communication, he reacted almost immediately to the music.

“He was the most miserable old man in this universe,” Buchanan says, jokingly, of her oftentimes grumpy grandfather. “And all the sudden he was feeling something and shedding a tear, and holding my hand. So much happened in those moments that nobody could force to happen for so many years before. I think if music can touch granddad, it can touch anybody.”

Her first exposure to the discipline of music therapy, however, was through Paul McCartney’s televised endorsement of the Nordoff-Robbins Music Therapy Foundation. Having been interested in music as a singer and guitarist for many years, and with a desire to help others and be a part of the healthcare field in some way, Buchanan saw this intersection of two things she felt passionate about and immediately decided it was a path she wanted to take.

“I had seen this work that had been done with children with different disabilities with the focus of a young girl with Down Syndrome, and I just knew right away that was what I wanted to do,” she says.

She enrolled in the music therapy program at Capilano University in Vancouver in 1989 and after finishing her course work, needed to log 1,000 hours of work experience in order to receive her certification. An opportunity opened up in Calgary with Gail Hayes, one of the first music therapists in the city, and Buchanan made the move to Alberta. This formative time in Calgary left a lasting impression on Buchanan, who was back in the city sooner rather than later.

“I took the opportunity, I came here, and absolutely fell in love with this city and this province. After my work experience I went home, thinking that’s what I was supposed to do, but I was only there for about seven days,” Buchanan says. “Then I came back to Calgary, slept in my car for three days at the age of just 21, with all the wisdom of a 21-year-old, and started knocking on non-profit’s doors to let them know I was a music therapist and here is what I can offer them.”

Without much of a network at all within Calgary, this proactive approach to spreading her name proved quite fruitful, and upon meeting her it is easy to see how the personal approach worked in her favour. Quite the opposite of the aloof, analytical personality one might associate with a therapist, her easygoing nature is disarming. With a wide, bright smile, a practical-yet-professional outfit and long, tangled locks that bounce along with her contagious laughter, she engages in conversation with a clear intention of listening to what the other person has to say.

“She has an ability to focus on the person she is interacting with and give them her full attention in a way that is difficult to describe but is so necessary in a therapeutic setting,” says Pamela Lansberg, Executive Assistant of the Canadian Association of Music Therapy. “Just from being in the same room with her, you feel the empathy, the compassion, the self-awareness.”

Lansberg first encountered Buchanan when she was speaking at the University of Windsor while serving as the president of the CAMT, a role which she has held twice, once from 1998-2003 and again from 2013-2015.

“It was exciting to see someone so well spoken and who had such a successful career as a music therapist. Her business acumen is a skill set that tends to be rare among music therapists.”

A long-time guitarist and singer, Jennifer Buchanan’s first introduction to the potential healing properties of music came as a teen, strumming a song for her grandfather in the hospital shortly after he suffered a stroke. Just years later she would go on to attend the music therapy program at Capilano University in Vancouver before making the journey across the Rockies to Calgary to begin what would become a 25 year career as a music therapist. Photo by Jodi Brak.

Building a Practice

Soon after making a name for herself as a music therapist in Calgary, Buchanan founded her company, JB Music Therapy, in 1991 at the ripe age of 21. Initially starting with Buchanan as the sole member of the team, over the years the organization has grown to include a team of 16 music therapists who work with patients of all ages and diagnoses. Their youngest patient is a two-month-old, with the oldest having recently celebrated his 106th birthday —  quite the age gap. The practice is one of the most extensive in Canada, owing much to the hard work undertaken over many years by its charismatic founder.

“My company is just as important to me as my family, and don’t worry I have already told that to my family,” Buchanan jokes of her dedication to her company. “I didn’t know we were going to grow to anything more than just me doing my own thing. It seemed I was just in the right place at the right time and we just grew. The demand was there, music therapy was a new profession. You meet a lot of like minds when you can do something like that, just showing a willingness to pursue something yourself.”

Daniel Moran, one of the newest additions to their team of music therapists, has only been a part of the organization for about six months, but already recognizes the importance of JB Music Therapy’s community-centred approach which sees therapists travelling back and forth across the city throughout the week. Finishing his schooling in Montreal just three years ago, he met Buchanan several times at various conferences before taking an opportunity within her company in 2016.

“A lot of music therapists that I know, or that I have worked with or met in Montreal, they usually work with one single population or at one single site,” Moran says. “Something unique to this company is that we go around and work with so many different types of people, which is great.”

A typical Monday morning at JB Music Therapy starts with a 30-minute musical improv session with instruments ranging from bongos to tambourines and tubes that mimic the sounds of a thunderstorm when air passes through them. The sessions help create an open and relaxed environment before morning meetings, with the subtle sounds of percussion and wind instruments trickling out into the street for passersby to enjoy. Photo by Jodi Brak.

Moran’s typical week begins in Calgary’s deep south, working with teens in a high school, before heading across the city to a mental health care facility in the northwest to work with people suffering symptoms of strokes, dementia or other mental illnesses, her day is then followed by an individual session with a young autistic boy. Tuesdays see him splitting time between group sessions with children who have learning disabilities, hearing impaired children and several walk-in clients at a local music store, RS Music, in NE Calgary. On Wednesday Moran travels to Christine Meikle school for special needs children to do individual sessions throughout the day, before heading to a group home for evening sessions. Thursdays sees him again facilitating group sessions with special needs children, while also making a visit to the Southern Alberta Forensic Psychiatry Centre where he will work with individuals ordered to undergo therapy by the courts. Fridays are spent exclusively with elderly clients in sessions at their home or the group facility they live in.

This schedule is more or less the norm at JB Music Therapy. Shannon Robinson, the company’s vice president, says it gives them an advantage in terms of learning new skills and developing strong community ties.

“For a therapist in this profession I think that it allows you to grow your skills so you can work anywhere,” Robinson says. “Another benefit for clients is that, as a therapist, you gain knowledge or skills from working with seniors that you can actually use with other groups, such as kids with learning disabilities. And so you see things from a different perspective with every different community — you don’t get stuck with tunnel vision from working with one population.”

Staying true to the origins of her career, Buchanan’s company has made a name for itself through persistent and active involvement in the communities they work within. Rather than expecting clients to come to them, the staff at JB Music Therapy travel to all four corners of Calgary to provide music therapy sessions. As well, Buchanan is constantly on the lookout for opportunities to become involved in new communities and spread the word about their work.

“I think she is a great advocate for the profession, and I always wanted to come to it through that side,” says Janine Kinzler, who has been involved with JB Music Therapy for nearly 20 years and splits her time as a music therapist and educator. “I wanted people to take it seriously, and I know that is what she brings to it, and I like working with her because of that and she makes a great team that is fun to be part of it.”

When asked if she ever thought that JB Music Therapy would grow to become one of the largest practices in Canada, Buchanan says “I believe that surprises are better than plans and the surprise was that people ended up becoming attracted to the idea a lot faster than I anticipated.”

Speaking of Surprises

In 1998 Buchanan received a phone call from the CAMT with a proposal; nobody wanted to take on the responsibility of becoming the association’s next president, and the job was hers if she would take it. Not one to turn down an opportunity, she ended up serving as the association’s president for the next five years. Again showing a sense of ambition, she was a catalyst for change and improvements which led to the official designation of MTA for music therapists in Canada, and the push for the development of higher degrees of professionalism and clear statements of purpose for music therapists.

“The CAMT felt certification was important because the term music therapist might not hold a lot of weight for a lot of people, but they wanted to say that this is beyond a technique, it is a fully-fledged discipline with its own codes of ethics and standards of practice,” she says. “Those are critical elements of any discipline, of any profession, and the certification is basically giving music therapists the stamp saying that although we are not government regulated in most provinces, we are highly self-regulated which gives assurances to our clients that they are getting somewhat of a certain level of expertise and experience.”

Lansberg says of Buchanan’s second term as president in 2013 that “it was her business sense that was instrumental in making some larger scale changes to the structure of our organization that would help us to be more efficient.”

“I was not the first choice,” Buchanan remarks, with a knowing grin, about the offer of presidency she received. “And I think I was the youngest president ever. I went in and learned tons, that is when I started seeing the profession through a different lens. Before I was only seeing it through good clinical work and getting people engaged in the therapy. This side of things gave me an ability to develop what professions should develop, like codes of ethics and standards of practice. We started talking about things like legislation and where this was going to go.”

Not one to flaunt her successes, Jennifer Buchanan tucks her industry and community awards away on a small bookshelf. From the Canadian Mental Health Association Professional Care award to plaques recognizing her community involvement, she stresses she never would have received these awards without a team supporting her. Photo by Jodi Brak.

The Persistence of Change

During her time as president of the CAMT and indeed over the whole course of her 25 years in the field, Buchanan has seen both the practices and the public perception of music therapy change drastically.

“When I began, even just saying music therapy out loud was almost a taboo thing. People thought about it as some kind of new age medicine, and people still compare it to crystal balls or acupuncture […] not that there is anything wrong with any of that, but it’s what people thought.”

Now, however, she is happy to see music therapy “considered a serious form of medicine by the medical field and the general public, seeing that shift has been tremendous all by itself.”

Lansberg says that one of the most noticeable changes in the field in recent years is the “growth of the profession in Canada and the diversity in music therapy practice.” Indeed, figures provided by the CAMT indicate the number of certified music therapists in Canada has doubled in the last 10 years, with 690 music therapists working across Canada. She also notes that “Music Therapists in Canada can now have a wide variety of subspecialties that they undertake after entering the field as a certified MTA. Some examples are neurologic music therapy (NMT), neonatal intensive care (NICU-MT), and vocal psychotherapy.”

“With a wider diversity in the field, more Canadians can find MTA’s that have the exact skill set to meet their individualized needs and they can do so knowing the person is highly qualified,” Lansberg says.

These descriptions of the changes in research and practice of music therapy paint a fairly vivid picture of how far the field has come in a short time. When Buchanan first began, access to things like brain scans and FMRI machines were too expensive to be practical, or simply inaccessible to those outside of clinical or hospital work.

“We had no quantifiable data at the time,” Buchanan says about her early days as a music therapist. “Now that we have brain scans it changes completely how we can study these effects and now we have proof that music therapy has positive effects on the brain. It’s been exciting to see that, and to see how technology has interacted with music and seeing how music has changed.”

With brain scans and other medical research allowing a vision of the physiological effects of music on the human mind and body, music therapy has become more targeted, more precisely geared towards individual cases, and more widely respected in the medical community.

Researchers have been able to confirm that music can assist in the growth or creation of neural pathways, which can help those affected by a stroke or dementia, and promote the release of certain chemicals into the body which aid in stress or pain relief. In fact, doctors published evidence in the January 2017 issue of the American Journal of Orthopedics which shows a marked decrease in chronic pain levels of spinal surgery patients who received post-operative music therapy sessions.

While initially largely written off by many medical practitioners, research has shown that music does indeed have quantifiable effects on the human body that go beyond the purely psychological effects that led many to believe it was only viable in psychotherapy. Though the struggle still persists to ensure public funding for music therapy patients, and some insurance providers are still hesitant to offer blanket coverage for alternative treatments like music therapy, the practice has largely been accepted into the mainstream in Canada.

Inner Workings of a Session

But what goes into a music therapy session, and how does it differ from simply putting a playlist on in your spare time? Many people use music as a type of personal therapy without even realizing it, often listening to a favourite song as a morning pick-me-up or creating playlists that help to bring them out of a low mood or bring back happy memories.

“The very nature of music is that it just taps into feelings and if you get the right music at the right time, you feel familiar and at home, that’s how people feel when they are with their music therapist, or at least that is what we’re hoping they feel,” Buchanan says.

Music therapy, however, is much more of a science than idly picking songs which might make a patient feel good.

“We’re combining all that natural feeling of music with how it actually affects our brains, our hormones, our limbic systems and how we feel, combined again with actually sitting with someone who will help guide you through to the next step in your recovery,” she says. “How I like to define the difference between music therapy and music as entertainment, is that therapy in its very nature is personalized. Every session needs to be focused on the client, and there needs to be some kind of frequency with the client. And then there needs to be a level of intensity within the sessions themselves.”

Janine Kinzer and Daniel Moran represent two ends of the staff spectrum at JB Music Therapy. One of the first staff hired, Kinzer has worked with Jennifer Buchanan over much of the past 25 years, taking occasional breaks to resume her teaching career. Moran, on the other hand, has only been a part of JB Music Therapy for six months, and specializes in community outreach, spending most of his days driving across Calgary to schools, nursing homes, assisted living facilities and support groups to undertake music therapy with many different groups. Photo by Jodi Brak.

Buchanan believes that with the right levels of personalization, frequency and intensity music therapy can effectively be modified for many different purposes, and no two sessions are the same. Certain patients benefit most from one-on-one sessions while others get the most out of larger group sessions. One patient will react strongly to popular music from their younger days while others are simply in search of a collection of tones or melodies which elicit the response they desire, and others still reap huge rewards from the act of creating music with another person. Some sessions involve simply lying back and listening to music, while others can involve whole makeshift bands which come together in relative harmony.

“Surprisingly, or maybe not so surprisingly, live music seems to be one of the strongest approaches and one that people react most strongly to,” Buchanan says. “And making music together can help someone exercise their creativity, their imagination, and their ability to express an idea to others.”

As Buchanan notes, sometimes the right path is not necessarily the most obvious one, and like all therapists they must prepare carefully and be responsive to what will help each patient most effectively.

“We’re very sensitive about a patient’s individual needs and comfort, but sometimes helping patients cross lines they wouldn’t on their own is an important step as well. Some of the more withdrawn patients benefit most from a group session, and a good facilitator of a music therapy session is going to know how to draw out that person who is withdrawn without them feeling pulled too hard. Sometimes that is what they need, a group situation that allows them to overcome that social anxiety.”

jbrak@cjournal.ca
The editor responsible for this article is Aysha Zafar, azafar@cjournal.ca