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Musical Medicine How music therapy helps heal veterans

How music therapy helps heal veterans

1999’s youngsters grew up to a distinctly North American musical craze, which wasn’t the ragged bliss of grunge, nor the urban poetry of hip hop. For many who were born at the end of the 20th century, the fad that gave them their first taste of song was not a revolutionary new genre, but a classical one. It was dubbed the Mozart effect.

It all started in the spring of 1993 at the University of California, Irvine. Researchers curious about the relationship between music and memory launched a study analyzing the effect the renowned classical composer’s music has on the brain. After playing 10 minutes of Mozart’s “Sonata for Two Pianos in D major, K. 448” for one set of participants and silence or relaxing sounds for another, the researchers tested the spatial-reasoning skills—the ability to think about and manipulate objects in three dimensions—of both groups. Project lead Francis Rauscher and his team made a startling discovery: participants who listened to Mozart showed a sizable increase in spatial reasoning for 10-15 minutes afterward.

Though the study was quick to point out that the impact was both modest and temporary, the media mutated the Mozart effect into a panacea, with parents and journalists alike purporting that children listening to classical music could increase their IQs, grade point averages or even the possibility of getting into university.

But the sensationalism slowed down when the public realized that enhanced spatial reasoning simply came from “enjoyment arousal.” So, if someone didn’t like Mozart’s music, they would be immune to the effect and, by the same token, if someone enjoyed listening to, say, Led Zeppelin, they would experience a Led Zeppelin effect. It all came down to personal preference, because what an individual likes is what mentally stimulates them.

Still, the study brought widespread credence to the age-old belief that music can positively affect a person, inspiring a new fascination for music therapy programs and music research. Without the Mozart effect, music programs such as Music Healing Veterans Canada (MHVC) might never have been created.

“The demand was there,” said Jason Costello, the organization’s co-founder and national director, “and we believed we could help.

“The best reviews I have gotten are from members who have credited the program with saving their lives,” said Costello, “giving them a tool to cope with issues they are experiencing.

Founded in 2016 by Costello, Brian Doucette and a group of Canadian Armed Forces members, the healing program uses the side effect-free medicine of music for active and retired military members ranging in age from mid-20s to mid-70s, as well as first responders, medical providers and personnel from the Correctional Service of Canada and Canada Border Services Agency.

“The variety brings such a value to the room,” said Ottawa chapter lead and veteran Ken Fisher.

Conceived from the bare-bones formula of get up, get out and play, the program consists of meeting once a week in the evening to decompress with a like-minded group and receive music instruction from a thoroughly vetted music instructor.

“It’s a safe environment,” said Fisher. “Everybody understands that people are there for their own reasons.”

With three Ontario chapters—Kingston, Ottawa and Upper Ottawa Valley—and a fourth in North Bay in the works, Music Healing starts participants with a loaner guitar and a 10-week beginner program to cement the foundational knowledge of playing an instrument. Once that’s complete, the musicians can continue attending classes, jam with others and perform live if they wish. The project is non-clinical, but its priority is tapping into music’s innately therapeutic value.

“I can tell you that music makes a difference,” said Fisher.

Indeed, numerous studies have proven that learning to sing or play a musical instrument can lower blood pressure and slow heart rates, combat cognitive decline and decrease the effects of dementia, arthritis, pulmonary disease, Parkinson’s, depression, anxiety, insomnia and more. Playing an instrument can even help fend off viruses and heal injuries faster, with consistent musical training permanently restructuring the brain for the better in most cases.

“When you’re in pain all day, it’s tough to be in a good mood all the time,” said Fisher, who has dealt with operational stress injuries himself after serving for 40 years on the regular force. “So, when I’m at Music Healing, I think it’s the fun part of my day.”

Group music lessons can be particularly effective for the psychological wellness of veterans and first responders, since research has proven that situations that safely simulate service—such as working with a group to achieve a collective goal—have therapeutic benefits.

“I miss the camaraderie that I had when I was in the forces,” said Fisher. “But at Music Healing, everybody understands that people are there for their own reasons. I don’t have to worry about people judging. I don’t have to explain anything to anybody.

“Usually, I’m the loudest singer, and I probably have the worst voice. But nobody says, ‘Shut up.’ Nobody says, ‘Hey, you can’t sing.’”

Sponsored by Spartan Wellness, a medical cannabis program serving veterans, first responders and donations from the public, Music Healing subsists off the generosity of local communities and businesses to support some 300 participants. While the initiative is not actively looking to expand, Fisher said the Ottawa chapter is in the process of forming a partnership with the University of Ottawa’s music department. The school plans to offer piano lessons for 18 Music Healing students while surveying the health impacts.

So, while playing a musical instrument might not guarantee a higher IQ, it does help some veterans in a meaningful way.

“I hate going out of the house, and I don’t want to leave the house on Thursday night,” admitted Fisher, “but when I get to Music Healing, I wish I could stay there forever.”


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