By Rosemary Hoppe, OP, BCC
In the late 1950s, as a college music student, I became interested in music therapy as a field of study and a profession. My own background in high school and college was in classical piano as well as church music in the Catholic tradition. I learned that the profession had its beginnings in the early 20th century as a way of helping veterans of World War I cope with the traumas of their wartime experiences. By the time I returned to college in the 1970s, the field had broadened over the years, with great concentration on the therapeutic use of music with the mentally ill as well as with the mentally challenged. As part of their training, students of music therapy complete an internship usually at a live-in facility for psychiatric patients.
My six-month internship was at a state facility, where some patients lived on locked units and others on open units. Those in the latter situation often were able to leave each day to work in supervised settings. In later years I worked at a live-in facility for the mentally challenged; the area to which I was assigned was for persons under 18 who also had physical problems, and many were wheelchair bound because of cerebral palsy. In these facilities the goal was not the teaching of music. In the psychiatric facility, for some, playing an instrument or singing was the only means of emotional expression, with the longer term goal one of being able to benefit from counseling. In group sessions, minimal social interaction was encouraged through singing or simple folk dancing — perhaps as simple as “Put your right foot in….” It was hardly real “dance” but a means of movement together. So the goal of a music therapy session may be socialization, increased mobility, and the expression of emotions all in connection with the goals of other members of the staff.
Various therapists — whether art, physical, or occupational — all have special training and professional guidelines, as do trained chaplains. An untrained example of a therapeutic use of music can be seen in my own high school experience. As a teenager studying classical piano, following a “difficult” day at school, if I went home angry I would play one of the most bombastic pieces of music in my collection, venting my frustration and anger on my poor piano. Simply listening to the same music did not have the same affect — once the feelings were vented, and only then, would I begin to play a more tranquil piece of music. My point here is that it is necessary to know the mood of the person and that person’s sense of what is needed in order to know what kind of music will help him or her in a given emotional state or frame of mind.
During my 21 years as a chaplain I often thought of how valuable it would have been to use music. The furthest I got was to suggest that long-term patients have a friend or relative bring CDs of music that brought them to a place of inner peace. For persons who play an instrument, playing is most beneficial, but that is not usually possible in the hospital setting.
So we come to what I can suggest as some possible uses of music by chaplains who are not music therapists. Support groups set up for various needs are a good setting for the use of recorded vocal music that can stimulate group sharing. In the nursing home setting, even those with short-term memory loss can usually share memories when stimulated by music popular during their young years of life. Old hymns from various traditions could be used to encourage “theological” reflection and discussion on topics like aging and end-of-life issues.
I believe the feelings surfaced by music performing or listening can be powerful and provide us with insight into others and ourselves. And would that not be of benefit to us as chaplains and to those to whom we minister?
Sister Rosemary Hoppe, OP, of New Orleans, LA, is retired after 21 years as a hospital chaplain in Southeast Texas.