When thinking of Elder Wisdom, several subjects come to mind. Thoughts of aged leaders of indigenous peoples sharing knowledge passed verbally from generation to generation, wise lessons from our ancestral roots, or people sitting around a campfire engaged in idle conversation. There’s another medium of communication that’s been used by elders wisely for generations... music. The mood of simple conversations around a campfire shifts as the people are virtually transported out of the immediate surroundings into another time, another place, even another dimension escorted not only by the age-old teachings from the wise elder, but the gentle and constant “thump, thump, thump” of the drum. The music of the drum enhanced the mood of the people, so they could experience the elder’s words like lyrics accompanied by the song of the drum. The two together became a concert of learning, sharing wisdom from the soul of the elder to their souls.
We can appreciate and grasp music on various levels, as entertainment, for relaxation, to foster countless emotions, or to aid the listener/participant therapeutically.
Music as a therapeutic tool has been a passion for Alan Wittenberg for over 25 years. Now, he facilitates people on to wellness in Maine through Surry Music Therapy Center in Surry, Maine. The joy of music impressed Alan early in life when his parents offered him a piano at age ten. Like many parents in the 1950’s, Alan’s parents encouraged him to experience music. He started with the piano and moved on to participate in school bands with a trombone. The interest grew to enthusiasm as he began playing the flute around the sixth grade because a cute girl played the flute. Learning to play the flute “didn’t work for me getting dates in the sixth grade,” but he still enjoys playing it today. “I guess I grew up around a lot of kids who were interested in music. It’s funny. The same kids who graduated in my high school class are professional musicians and music teachers today.”
Through a series of life events, Alan continued his journey from playing in school bands, to making music his major in college. “I was a sensitive shy kid where music was a solace and therapy for me.” Music was a gateway of expression for Alan, a young man of few words. “I never planned to be a music therapist... didn’t even know what it was.” He completed his masters’ degree majoring in music and got a state job at the Bronx Children’s Psychiatric Center as a music teacher. “When I got this job, it was very intriguing to me. I was interested in therapeutic process, personalities, and different schools of psychology.” They hired him as a music educator to guide the patients toward socialization through music. This led Alan to further studies at New York University where he gained his certification as a music therapist.
Music and music therapy evolved into Alan’s passion through follow up with some of the highest-level conferences and seminars in music therapy then offered and by helping people achieve their highest and greatest self. “The music used is often improvised and not meant to therapise the client, but rather it’s used to engage the client into an interactive process.” Many may think that music therapy would be a matter of listening to music or the music therapist prescribing a slow movement of Mozart to create relaxation or Pete Seger to evoke some other reaction; these would “therapise” the client like taking a “music pill.” Music therapy, like psychology, has different approaches with each therapist offering skills, strengths, sensitivity, and intuition.
Alan recommended a website depicting his method of music therapy:
http://steinhardt.nyu.edu/music/nordoff/video_portrait. You may wish to look at the site because, according to Alan, “You could describe how you play tennis with somebody, but until you see somebody play tennis it’s hard to envision.”
“Music is incredibly flexible and dynamic... it can go right and left, up and down, and go with all the nuances and subtleties of human experience. It goes places that words can’t. Music therapy becomes a bridge of contact for the individual in need” like those facing depression, isolation, or Alzheimer’s. When working with those with autism, for example, Alan has found for those with limited words or entirely nonverbal “music can make a connection when nothing else will.”
Alan had been exposed to several levels of psychiatric care while working at Bronx Children’s Psychiatric Center in New York, but autism became a special area of interest. He left New York in 1982 and moved to Maine. During his time in Maine, Alan learned that the incidence of autism seem to be increasing in Maine. “There are several theories for this increase, but no one knows the exact reason.” Alan shared that awareness about autism should be raised about Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). “People should acquaint themselves with this (ASD) disorder.”
The Center for Disease Control explains that ASDs “are a group of developmental disabilities caused by a problem with the brain.” Apparently, scientists do not know yet exactly the cause for this problem. ASDs can affect a person’s functioning at various levels, from very mild to severe. Those with ASDs may communicate, interact, behave, and learn in ways that are different from most people. Autistic disorder is the most commonly known type of ASD, but there are others, including ‘pervasive developmental disorder–not otherwise specified’ (PDD-NOS) and Asperger Syndrome.”
The CDC further explains, “People with ASDs may have problems with social, emotional, and communication skills” many with ASDs also have different ways of learning, paying attention, or reacting to things.” Signs of ASDs arise in early childhood and last throughout the individual’s life.
Alan Wittenberg finds music therapy often helps those with ASDs. His work has helped to identify that a significant number of autistic children and adults reside in Maine. Since its incidence are on the rise and increase in numbers in Maine and across New England, Alan again emphasized that our awareness about autism and ASDs should be raised.
Besides autism, Alan extends music therapy to therapeutic care in nursing homes, rehabilitation, one-on-one intensive sessions, clinical assessments, on site consultations, group homes, and schools. The Surry Music Therapy Center, possibly the only music clinic in Maine, can also be utilized as an educational resource for further insights into the roles of music therapy for people.
“Music therapy doesn’t replace other therapies. It supports the other work.” Music can support speech therapists to enhance communication skills, the physical therapist in movement activities like balance or spacial understanding, or in schools for achieving developmental goals at fundamental levels like listening and awareness skills. “Music therapy can be something that attracts and stimulates the person who’s very distracted and disorganized on toward relationship, attention, or awareness (skills) and then into higher skills like memory. Psychologically, the emphasis is on social emotional skills and relationship building skills, so we want to develop trust.”
So, how does Alan work with clients? Typically Alan evaluates the client. After determining the individual’s needs he tries to formulate a program, which includes music therapy as part of their treatment plans in a team effort with a parent, special educator, music teacher, speech pathologist, or psychologist. When he can’t be present, he provides a recording detailing movement, instrumental, or vocal “channels” as activity program ideas. These ideas can encourage client participation when possible “in a way that enhances their quality of life and helps them develop skills or have meaningful experiences.”
Alan shares that music is a unique modality offering energy, emotion, and experience. “Very few modalities offer the same qualities simultaneously and as fluidly as music.” Music therapy can be creative, client centered, and individualized, while expressing itself through vocal, instrumental, and movement channels. “I work a lot with energy and emotion. I try to sense the client. It all boils down to utilizing various methods, using whatever musical means available to reach that person. It could be the Flintstones or 'Bridge Over Troubled Water'.”
In speaking with Alan, there’s no doubt music therapy is his life’s passion. Starting out in a grass roots effort in Maine he continues his work here as often as he can. He also has wonderful projects in St. Petersburg, Russia and Kyoto, Japan.
For further information on this Destination for Healing contact Alan Wittenberg at the Surry Music Therapy Center in Surry, Maine. Telephone him at (207) 667-1308 or you may visit his website at www.surrymusictherapy.com.
I asked Alan to sum up his thoughts about music therapy. “Music is innate and instinctual. Rhythm is such a primary part of our anatomy and part of our life experience and music is a way we can relate to people who have difficulty relating and that difficulty might be resulting from genetic, psychological, or developmental reasons. Music can go where nothing else can. It can connect when words and physical activities and medications don’t. It has unique power to stimulate, motivate, and to integrate someone’s resources and well-being.”
Kevin Pennell, an author from Bethel , Maine, wrote Two Feathers - Spiritual Seed Planter and has written for other periodicals and media. Kevin is an Usui and Karuna Reiki® Master Teacher, Certified Hypnotherapist, Ancestral Healing Techniques, and Psychic Empath. He conducts Reiki workshops and other workshops that assist spiritual and personal development. Kevin, with his wife, Vickie Cummings, operate Spirit Wings, their Compassionate Healing Center and Therapeutic Store located in Bethel, Maine.