This is a story about an experience I had last night. But first, some academics.
Melodic Intonation Therapy (MIT) is a method used by music therapists and neurologists to help people who have had brain damage or degeneration in communication. It is used often with people who have had a traumatic brain injury (TBI), a stroke, or anyone experiencing aphasia (the inability to communicate, verbally or non-verbally), especially expressive aphasia (not being able to verbally express what you are thinking – you have the words in your head but you can’t physically say them).
Most everyone has heard or learned about left brain/right brain characteristics.
The part of the brain that deals with speech production, specifically, is called Broca’s area, because it was discovered by the French physician Pierre Broca. When someone has the inability to make speech sounds, they have Broca’s aphasia. Broca’s area is in the left hemisphere. The part of the brain that controls singing and interpreting music is in the right hemisphere.
Why am I talking about this? Last night, Dr. Deforia Lane, a renowned and very much beloved music therapist, gave a lecture to the music therapy students at SU. She works at the University Hospital in Cleveland. Part of her presentation involved videos, as many music therapy lectures do (videos are the best evidence). This story is about one video that caught me off guard with emotion.
A man in his 70s, I’m guessing, had a stroke. He was African-American, bald head with white stubble on his face. His eyes were watery. He was a well spoken man before, according to Dr. Lane. He had been a deacon in his church. His stroke gave him expressive aphasia.
The video was about two minutes long. It showed the man in the his hospital bed – you could only see him from the chest up, and he was looking up and to his right at Dr. Lane, who was standing next to him, looking at him, and holding his hand. He was trying to speak to her, but the only thing that came out was unintelligible syllables. His voice was hoarse and he knew that he wasn’t being understood. He talked for about 20 seconds and none of it was understandable. Two things got to me. One was the look in his eyes. He was looking at Dr. Lane with a combination of sadness, fear, defeat, pleading, and fatigue. He knew he couldn’t talk and it was debilitating for him. The other thing that got me was when he spoke, the movement of his lips and the timbre and pitch of his voice instantly reminded me of my grandpa.
My grandpa lived with Parkinson’s disease for the last 40 years of his life. He was 79 when I was born so I never knew him without it. He was a Methodist pastor for years and years and I never got to hear him preach a sermon. By the time I got into late elementary age, Grandpa sounded just like the man in the video. Unintelligible speech, hoarse voice, big lips making movements with no hope for communication. My grandpa used to get frustrated when my grandma couldn’t understand him. She was so patient. When I saw the man in the video speaking like that, it brought tears to my eyes, because I had shared that experience myself.
When the man finished speaking, Dr. Lane told him they were going to sing. They began to sing “This Little Light of Mine.” You could see a glimpse of appreciation in the man’s eyes, something familiar and comforting. Dr. Lane continued to hold the man’s hand, and she began tapping his hand with her other hand to the beat. You could see him moving his lips, trying to sing the words. It was very quiet, it wasn’t apparent if he was actually singing the words…
But he was. You could understand him – it wasn’t perfect. He was singing those words – light of mine, gonna let it shine. Then his eyes changed again. They went from surprise, to happiness, to hope. He would glance over to his wife (who was out of the picture) as if to say, “do you see what I am doing??” They sang two more verses of the song, and he kept up with it. One of the verses had “Jesus” in it, and hearing him sing Jesus almost pushed the tears out of my eyes and down my face.
It was amazing. It was music intonation therapy. Using something familiar to activate the part of the brain that still worked. He couldn’t say the word Jesus. But he could sing it. Amen.
I wish I had known about these things when my grandpa was still alive. I was only 14 when he died, so there’s no way I could have known MIT or any of the music therapy techniques that I could have used to make his quality of life better. Luckily, it was a good life. Virgil (or Reverend, which is what my dad called him) lived to be a hearty 92 years old, with a good head of hair and a peace that passes all understanding. His mobility, communication, and some cognitive faculties were gone, but he died healed. At least that’s what I believe. Not to mention he grew a cute mustache in the last years of his life. It made him look like a train conductor.
It’s stories like these that are evidence that music therapy is more than just “entertaining” someone. People receive PhD’s in music therapy. There are scientific journals. It’s the real deal. How would it help your loved ones?