The Healing Power of Music

Recovery Unscripted banner image for episode 73

Episode #73 | September 19, 2018

Featured Guest: Rachel Pinter

Music is all around us, a flood of soundwaves, memories and emotions. So how can we harness the power of music to help others connect and heal? I’m David Condos and we’ll answer this with music therapist Rachel Pinter from The Oaks at La Paloma on this episode of Recovery Unscripted.

Podcast Transcript

Interviewer: I’m here with Rachel Pinter. Thank you so much for being with us today.

Rachel: Thank you for having me.

Interviewer: All right. Let’s start by having you tell us a bit about your personal story, your background and how you got started serving at the intersection of music and mental health.

Rachel: I grew up in a musical home and so I’ve always had the passion for music. I actually began my school journey in marine biology and decided that maybe I didn’t want to just swim with the dolphins since I found music therapy.

Interviewer: That’s a big shift.

Rachel: Yes, very big shift. I was able to find music therapy in the same town in a different college. I was excited when I found that you could use music to help people, because it seemed perfect for what I wanted to do with my life. First few days in music therapy classes, I knew that that’s what I was supposed to do.

My first big girl job in music therapy was in the mental health field. That’s how I was introduced to that population and absolutely fell in love. It also is a field that you can learn from every day. I’m always gaining knowledge in mental health and addiction. I just absolutely love it. I use music to help people and it’s amazing, very rewarding.

Interviewer: How do you describe music therapy as a concept?

Rachel: Simply, it is using music to help people attain goals that are not musical. They don’t have to have any musical background and they don’t have to be able to exhibit any kind of musical talents to benefit from music therapy. They simply gives them a different outlet to express themselves and to become more aware of themselves and their thoughts and their feelings through different ways in music through drumming, we do drum circles and songwriting activities, lyric analysis. We even do singing along because they have their benefits as well.

Interviewer: We’ll get into the some of the specifics later, but that’s great. When you’re looking at music therapy is a defined niche thing, how do you say it’s different than just using music in treatment? Is that the same? Or is music therapy distinctive?

Rachel: Music therapy is distinctive, because there’s a credential professional facilitating it. That’s the difference. A lot of facilities have expressive music and some have people who use music as a tool to help them through their groups. The difference is the background that a music therapy has the training–

Interviewer: The therapist.

Rachel: Right. That difference is who’s bringing it to the table? With music therapy, we are board certified, we have the training to call it music therapy. The difference is who’s facilitating it, is what would be my answer.

Interviewer: What are some of the general benefits that you see for mental health and substance use recovery in particular, when you’re looking at music therapy.

Rachel: Self-expression, for sure. With music, we don’t have to be very well with our words. It’s an easy outlet for them to be able to utilize, to express themselves where they can’t just talk about it.

Interviewer: It gives them a lot of freedom.

Rachel: Right. Sometimes they’re able to find words and songs that they weren’t able to put together on their own. They’re like, “That’s exactly how I feel.” They’re able to take the lyrics that are already made from an existing song and relate to them and express themselves through it. I also see improved mood, I also see it’s a distraction at times. It can be just a way to work through something that otherwise they wouldn’t be able to.

Anger, for example, if we’re angry, we have to work through it, or there’s going to be an explosion. With music therapy, they’re able to use that outlet to help get that anger out in a positive way. I would say the biggest benefit from music therapy is just expressing their emotions in a positive way.

Interviewer: Yes, getting out of your head, maybe.

Rachel: Yes, absolutely.

Interviewer: Looking more specifically at the music therapy program at the Oaks, what are some music therapy activities, music related activities that you do and what’s the goal of each one.

Rachel: All right. We have a drum circle once a week that they’re able to come in. That can be intimidating for some who don’t feel they’re rhythmically able to keep a beat. We work through learning to express ourselves through other outlets. In this case, it would be the instruments. They’re able to express themselves, are able to release negative energies and negative feelings, negative thoughts through the instruments without saying one word. It’s a non-verbal way to communicate. We also do–

Interviewer: Do people catch on to that pretty quick, do they click that it’s working once they start doing it?

Rachel: Yes, and it’s really neat to see them, because a lot of them will come in apprehensive, and they’re like, “This is going to sound terrible.” Then, two minutes into the drum circle, they’re able to hear the connection that they have with each other and that’s another benefit from drum circles, is feeling connected to others, having a unified feeling, a community and having just a way to connect to others. Again, they’re not talking and they’re able to do that through the instruments.

Interviewer: What’s another example you’re going to say?

Rachel: With PTSD, drumming helps to–

Interviewer: Must be given. Yes.


Rachel: I want to say this though, because I already planned it, so I can word it correctly.

Interviewer: This is great. This is a great example. We can take your time.

Rachel: This is really important. Where did they go? Where’s my, I have some note cards here. All right. There it is. I got it back.

Interviewer: You can just dive in right there, where we left off.

Rachel: Okay. In drum circles they are able to practice grounding. Through that, they’re able to–

Interviewer: What does that mean exactly?

Rachel: Being present, being in the moment, and to participate, you have to be, because you can’t be off in space, or in another world, or in your head and actually hit the drum and participate and have that immediate connection to the instrument. They’re able to experience being present, which is very important in recovery, being in the moment and using that to help you get through another time that you might experience the same feeling, the same idea. Also, it’s a distraction. I don’t know if I said already.

Interviewer: Yes, you mentioned it.

Rachel: It can help them again, stay present, but at the same time, they’re not thinking about the past, they’re not thinking about the future. Those worries are out of the way for a moment, so it’s a really big distraction. Also with PTSD, the vibrations that resonates through our bodies go through every cell in our body, and so it’s able to release a negative cellular memories that we have.

Interviewer: Really, so you see–

Rachel: That’s connected to PTSD and they’re able to experience that. They might not be able to recognize that immediately, but it’s proven research that it happens.

Interviewer: Really?

Rachel: Yes.

Interviewer: Like they’re hitting the drum, the vibration is passing through their arm, through their cells, and that’s releasing, wow.

Rachel: Releasing.

Interviewer: That’s so cool yes. You talked on this a little bit but I’m guessing one question that a lot of people have is they come in they say, “I’ve never played music. I don’t know how to play music,” but that doesn’t really matter, so what do you tell them?

Rachel: Well, I tell them come and check it out anyways. A lot of the times, people who come in that are not musically inclined feel intimidated, and so in a drum circle, we might start with something simple as a neck shaker or something like that, but by the end of the drum circle, they’re on a drum, because they’re able to feel the confidence and feel the connectiveness that they have with their peers and it increases them–

Interviewer: That builds their self-esteem too.

Rachel: Right yes, so all of those benefits just within that one intervention that we’re able to utilize through the instruments.

Interviewer: Very cool and then what’s the lyric analysis?

Rachel: Okay, lyric analysis is where I’ll sing a song for them, but we have the lyrics in front of us. How many times are you listening to a song and you mishear them or sing them and incorrect them like, “You know that’s not what that’s saying.” Having the lyrics in front of you helps you process the lyrics a lot better than had you not had the lyrics in front of you. We are able to relate to the lyrics. They interpret them and a lot of the times that’s where our discussion comes from, is how they–

Interviewer: Then it leads into more talk, yes.

Rachel: Yes, they lead it from what they feel or what they experience or how they relate to the lyrics, and they’re able to use the lyrics. Sometimes, they just say as simply as, “I relate to those.” They might not be able to go further but there are able to say, “That’s how I feel.”

Interviewer: Some part of that is resonating, cool yes. Back to how you use this at the Oaks. I guess what does it look like practically? How is this incorporated with the overall treatment program? Is this–?

Rachel: Music therapy?

Interviewer: Yes, are you seeing them every day or how does that work?

Rachel: Well, I have groups throughout the week that I do the different interventions. It’s almost daily that there’s a music therapy outlet.

Interviewer: It’s a different rotating type of activity?

Rachel: Right. Depending on what day of the week it is that’s what we work on that day. They know what, if they come regularly, that today is we’re writing a song, or today we’re doing lyric analysis.

Interviewer: Yes nice, and so are there other music therapists on staff? Is there–?

Rachel: I’m the only music therapist at the Oaks.

Interviewer: Yes okay. I don’t forget that, yes no worries great. Then you touched on the composition, the songwriting part, how does that work? What do you see from that?

Rachel: Well, we use different techniques to do songwriting because structure is a big deal, because they, again, come in like, “I can’t write a song. I’m terrible at writing, journaling, writing poems is not in me.” A lot of the times I provide different structures. Whether it be a fill-in-the-blank type activity, where it’s an existing song already and I take out some of the words and simply put a blank there and they can put their own words. Then the melody’s already there. Then they hear their own words in a song and so they have that sense of accomplishment and they’re like, “Wow I did that.”

Interviewer: They can get the ball rolling yes.

Rachel: Right, boost their self-esteem again. Then there’s other opportunities where there’s less structure. Where they completely write the whole song and then they’re able to perform that, and even record it in our studio that we’ll get to.

Interviewer: That’s right yes, that’s leading right into the next thing I wanted to talk about, was Blue Door Recording Studio. To start off on that, how did that come to be? Why did they decide to, you don’t know? Okay, no worries.

Rachel: I mean they just tell me basically that I would be running it, when I started full time. I don’t know how they decided yes sorry. I felt like– [crosstalk]

Interviewer: No, worries at all. I’ll lead you into it in a different way yes.

Rachel: I can show you how we would use it.

Interviewer: Yes, so we’ll get into that all right. Yes, then talking about the Blue Door Recording Studio, it is also a part of this program. I guess how does that get integrated? Does every patient have the opportunity to do that or?

Rachel: Absolutely, whether they’re a musician or not, they can always come in to the studio. We have three open sessions a week where they can come in and jam with their peers, and just pick up a guitar again after six months of no play, or sometimes, they find a talent that they didn’t know existed by just coming in and picking up the bass and tinkering around on it and like, “You know what? I might be able to use this.” They find that while they’re there and they’re able to use that when they go home.

They also have opportunities to perform, and so that can be a practice time for them because we have variety shows and we have a ceremony every week for the patients who are leaving, and so there’s opportunities for them to perform live. Also reduces the idea of, “Well, the substance was my creativity.” They’re able to realize, “You know what? I am able to perform. I am able to sing. I am able to play a song without substance.” They are able to overcome performance anxiety, and they’re able to realize, “You know what?
I might have messed up but it didn’t kill me, and so able to work through that.”

I’m working with someone right now who has terrible anxiety with performing in front of others. She was able to sing at our variety show last week. That’s exactly what she told me she’s like, “I might have messed up but it didn’t kill me.” She was able to say, “You know what? I can do this.”

Interviewer: Yes, and not feel like you have to run back to the substance to escape that.

Rachel: Right, and also the recording aspect of it is, people might come in to write their own song and so they’re able to record that.

Interviewer: The composition part that you were about?

Rachel: Absolutely, a lot of songs that are written during music therapy times are often recorded so they can take them home with them. If they work in a small group, that’s another thing in songwriting group, they work with each other. They’re are able to bounce off of each other and not feel so isolated and increasing that sense of, “I’m not going to be good at this.” They’re able to work together. Then, they record that and take it home as a reminder of what they can use, and as a reminder of what their recovery looks like and what it can be.

Interviewer: Yes, kind of a milestone. Very cool. Getting into the response you see from this, what are some of the responses you’ve seen firsthand as you’re working with patients both from the therapy classes, from the recording, from all that? How do you see this working?

Rachel: Well, in the studio I can give an example of a patient I had who was completely flat, had no expression due to his mental health illness. He was able to work through that in the studio and it was really neat. He came in one day and he said, “I used to play the drums.” I was like, “Okay well, maybe you should pick that back up.” He was able to sit down behind the drums and immediately I saw a different expression on his face. It was like, it awakened him. Then, from that day forward, there was more emotion, there was more expression, and playing the drums was what kind of–

Interviewer: Flip the light switch.

Rachel: Right, and so to see just amazing things take place. I’ve had people share in my music therapy groups where they would have not shared in any other groups.

Interviewer: Because of that change of context.

Rachel: Right, just having that outlet, having that buffer with the music helps them feel more comfortable. They feel safe and they’re able to share while maybe they would have not shared in any other group.

Interviewer: Right yes, because I mean sitting in a room with one therapist in a quiet room can also be intimidating in some ways.

Rachel: Right absolutely.

Interviewer: I’m guessing that there are people who are still maybe skeptical about music therapy? Are there patients or other people in the field? What do you say to them about how music can have this healing power in a very tangible, practical way?

Rachel: I share my experiences that I have seen with the power of music and whether it’s waking someone up, whether it’s giving them an outlet that they’ve never used before. I’ve worked with elderly before, and worked with a man who was in the last stages of Alzheimer’s and so he was incapable of feeding himself, he was incapable of communicating. There was just no way of getting to him. I was able to do some research as to what was the music that he would probably listen to when he was a young man and so I played that music. He got up and waltz me around the room.

I share my experiences. I share what I have seen to reduce that skepticism because I’ve seen the power and I’ve experienced it. I’ve seen people’s lives changed, not just from me, but just from music. I’ve had patients come in who don’t use music and when they leave, they’re able to use that as a new tool to help them in their recovery.

Interviewer: Yes and I’m actually a musician as well, so I totally believe they like music. It just hits you on a different level, the way it just hits you can’t really reach.

Rachel: It’s universal and there is a connectedness that you can experience through music like if you and I have different musical preferences, there’s still something that we can find to connect each other through music. I see that in groups as well from different cultures, different genders, different musical preferences, there is still ways to connect through music that nothing else can provide that connection from.

Interviewer: All right, we’ll just wrap up with this last question. Everyone who devotes their life to further this cause of recovery has their own reasons for getting up, doing it everyday, getting back out there. Could you wrap up by summing up why this is so important to you, helping people with music find peace and find mental health? Why is that so important to you?

Rachel: Because I’ve experienced it in my own life and I have seen it in loved ones. The struggle that comes with addiction and with mental health issues. I’ve seen the power that music can provide in helping healing. Seeing how it works has pushed me and encouraged me and provided reward for me. That’s why I do it, because I know it works and why not help people if you have this wonderful tool that will help them heal in recovery? Something that they can continue to use whether I’m there or not. Music can continue in their lives and to help them heal and recover.

Just, it helps me get through things and so I know if it works for me, why not work and I’ve seen it work for others. Why not go back in there and continue what I know is working?

Interviewer: Yes, all right. Rachel, thanks a lot for your time and for sharing that with us.

Rachel: Thanks for having me.

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