An Interview With Jenni Rook, Music Therapist
Reflections on the universal language of music and the use of creative arts therapy for strengthening health
Jenni Rook is a board-certified music therapist and licensed clinical professional counselor. She currently serves as the executive director of the Institute for Therapy through the Arts in Evanston, Ill., where she has practiced as a music therapist for over 10 years.
Her clinical work with children and adults has primarily been conducted in medical settings, including the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. Jenni’s expertise includes using music in speech rehabilitation and in counseling for children and adults coping with trauma, anxiety, and medical conditions. She also has several years of experience working with children diagnosed with autism and intellectual disabilities.
Jenni co-authored the Music Therapy Social Skills Assessment and Documentation Manual (MTSSA) published in 2014. She is also an experienced presenter, frequently speaking on a variety of topics related to creative arts therapy at universities and professional conferences.
SBB: Tell us about your background and how you came to be a music therapist?
JR: As a child, I was always singing. I would try to imitate Disney princesses, Mariah Carey, and Whitney Houston. I loved connecting with my voice, and nothing felt better than singing at the top of my lungs. I made up songs all of the time and can remember being on a swing set in my backyard creating songs. I continued to write as I grew older and found the process of expressing myself through music to be very therapeutic. I would write songs and then go back to them and sing them when I felt like I needed to. I also began to perform in choirs and musicals, studying voice throughout high school.
Music was so important in my life, and while I enjoyed performing in front of others, I knew I wanted to have a career where I could use music to connect with people in a different way. I considered going into psychology because I had a desire to help people and found human behavior to be fascinating.
One day my mother told me about Music Therapy. She had heard something about this profession and it sounded absolutely perfect for me. I started to research programs and decided to pursue an undergraduate degree in music therapy from Western Illinois University.
After practicing for a few years, I returned to school and obtained a Master’s Degree in Clinical Psychology. I am very fortunate to have a job I love and feel fulfilled every day in my work.
SBB: What is your mission statement?
JR: The Institute for Therapy through the Arts’ (ITA) mission is to empower and energize individuals, families and communities to grow and heal by:
INSPIRING CHANGE and wellness in individuals and families through Creative Arts Therapy,
STRENGTHENING HEALTH in community organizations by providing state of the art consultation, training and clinical programs,
CULTIVATING ACHIEVEMENT in students’ academic and social development through a collaborative team approach to treatment in schools, and
FORGING LEADERSHIP in the Creative Arts Therapy fields by advocating for each discipline and providing integrated training experiences.
SBB: Creative arts therapy to strengthen health? Tell us more about creative arts therapies as a healing process.
JR: The creative arts therapies are alternative treatment approaches that allow individuals to engage in artistic creation throughout the therapy process as a means to facilitate self-expression.
ITA offers four different types of creative arts therapy: Art Therapy, Dance/Movement Therapy, Drama Therapy, and Music Therapy. Our therapists are trained and credentialed in one of these four professions. Clients of all ages come to us after trying more traditional approaches to psychotherapy and realizing they are not able to sufficiently communicate their thoughts and feelings through words, are too traumatized to confront their issues directly, or feel they need to be more physically active in the treatment process. Other clients come to us as a first attempt at therapy because they have heard about this work and how powerful it can be.
SBB: What would be a working example of your work in music therapy?
JR: Music therapy is a little more broad than the other types of creative arts therapies. Music therapists will not only focus on psychological wellbeing in treatment but can also help clients to improve communication, motor skills, and cognitive abilities. For this reason, music therapy looks different for every person. Clients are usually singing or playing instruments in treatment sessions. We use live music so we can adapt musical elements to match or move the client in a certain way.
Music therapists study the way the brain processes and is impacted by music, and therefore shape music in very intentional ways to elicit certain neurological responses. We use music to help clients memorize information, cope with difficult emotions, or to promote relaxation. We sing with clients as a means to help them develop or regain verbal communication, and we even use music to shape motor movements to promote improved mobility.
SBB: Let’s not get into the politics of it, but just the healing. Why do you think the public is not as aware as they should be about this type of treatment? How do you feel the media could best share this information with the general public?
JR: Despite the fact that the Creative Arts Therapies have been established professions since the 1950s, there is a perception that these are new or emerging treatment approaches. I think one of the major challenges we face is these professions are still fairly small. There is an abundant amount of research discussing the efficacy of these treatment approaches, but our research is not growing as rapidly as other professions.
The media has actually become much more interested in this work in recent years, and I am thrilled to see more attention focused on the arts in healing. We are seeing art therapy with veterans growing, and neuroscientists have also begun to conduct more research on music, which has gained media attention.
In my 10 years practicing as a music therapist, I find I have to explain my work much less often than I did when I first started working in this field. I am confident the fields will continue to grow, and more and more people will gain access to creative arts therapy.
Shelley, why don’t you ask me about the most common misconceptions associated with Creative Arts Therapies?
SBB: The last question in these interviews is always an aperta quaestio, an open question. Please.
JR: Well, most often I encounter people who believe they must be an artist or a musician in order to participate in these therapies. That is absolutely not the case. We will create an environment centered around the client’s strengths and abilities, carefully selecting materials and musical instruments that do not require any skill to use.
Most often, our clients feel an instant sense of accomplishment and increased self-esteem because they realize they can do something they never believed they could. We help people discover new abilities, which is especially important when people feel inadequate or have lost functioning in one or more areas.
People also believe the creative arts therapies involve some sort of instruction, and will refer to our sessions “classes.” While our clients might learn a few things about the art form they are using in therapy, we are not educators, nor do we care about creating a polished artistic product. We are more interested in providing an experience through the artistic process, and the client is our main focus, not the art.
Finally, I think dance/movement therapy is often the most misunderstood of the four treatment approaches. There is a perception one will have to dance or learn choreography in therapy. Dance/movement therapies actually observe and analyze movement and movement patterns. They study developmental movement and help clients connect more with their bodies. Sometimes simply breathing is movement enough.
This approach can have great benefits with individuals who have issues related to body image or who have experienced some form of trauma. Our body holds on to memories, and sometimes physical symptoms emerge as a result of this. Dance/movement therapy can help people to discover connections between their emotions and their physical experience.
SBB: This column is scheduled to appear in our first edition of the new year. What a wonderful way to start the new year, by creating a new understanding of the use of art and creativity as a healing and health-strengthening way of life.
Much thanks and Happy New Year to you and yours.
Reflections: The Evolution, Art and Healing Potential of Music
1: the system of words or signs that people use to express thoughts and feelings to each other
2: any one of the systems of human language that are used and understood by a particular group of people: the language of mathematics; sign language.
3: the means of communication used by animals: the language of birds.
From our mother’s heartbeat to and through lullabies, the national anthem, the wedding march, your kids’ school band, and the big finale. Music: you don’t have it; it has you. It’s in your genes. It is the poetry of sound, and everybody with a heartbeat is a part of the symphony. Or as Lord Hamlet said as he died, “The rest is silence.”
You can live without music, but nature cannot. If you are hearing music, you are living it and it will heal you as it overcomes the silence to recite the songs of the universe.
Thoreau wrote, “When I hear music, I fear no danger. I am invulnerable. I see no foe. I am related to the earliest times, and to the latest.”
Just before the First World War, Paris could claim two of serious modern music’s greatest composers, Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy. Ravel went on to become highly regarded for his complex works. Debussy went into a long mourning period after the suicide death of his first wife, remarried, and was finally given a child in 1905 when he was 43 years old. The daughter was named Claude-Emma (her nickname was Chou-Chou, which means “my pretty cabbage”).
Legend has it that one day while silently watching her play with her dolls, Debussy heard Chou-Chou begin to hum. He then proceeded to write “In a Child’s Corner,” a suite of six pieces for solo piano, including “Serenade for the Doll.” Chou-Chou died of diphtheria in 1919, just a year after her father’s death. The manuscript of “In a Child’s Corner” (except for the Serenade) is stored in the National Library of Letters in Paris.
Inside every important artist there is a wounded child, inside the wounded child there is an artist searching his or her soul for the art of healing, the art of healing the soul.
Debussy said his soul was:
“the color of my soul is iron-grey and sad
bats wheel about the steeple of my dreams.”
He was a composer, who with one or two others, created new scale structures and new concepts of atonal composition, sometimes referred to as modern music. But the joy was in his art, not in his life. Then one day he hears his beloved little girl humming her own song, and he is moved to compose works of inspired innocence and heartfelt joy.
Question? Soul searching might be answered by this possibility: Music as a healing and life-enhancing path of discovery.
Shelley B. Blank has worked with major national and international newspapers as a journalist as well as a corporate executive. He has produced programs for Public Radio and lectured on modern multimedia communications and technology.