After suffering a stroke, an elderly former figure skater feared that she would be confined to her own little cocoon of paralysis.
She was physically crippled after suffering multiple strokes; speaking itself could be difficult because of the facial muscle spasms, and she went everywhere via wheelchair.
One of her regular destinations was a local senior center, where she would join in the activities after lunch. One day, the former skater was in the exercise room, stretching her legs—stretching one high up, completely vertical, with her knee to her nose.
A music therapist who happened to be passing by the exercise room spotted her and, shocked at her agility, asked her more about herself. The woman revealed she had once been a professional figure skater, and the therapist, working off an inkling, invited her to a little one-on-one music session at the center.
There, the therapist began to play various waltzes, chasing a tune, until she finally started performing “The Skaters’ Waltz,” a famous melody inspired by ice skaters on a rink.
To both women’s surprise, the former figure skater started to not just cry, but hysterically bawl her eyes out.
“I freaked,” said Christina Britton Conroy, the music therapist in question, who ran the senior center. “I just thought I had done the cruelest, most horrible thing to this person.”
Conroy quickly came to aid of the woman with tissues, then wheeled her back out for lunch, and spent the rest of the day feeling absolutely horrible about herself. This was the first time she’d made someone cry through music therapy, and it remains one of her scariest experiences as a music therapist.
“I don’t think I slept that night. I was like, ‘what have I done to this poor woman?’ They say music is non-threatening—well, music can be hugely threatening,” Conroy said.
But the next day, as Conroy came into work at the senior center, she saw a huge crowd of people gathered around one of the lunch tables.
The former figure skater, just torn apart by memories the day before, was now beaming, proudly showing off the scrapbooks of her old photos and newspaper clippings, once again surrounded by adoring fans.
People were fawning over how beautiful she was, how talented, and she was able to experience some of the fondest parts of those days yet again.
As she waved over Conroy to show her the scrapbooks, Conroy realized that if she hadn’t had that inkling, if she hadn’t played just the right melody to tune into the woman’s memory, she would not have had the emotional breakdown she needed to come out of the restraints of her own creation.
She would have never been able to dig up and access this part of her history, and bring it out to share with people. She would not have gotten to experience the adoration that once meant so much to her.
“She expected to be in her cocoon of paralysis for the rest of her life. She never expected to be out in the crowd showing off old photographs,” Conroy said.
Since then, Conroy says she has made many more patients cry, and does so often.
Making Men Cry
“If I feel, therapeutically, someone is so uptight and in so much pain they really need to cry, I will musically get their emotions flowing so much they really will cry,” Conroy said.
Music therapy is an established, clinical health profession that uses music as a medium in a therapeutic relationship. We all know how powerful music can be emotionally (and even spiritually, or physically), but music therapy is much, much more than playing a song and seeing someone light up.
We have all seen the viral, miraculous videos of babies responding beyond their years to music, of non-verbal autistic children who have never uttered a word suddenly perfectly sing a song, of an elderly parent suffering dementia who can’t remember their own loved ones on a good day suddenly relive a cherished moment with them through music.
These dramatic instances all speak to the power of music. But while sometimes, in these viral-worthy videos, these results are one-off and incidental, a music therapist works deliberately and consciously to help a patient toward a (usually non-musical) goal.
According to the American Music Therapy Association’s research and surveys, 1 million people in the United States received music therapy services in 2010—a year when the industry had doubled from the year before.
Music therapy, as with any other form of therapy, requires understanding of where the person is mentally and emotionally.
As an example, Conroy explains that instead of playing a depressed person a happy song, you would play a song that mirrors their current state, and see if you can, piece by piece, tune by tune, help them unwrap their sadness and come out of themselves, into a higher place.
“I remember a lovely man, he was well into his 80s in a senior center. He was caregiving his wife who had Parkinson’s and a lot of problems, and he had a lot of sadness in his life, but he was one of these guys who were like ‘big boys don’t cry,’” Conroy said.
At this point, this elderly man was meeting with the weekly support group for caregivers at the senior center, but he kept all that sadness and emotion coiled up tightly inside. The other caregivers relied on the group for support, used it to debrief, and they cried regularly. This man never cried.
“I thought this guy was going to have a stroke himself because he was holding in so much tension,” Conroy said.
At the time, she was also having one-on-one sessions with him at the center, and so, knowing this man was a devout Catholic, she set her piano keyboard to an organ sound, and started playing what sounded like church music—sad church music.
“Little by little, this guy broke down until he really was just crying,” Conroy said. “He was getting it all out, and just crying and crying as I was handing him Kleenexes.”
“And by the end, he finally cried himself out—and he looked great! His body was relaxed, his facial muscles were relaxed,” Conroy said. And afterward, he could release his emotions with every support group session.
“It was so healthy,” she said of the change.
‘Music Gives Life’
Conroy is a certified music therapist who has worked with clients of every sort, and is author of the tips-filled, practical guide for caregivers, “How to Have Fun With Your Aging Parents.” And to hear her retell her journey into music therapy, an outsider might find it fateful.
Born to an acclaimed actress mother, Barbara Britton, and a psychoanalyst father who came from a family of musicians, Conroy grew up near show business and surrounded by music. The classically trained singer and actor moved to Europe where she became a professional opera singer, and then after a visit back to the States, ended up staying and touring cross-country in musical theater.
But at just age 27, Conroy found herself the sole caregiver to her 80-year-old father. Her mother, who had married a man 20 years her senior, died after battling pancreatic cancer, leaving an unequipped and angry Conroy to grapple with her new situation on her own.
They were horribly trying times, but after his death, Conroy—still working as a professional musician—was offered an odd job.
“I thought it was going to be a gig—it was nothing I was used to. I was taken to a ward, a day room, all bright lights and that disinfectant smell, and they wheeled all these people in wheelchairs really close around me,” Conroy said.
“So there’s all these people leaning over and drooling and looking like they were half asleep—but I’m a performer so I start plucking and singing, ‘Hark, the herald angels sing,’ and—almost instantly, these wilted flowers started blooming right in front of me.”
The elderly patients in the nursing home transformed right before her eyes. They sat up, with brightened eyes, singing and clapping along to the music Conroy was performing.
“They were people,” she said. “And I was in shock!”
“That was my first inkling, a real ‘ta-da!’ that music could be way more than just entertainment,” Conroy said.
After Conroy’s father’s death, she went back to school to get her Master’s in music therapy and went on to direct a senior center, start the elderly performing group Music Gives Life, open private practice, and spread the benefits of music and music therapy in a myriad of ways.
She once heard a non-verbal little girl perfectly sing “Jingle-Bells” to a room full of special needs students and teachers after having stumped them all year.
She’s worked with professional singers who for the life of them can’t remember, or in some cases can’t stop singing, a particular line or lyric because of some trauma associated with it.
She’s worked with a little boy with muscles so fragile he can’t use his hands, but finger by finger, plunking away at a piano keyboard, he is on his way to building the strength and musical sense to be able to play a tune by himself.
“Every morning, every night, and every in-between, I’m whistling, I’m singing, I’m doing music with somebody, I’m hearing music, I’m seeing musical patterns,” Conroy said. “There are rhythms and harmonies in people’s everyday lives, and I use this in my therapy so much. I see everything in life in terms of music.”