Inside Voices: “Music Therapy,” with Carlene Brown
Amanda Stubbert: Welcome to the SPU Voices podcast, where we tell personal stories with universal impact. Today, we sat down with Dr. Carlene Brown, a musician, music educator, music therapist, and arts manager. She’s currently a professor and former chair of the Music department at the Seattle Pacific University. She’s a board-certified music therapist and director of the SPU music therapy program, the first music therapy program in the state of Washington. Dr. Brown is also serving as a consultant for the development of a master’s degree music therapy program at National Taiwan University. Carlene, thank you so much for joining us today.
Carlene Brown: I appreciate the invitation. Thank you, Amanda.
Amanda: Well, I have had the chance to work with you on and off a little bit as a music professor, and I just love working with you, Carlene. You have such a great understanding of not just performance, but of the students themselves, just as human beings. So, can we just start with a little bit about your background and how you ended up in higher ed?
Carlene: Well, I come from a family, I’m one of four siblings, and it was always important for my mom, that her children become educated. She actually never even received a high school diploma. And I am the second in my family to have earned a doctorate, and the other two earned master’s degrees, terminal degrees in their field. So, education has always been a focus and a goal, and just part of my life. From kindergarten straight through, I’ve always been in the process of either being in school or teaching, whether in academia or out in the field. But I highly believe in education, clearly.
Amanda: Can I ask a little side question? When you were growing up with that, obviously that was instilled in you constantly, did you see that as a goal and a dream, or was it more of a pressure?
Carlene: Never a pressure. I followed in my older sister’s footsteps in terms of even being a musician. She and I both took piano lessons. My other two siblings did other things with music, and then she was the first in the family actually to earn a doctorate. So, I watched Raelinda move from the University Of Connecticut into Yale for graduate school, and as the younger sister that always hung around her, I would go to college and get a sense of what it looked like from a very early age. So, I was not daunted by it. I watched her navigate, I watched her community grow. I saw what great faculty looked like when they owned you. So, it became a natural, “Well, yeah. I can do this because she did it.” So, role modeling has always been important to me because I understand what it takes when you can see it in others and understand, “I could do that.”
Amanda: Sure, sure. So, then was the goal to come back and teach in higher ed from early on?
Carlene: Oh, not at all, actually. I earned my degree, undergraduate degree, at Emmanuel College in Boston, and I was certified as a music therapist, but also I had a double degree in music education, and I taught in the Boston and Brookline school systems. And was fascinated with the idea of why music could alter behavior. I wasn’t sure and understanding what I was seeing. Was it about personality, could the music in and of itself, without an individual intervening, create change? And so for two years, I started looking into this with a buddy. This just naturally occurred in terms of going to school to study this.
“Could the music in and of itself, without an individual intervening, create change?”
And I only applied to one school, and it was the University of Washington. They had a program that was new to me, it was called Systematic Musicology, and it allowed me to understand the physiological and psychological effects of music on behavior. I was the only music therapist. Others came from different viewpoints as musicians and trying to understand the psychology of music. So, my doctorate is actually in psycho-musicology, and I eventually just wanted to understand could music influence behavior? But then I’ve done a number of things as a musician. I’ve done quite a bit in terms of program management with youths out in the community.
Arts management is also a passion of mine, so from early days while being in school or on spring break from school, I was fortunate to work for the Boston Symphony at Tanglewood. It’s where I met [SPU Professor of Music] Stephen Newby. So, Stephen Newby and I have a very long history of working with the BSL, in arts management. And so my career has evolved in a number of ways as a musician. I’ve also been a church musician for almost all of my life. And so that’s another avenue of what it means to see how music can serve others. So, it’s just been a path. I don’t know too many musicians who just do one thing, quite honestly.
Amanda: That’s so funny, that’s what I was about to comment, is every musician I know, and especially the faculty here at SPU, there’s no such thing as just one path, one thing, or even one instrument. You dive in and you see so many avenues and things that where you feel like you can help or you feel like you can grow. And I love that sense of really just taking on life, of what can I learn next?
Carlene: Yes. And it is one of the reasons why I love the core faculty, why the music faculty at SPU is special to me. First of all, we have great camaraderie. We get along really well. And you’ve seen that, we work well. But we’re all doing different things. No one is just doing one thing as a musician, and that’s the coolest thing about being in this field.
“No one is just doing one thing as a musician, and that’s the coolest thing about being in this field.”
Amanda: Absolutely. Well, let’s go back a little bit to music therapy itself. I feel like every time I mention the term music therapy, most of the time an eyebrow goes up and the question is basically, “What even are you talking about?” If you ask has music ever affected your life, I think every human being can talk about that moment. That song that immediately brings them back to a place of grief or brings them always to a place of joy. I think we understand that music affects us, but to actually take control and do that purposefully is something not many of us have done. Can you talk about that a little bit?
Carlene: Typical to many of the students in our program, music affected me greatly in high school. And it was a high school guidance counselor who told me about the field of music therapy and once I understood the term, it became a lifelong passion of mine. So, there is a national association, the American Music Therapy Association, and there’s a definition that all of us can cite easily about what is music therapy. AMTA would say that it’s a clinical- and evidence-based use of music interventions to accomplish individualized goals within a therapeutic relationship, by a credentialed professional who has completed an approved music therapy program.
But that is not how I would answer what does music therapy mean to an individual because that would glaze over anyone. So, my answer is quite simply, it’s the functional and intentional use of music to achieve a therapeutical result. We are all musicians, but we’re all very different musicians. It’s not one instrument over another. All of our students have their own unique way as musicians. And what we aim to do is serve others through understanding what is the goal, what is the treatment goal? And that goal could be behavioral, it could be cognitive, it could be physiological, it could be emotional. It could even be spiritual. And our goal is how can we help you, serve you, meet that goal through music?
Amanda: Can you give us an example of a success that you cite on a regular basis?
Carlene: Well, my students are incredibly involved in the field, in the Seattle area. And so I think of them often, in terms of where right now they are engaged with music, and it could be at the Alyssa Burnett Center, which is affiliated with Seattle Children’s Hospital and it serves individuals over 18 who are on the autism spectrum. And whether it’s through socialization, whether it’s through memory, whether it’s just engagement, we use music as a means to connect. And that is the fundamental principle of music therapy, that it is a form of communication where not everyone has the tools of using words. Music has a way for us to connect.
“Whether it’s through socialization, whether it’s through memory, whether it’s just engagement, we use music as a means to connect. And that is the fundamental principle of music therapy, that it is a form of communication where not everyone has the tools of using words. Music has a way for us to connect.”
We have others that work at Aegis retirement communities. We have several of our alumni who are hired by Aegis, and they’re working with older adults. And that could be again, social communication, it could be reviving memories and having social conversations around, “Oh, that piece of music reminds me of…” It could be using music to move, music as a catalyst. Try getting someone to move without music? There’s a difference when you add that. And music therapists are very intentional and understand individual and group dynamics to choose something that’s not for what they want, but what the client wants.
On another spectrum could be we have students down at New Horizons, which is a facility for homeless youth to walk in and receive food and perhaps clothing, or to get some advice or some counseling. Well, we have music therapy there once a week, and it is a place of acceptance. We’re using music again: How do we connect with you? Our students are great at songwriting and changing the lyrics. Perhaps it’s a song that everybody knows, but we’ll engage a teenager to rewrite the lyrics, to express where you are. How can we understand where you are, in a nonthreatening way, no judgment, but can we just see you for who you are? Express yourself. Our program, I believe fundamentally, we believe in the humanity of the soul and how can we connect with you? Regardless of where you are, who you are, we will use music as a means to provide acceptance and love, and at times show our face and who we are as people.
Amanda: Yes, of course. We immediately think of church and what a big part church music has always been, and touching the soul and touching you emotionally when you have no other way to get there. And I just see so much of the work you do being really an extension of church and letting you bring that spiritual and emotional aspect into life and into therapy and into places where we need it. Even back to the memory care, I’ve seen some unbelievable videos of Alzheimer’s patients who basically have lost all language, that come alive and sing a song from their youth. It’s just so powerful. I would encourage our audience, if you haven’t seen any of those videos, to look some up. I will ask a follow-up question, because I’ve seen in your bio, on our SPU website, you talk about the use of music in pain management, and that is a new one to me. So, I just wanted to ask you what that looks like?
Carlene: That was from graduate school. When I was studying again, the physiological and psychological effects of music, I looked into and was fortunate to become friends with a group of nursing students. One thing led to another, and I was able to understand and learn about the psychology of pain. That there is no one-to-one correlation between injury and the perception of pain, but there were a number of psychological factors that will modulate how we perceive pain. Previous trauma, for instance. If you’ve had certain kinds of pain before, you’ll expect that kind of pain again. Modeling, when a child sees another child potentially get up from an injury, there might be … even family assumptions around pain, we tend to model that. So, there are a number of factors around the psychology of pain.
“Could music interfere with the psychology of pain and be a means for distraction and relaxation, and ultimately allow oneself to have more control over their pain, as opposed to a pharmaceutical means of dealing with their pain?”
But two that really struck me are that pain is influenced by distraction. If you can get your mind off of pain, you can interrupt the cycle of your perception of pain. And relaxation, the more you relax, the more you allow your body to heal. So, I gained an understanding of why not music? Could music interfere with the psychology of pain and be a means for distraction and relaxation, and ultimately allow oneself to have more control over their pain, as opposed to a pharmaceutical means of dealing with their pain? I was fortunate to be able to do my graduate work at Virginia Mason Hospital, through the Department of Anesthesiology, and I was able to study clinical pain and the use of offering individuals music to cope with pain.
A fundamental piece for me, and all of my students understand this, is that I am a strong advocate for preference. It is not about me presenting music to you, Amanda, and saying, “Here, this will work,” when the option is probably no, it won’t. So, a music therapist is going to understand the individual and figure out, to the best of their ability, what type of music might help you cope. And that’s with acute pain or chronic pain. And the research shows that yes, it actually does work.
Amanda: Oh, yes. I was just saying that kind of brings back to what you were saying at the beginning about how so much of music therapy has to be the therapist finding what will work for the person they’re trying to serve, because I can imagine if I’m in pain, hearing music that I love would be helpful, but hearing music that makes me crazy is probably not going to help me. It might actually make it worse. And you would never know that, right? If you’re just writing a prescription and walking away, you actually … there has to be a knowing between the therapist and the patient to actually understand what will be helpful for that patient.
Carlene: Yes. One of the classes that I love to teach, actually, in our program, it’s called the Psychology Of Music. And obviously, it’s one of my favorite classes. I will ask my music therapy students the question, “Can music hurt?” We tend to think of music as being able to make us happy or heal or in a spiritual sense in the church. But the question, where is it on the continuum? Of course, music, it can hurt. If you put on the wrong piece of music, you could raise heart rate, you could have distress signals from a patient or a client, and imagine if that person doesn’t have the means to tell you, “Turn that off.” So, the sensitivity of music, we are not arbitrary. We are very aware, as music therapists, when we turn down that sound environment, when we create one, it has the potential to elevate and it has the potential to hurt. And one must be keenly aware of what is going on with that individual, or within a group. Because yes, you could do damage.
Amanda: I love the way that you talk about this, because as someone who has a little bit of a psychology background, I think it can be way too easy to rush into a situation feeling like, “I know how to help you and so I’m going to use my knowledge and I’m going to help you, and then I’m going to walk away.” But it almost is a deeper layer when you’re exploring the music therapy of holistic relationship, that you can’t even really begin without any sense of relationship. And so that makes me feel very good, as someone who may someday be on the receiving end, that the music therapist walking in would be someone who knows that they really need to understand what I need before they begin really the work. Does that make sense? I’m just saying, as someone who may one day be a patient, that feels good, that that would be their outlook.
Carlene: Right, you can’t just assume anything about someone’s background. A piece of music could have an incredible emotional attachment that could either be elevating. It could remind you of something that was fabulous in your life, but it could be a piece that was part of a funeral or something that was really tragic in your life. And you just put that individual in that space, and then walk away would be … well, it’s just something that we are very aware of. Music is not arbitrary with us. Even if we want to try putting on a piece of music, we’re going to see how the individual responds to that and make no assumptions. We rely on the individual to give us the feedback. But when you get it right, the ability for music to heal is incredibly powerful.
“Music is not arbitrary with us. Even if we want to try putting on a piece of music, we’re going to see how the individual responds to that and make no assumptions. We rely on the individual to give us the feedback. But when you get it right, the ability for music to heal is incredibly powerful.”
Amanda: Absolutely. I think we all can think of a time … I’ll just tell our audience here that we’re recording this from separate houses, because this is during the stay home, stay safe quarantine. And as the weeks drag on, there are good days and bad days. And the other day I opened Spotify and quite by mistake, I turned on the original Disney soundtrack to Mary Poppins. I thought I would immediately turn it off. And it felt so good. It reminded me of skipping around the house when my children were little and I ended up listening to almost the entire soundtrack. So, yeah, I think we can all pretty quickly think of a time where music immediately changed our sense of well-being. I won’t just say emotional state, but really whole sense of well-being. Let me ask you this for anyone out there, thinking, “Boy, this sounds awesome. I wish this is something that I could be a part of.” Do you have to be a concert quality musician to be able to work in music therapy?
Carlene: Goodness, no. But you need to be an effective musician. It’s not about grandiosity or even virtuosity because those individuals may not be musical. For a music therapy degree, all of our students must have a functional ability on piano, guitar, and the use of their voice in singing. It does not mean concert level or even performance level, but it does mean that they know how to use the music, know how to use those instruments to make music. And again, that is a term that is not just about the facility of being a technician on an instrument, it’s being musical. Because again, music is our medium to communicate.
So, can you play a song and bring someone to tears? Can you play music that makes someone tap their feet and want to engage in movement? Can you accompany yourself and others, so that singing is just joy? Do they understand how to do songwriting or lyric analysis? It’s about being a musician because you don’t know who is in front of you and how are you going to reach them? And even if it’s not within your wheelhouse of, “Oh my goodness, I haven’t played that genre,” you know where to go and how to go and be relevant to that individual, to bring them what they want.
Amanda: Well, can I ask you this? What is next for the program? I know you just hit this big milestone of 10 years. What’s the dream for the music therapy program at SPU?
Carlene: The next step for me, I am thinking, and I’ve been gathering a great deal of support by the SPU community, is a clinic, a music therapy clinic on site. I would like to develop this; it’s a natural step for our program. There are other universities who have associated music therapy clinics. Our students travel quite a distance throughout the Puget Sound to reach communities. But we would like to have a place where individuals could come and have individual or group work, right here on campus. So, we are putting in motion the steps, and I’m hoping within a year or so, we can actually launch an SPU Music Therapy Clinic.
Amanda: Well, if you need a guinea pig, I can be first one in the door. You can practice on me.
Carlene: I actually think there’s a number of faculty that would line up for this, actually. Without naming names.
Amanda: I think you’re right. Well, Carlene, thank you so much for taking the time. I feel like we could talk all day. We will be watching diligently for that clinic and for all the updates that come out of your program. But let me end with the question we ask everyone who comes on the podcast. From your unique perspective, if everyone in the Seattle area were to do one thing differently when they woke up tomorrow, that would make this world a better place, what would you have us do?
Carlene: Oh, that takes a moment. There’s a number of things. Personally, I start with a prayer of hope. A prayer of hope for the peace and hope of our humanity, that we can and are going to do better than where we are today, that we love on each other. And if we can keep love as a guiding principle in everything that we do, I believe it will change and shape how we even get up out of the bed and greet the person that we see in front of us. So, for me, hope and the faith and the love is the only way I know how to start my day.
Amanda: That’s great. I know a lot of us want to start our day connecting with God in a prayerful way, but I think it’s all too easy to start with prayers for ourselves instead of prayers of hope for our whole community, and for ourselves and our own family. Thank you for that. And thank you for joining us today. Always love talking to you.
Carlene: Thank you, Amanda. Likewise.