Image courtesy of EnsemblePalestrina at commons.wikimedia.org
Source: Image courtesy of EnsemblePalestrina at commons.wikimedia.org

There are just over 6,000 board certified music therapists in the United States. According to census.gov, there are over 321 million people living in the US. This means there is one music therapist for every 53,500 people in this country.

Now, of course, music therapists don’t work with everyone; we tend to work with individuals who have a disability. When searching for the prevalence of any disability across all ages, genders, educational levels, races, and ethnicities, the website disabilitystatistics.org estimates that, in 2012, approximately 12.1% of the US population, or 3.03 million people, had a disability. A little better, right? Now it’s just 1 qualified music therapist for every 505 individuals.

The point of this little exploration is to highlight that there aren’t enough music therapists to go around. We are easily 1/10 of the size of other therapy professions, like speech therapists, occupational therapists, physical therapists, etc. Luckily, though, there are people and organizations who recognize the value of music and are talented enough musicians to be able to use music in a way that helps others. Now it’s not “music therapy,” per se—a music therapist undergoes rigorous university training as a clinical musician and a therapist—but these individuals and organizations are still able to provide some therapeutic benefits.

Let’s take choir, for instance. Think about some of the benefits that come from singing in a choir—there’s deep breathing involved (respiratory strength), vocalization (speech production), the need to focus on a given task (sustained attention), the challenge of learning new material (learning and memory), the pleasure derived from performing (emotional benefits, like pride), all within the context of a social group (socialization). Furthermore, from a neurological perspective, it has been well established that some of the brain processes involved in speech overlap with those involved in singing, while others are distinct. This helps explain why a person with expressive aphasia—an inability to produce speech—tends to have less difficulty singing than speaking.

These group singing benefits have not gone unnoticed. I remember reading a book last year titled Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey (inspired, of course, by my infatuation with the PBS show Downton Abbey), and being amazed that one of the lady’s in the story (I believe Lady Almina’s mother-in-law, but don’t quote me on that) was involved in starting a choir for soldiers in post-WWI Britain to help them recover from their war injuries.

More recently, though, we see examples of choirs begun to help overcome challenges related to speech functioning. Some are run by music therapists and others not.

For example, the Tremble Clefs choirs. These are part of a national program that works to establish singing groups for those who have Parkinson’s Disease (although Parkinson’s is disease of motor functioning, it affects the voice as we use muscles when singing and speaking). Other choirs aren’t supported by national programs, but are based on individual efforts, like choirs designed for people with expressive aphasia. The basic premise underlying these types of musical offerings is the same—to use the choral experience to offer generalized speech and language benefits for its participants.

Although these are just two examples specific to those with Parkinson’s Disease and aphasia, I’m sure there are more. If you know of another choir or choral program that is specifically targeted for people with a disability, let us know in the comments below.  

Follow me on Twitter @KimberlySMoore for daily updates on the latest research and articles related to music, music therapy, and music and the brain. I invite you also to check out my website, www.MusicTherapyMaven.com, for additional information, resources, and strategies.

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