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Have Music, Will Travel

by Sandi Busch & photos by Turner Photography Studio

Keri Coleman brings the benefits of music therapy all over the community.

Everyone knows when Keri Coleman is headed their way because she jingles as she walks…thanks to the drums, rain sticks, hand cymbals, and the medley of other instruments she carries to each job. No, she doesn’t perform as a one-woman band. These are the tools that travel with a music therapist as she visits clients throughout the Hagerstown region.

Whether you know it or not, you already sense the value of music therapy. Think about the feelings triggered by your favorite love song, or how you morph from sluggish to motivated when the exercise instructor kicks up the volume on a fast-paced song. That’s the type of connection everyone has with music, yet the impact goes deeper. Time and again, studies have documented that music is medicine. When used in a therapeutic program, it relieves anxiety, lifts depression, eases pain, brings back lost memories, encourages communication, and activates the brain.

When The Night Has Come

Now imagine what can happen when the power of music is mixed with clinical training and used as a healing therapy. That’s where you find Keri. “I always loved music and wanted to help people, so I decided to become a music therapist,” she says. Reaching that goal meant following a rigorous path. She studied core classes in music, principles of clinical treatment, and music therapy at a university approved by the American Music Therapy Association. After completing an internship and passing a national exam, Keri finally became a qualified health professional — more specifically, a board-certified music therapist.

Keri’s first job was with Sonata, Inc. in Hagerstown. “I was drawn to the beauty of the region and the opportunity to work with such diverse groups of people,” she says. Then six months and an unexpected twist later, she took over as the owner. She continued to build her business and her family, developing strong roots in the community. Now it’s been 10 years, and she has hired other music therapists and expanded beyond Hagerstown to reach the Chambersburg, Frederick, and Martinsburg areas.

Her love of helping people shines whether she’s practicing music therapy in schools, senior centers, medical and mental health facilities, or with private individuals. So how does music therapy work with such a range of ages, not to mention all the different health and behavioral issues she encounters? Well, it’s best to let the pros explain.

And The Land Is Dark

When Myron Kauffman, the activities director at NMS Healthcare of Hagerstown, assesses new patients, he always asks whether they like music. “I try to create activities that mimic real life, including the music that filled their life before coming here,” he says. Myron often hires musicians to entertain when residents get together to socialize. These concerts help residents relax and relive memories, but it’s not the same as music therapy. The therapeutic part of music therapy means that Keri develops a treatment plan, then uses music to achieve a specific goal, which might be physical, cognitive, emotional, or social.

After NMS Healthcare opened a pulmonary care unit, Myron asked Keri to do music therapy with patients in the unit who need ventilation and around-the-clock care. One day she visited a new patient — a gentleman who was unresponsive. She sat down next to him and started playing the famous Ben E. King song, “Stand by Me.” Much to her surprise, he started to dance in the bed, timing his movements to the beat of the music. Keri says she often helps patients rehabilitate and improve movement by having them tap on a drum or walk in rhythm with the music, but the unexpected joy of this patient dancing, and the impromptu celebration as staff joined in and danced around the room, was a new experience. As Keri says, “When you have fun with music, amazing things happen.”

Keri and her staff work with preschool students at the Hagerstown Children’s School. “The children get very excited every time Keri comes,” says Heather Tosten, the school’s director. “It’s always interesting to see the response of each child. Even children who are shy and don’t participate in group activities are drawn to the music and become engaged. The minute Keri gets out her guitar, she has their attention. Then she uses rhythm sticks, scarves, and a number of manipulatives to make it a whole body experience.”

No I Won’t Be Afraid

Another staff member, Vanessa Stone, recalls a young girl with severe separation anxiety. “Stacy (not her real name) was having a rough day. She cried for hours and sat in the teacher’s lap all day,” says Vanessa. Then the music therapist entered the room and for the first time that day, she stopped crying and her face brightened. Vanessa summed it up beautifully, saying that music therapy was an outlet that made it safe for Stacy to calm down, separate, and participate.

Music therapy is often used for children with special needs. For this group, Keri collaborates with the school team and experiments with different instruments and music until she strikes a chord with the child. She uses music therapy to achieve many goals, from structuring music to help children speak to using it to improve coordination and social skills. It may take some trial and error to find the music that connects, but when she does, the change in a child’s demeanor or willingness to cooperate can be magical.

A student at a different school was so sensitive to environmental sounds — the sounds most of us tune out, like the buzz of fluorescent lights — that they could trigger a panic attack. Keri created a collection of songs that helped him relax and ignore extraneous noise. The tunes were so successful that she burned a CD and gave it to the family to use at home, which hints at some good advice.

Just As Long As You Stand By Me

Keri is always available to talk if you, a family member, or friend might benefit from a music therapy program, but as she says, “Don’t wait to use music in your home.” Do your kids bounce off the walls when they come home from school? Play up-beat music, turn it into dance time and let them release all that energy. If you’re at the end of your rope, put on headphones and listen to the tunes that calm you down. The main thing is to think about music in those moments, and use it with purpose. In the words of the poet Kahlil Gibran, “Music is the language of the spirit. It opens the secret of life bringing peace, abolishing strife.”