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Music therapy at Homeland: Tuneful fun with a therapeutic purpose

The Homeland resident known as Mr. Randy had a request. He likes country music – all of it. No particular artist. Just classic country.


Music therapist Hannah Brezinski had just the thing.

“Hank Williams,” she said. “We’re going to shake to some, ‘Hey, Good Lookin’.’”

It’s Thursday afternoon in Homeland’s Ellenberger Unit, and residents are having fun while experiencing physical and cognitive therapy via their favorite songs. Music therapy is an essential part of life at Homeland, where melodies do more than bring back memories. In music therapy, every song that residents sing and instrument they play has a purpose.

“Music therapy is essentially using music to accomplish non-musical goals,” said Brezinski. “There’s a lot of intent in what we’re doing.”

The therapy uses familiar songs to provide motivation and encourage engagement. Cognitive goals might include recalling lyrics or listening for a specific letter in the lyrics. Instruments for playing along promote physical functions such as gripping the hands or crossing the body's midline with the arms.

In this weekly session, about a dozen residents gathered in the Ellenberger common area while Brezinski played selections including “My Favorite Things,” “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” and “Music, Music, Music.” When she played “All Shook Up” – by what is probably Homeland’s favorite artist, Elvis Presley – residents enthusiastically joined in.

One resident wearing a vibrant pink blouse couldn’t get enough of the palm-sized egg shakers that Brezinski distributed, holding one in each hand and shaking in time to the music with every song.

Because music taps into both hemispheres of the brain, residents who have challenges communicating by other means find themselves singing along. The science of music therapy dates to its use for pain management for recuperating soldiers during World War II. Using it to promote cognitive and physical goals dates started about 20 years ago.

Homeland embraced its benefits early and has contracted since 2013 with WB Music Therapy to provide services from therapists certified by the national Certification Board for Music Therapists.

Whether in individual or group sessions, Homeland residents get personalized attention to their needs. Brezinski, a music therapist with a degree from Ohio University, learns about them, their needs, and their pleasures through family and staff.

Songs often are pulled from when residents were age 18 to 35, she said.

“That’s when really big things happen,’’ Brezinski said. “You graduated high school and went to a prom. You got married. You had children. Some songs will take you right back to that place.”

But Brezinski also avoids stereotyping the residents according to eras in music history.

“One woman was 93, and she only wanted to listen to Hall & Oates from the ‘80s,” she said. “I had a resident who asked for Lady Gaga.”

Trained music therapists learn to assess the needs of residents in the moment, said Kristyn Beeman, founder of WB Music Therapy.


“You have a resident who's not necessarily able to communicate what they are interested in effectively,” she said. “That’s where we’re able to assess their facial expressions and physical cues. Reading that body language helps us know what’s working and what feels good to them.”

Homeland has been wonderful to work with, Brezinski and Beeman agree.

“It's been crazy these last two years, and the staff has been very willing to work with us to make sure that the residents are getting seen when they can,’’ she said. “It entailed either adapting to telehealth sessions or being able to do this in person and figuring out what kind of instruments we can bring.”

Trained music therapists build a tremendous repertoire of tunes. Sometimes, just the right song makes all the difference. Brezinski remembers a Valentine’s Day when one Homeland resident who would typically isolate in the back of the room suddenly perked up when Brezinski played Frank Sinatra’s “Fly Me to the Moon.”

“I saw her just light up and start to sing, and her body posture opened up, and from then on, she was like a different person,” Brezinski said. “That's an example of someone who hears a song that they connect with. Being able to see that change from start to finish was awesome.”

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