VIDEO: Using music as therapy

Story by Barbara Szabo, video by Nelson Estrada

The Community Music Center appears as just another residential Victorian building on the 500 block of Capp St., distinguishable only by the unsynchronized sounds of pianos, guitars and drums seeping through the windows and green walls.

CMC is San Francisco’s largest provider of free and low-cost music classes and has been up-and-running for 90 years, making it the Bay Area’s largest community arts organization. Among a wide range of programs, the center offers music therapy, an interpersonal treatment that uses musical experiences to help clients meet their social, physical, emotional, spiritual and intellectual goals.

“Music therapy is effective because it’s so universal,” said music therapist Ian Wilkerson who has been with CMC for two years and works at the Mission District Branch. “Most people will respond to some form of musical stimulation.”

Music therapy is effective in helping clients with various disorders, from Alzheimer’s, a form of dementia that affects memory, thinking and behavior, to self-esteem issues.

Though there is a general framework for music therapy sessions, which begins with an assessment period that evaluates the needs of a student in order to set goals, it can take up to six months for a therapist and patient relationship to develop.

“We have to be very observant and in the moment,” said music therapist Mayu Kawata, a music therapist at CMC’s Mission District Branch. “ It’s a matter of tapping into their emotional space.”

Some students react to the program within minutes, while for others it doesn’t work at all; in any case, the outcome of each session is unpredictable.

“Each session is tailored to the individual’s needs,” said Wilkerson. “It’s all about getting the person engaged in the music.”

Kawata class starts out with a “welcome song,” where she begins to sing and play guitar and encourages the student to sing along. Throughout a session, she plays songs such as “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” “The ABC Song” and “Do-Re-Mi” while the student joins-in with one of an assortment of instruments.

“That’s the great thing about music: it’s in the moment… music just goes straight to the heart of the person,” said Kawata.