That’s the power of music, and when music therapy is incorporated into settings like behavioral health and cancer care, it really makes a difference. Just ask Howie Baird of Grand Forks, N.D.
Some 25 years ago as a high school student, Baird struggled with depression, and became an inpatient in the behavioral health unit at Avera McKennan Hospital & University Health Center.
There, a music therapist by the name of Mark Vandebraak , PhD, had a lasting impact on Baird’s life. Through his work as a pastor, Baird was reminded of how important music therapy sessions were in his own treatment. So he wrote a letter of thanks to Vandebraak, and then followed that letter with a personal visit to Sioux Falls and the Avera Behavioral Health Center.
“Music therapy is one of the oldest forms of treatment at Avera. The Sisters believed in it very strongly back in the day,” said Vandebraak, who remains a music therapist at the Avera Behavioral Health Center. Avera McKennan’s formal music therapy program began in 1970.
Songs that touch us
Vandebraak has a collection of some 5,000 songs that he shares with patients. He remembers Howie’s favorite was “Let it Be.”
“That’s where I was at that time. I just needed to let go of the hurt and pain. To let it be,” Baird remembered.
Vandebraak also shared guitar tips with Baird, who went home inspired to become a more accomplished guitarist. Today as a pastor, in addition to preaching, Baird also blesses others through singing and playing guitar.
“For all of us, there are songs that touch us, no matter who we are,” Vandebraak said.
People of all ages, from young children to the elderly, benefit from music therapy. Children love songs and musical rhymes from infancy. And for the elderly, music might be one of their last connections with this world. “There may be someone who doesn’t remember the names of her children, but she can sing a hymn,” Vandebraak said.
Music: A powerful gift
One doesn’t need to be a patient to benefit from music therapy. It can be very informal and “on your own,” Vandebraak said, whether you play an instrument or listen to recorded music. “The key is taking time to appreciate it. God’s gift of music is one of the most powerful gifts that we have.”
One style of music can express feelings of loss or sadness, while another might serve to lift the mood. “It’s hard to be bummed when you listen to polka,” Vandebraak said. “Music cuts through all the barriers in life. We can all relate.”
As a pastor, Baird is open about the fact that he still deals with depression at times. “It’s an illness I will probably struggle with my whole life.” So it’s important to learn mechanisms for coping with it.
“Sharing the experiences I’ve gone through is one of the joys I’ve had in ministry. It helps people to know that someone else has been there and can help them through,” Baird said.
Pictured are Mark Vandebraak , PhD, of the Avera Behavioral Health Center (left), and Pastor Howie Baird.