UW-Eau Claire alumni success stories

The article below features Laurie Farnan , a 1975 UW-Eau Claire music therapy graduate who is the coordinator of the music therapy program at the Central Wisconsin Center for the Developmentally Disabled. The article appeared in the Dec. 24, 2004, issue of the Madison, Wis., Capital Times and is reprinted with permission.

Laurie Farnan '75

Resident's hand on omnichordAbove, Laurie Farnan '75 sings during a music therapy session with Central Wisconsin Center residents. Below, she places a resident's hand on the omnichord to help the resident feel musical vibrations. (Capital Times photos by Henry A. Koshollek)

Music therapist works magic among people with disabilities

By Mary Bergin
The Capital Times

"I played my drum for him,

pa rum pum pum pum"

Her voice is strong, clear, sweet, soothing.

"I played my best for him,

pa rum pum pum pum,"

His tapping is simple, deliberate, requiring much assistance.

"Rum pum pum pum,

rum pum pum pum ..."

As the boy glances at his teacher, her voice escalates in approval.

"Then he smiled at me,

pa rum pum pum pum

Me and my drum."

It is easy to miss the magic here, in this room full of love, and a love of music.

Progress is measured in the tiniest of increments. It can be as subtle and fleeting as a blink, yawn, deep breath or hint of a smile. What is simple, outside of these doors, might be considered remarkable, if not miraculous, inside.

The music therapy program at the Central Wisconsin Center for the Developmentally Disabled is almost 30 years old. About 225 of the 345 residents here toddlers to senior citizens, most of whom are profoundly disabled — will spend at least 45 minutes per week listening and perhaps responding to the rich rhythms of clicking sticks, drums, lilting voices, tone bars that resemble a xylophone.

"What looks like a small response can be a large gain," notes Laurie Farnan, a board-certified music therapist who coordinates the program. The music is live, not taped, "so we can incorporate any response and adjust our approach" immediately.

Music, tone and instruments are selected to match a movement that is desired, be it lifting the head, stretching an arm, reaching upward or relaxing a clenched fist. Maybe eyes will widen as a colorful silk scarf is waved, or a drumstick will mimic the lifting of a spoon from plate to mouth.

Wheelchairs are rotated slowly, first one way, then the other. As an occupational therapist works on wrist movement, Farnan plays the guitar. There also are gourds covered with a mesh of beads, tambourines, a piano.

Each exercise lasts a couple of minutes and, all the while, there is singing. The tone is friendly and lyrics simple. What a resident is able to express in language may be quite different from what can be understood, so the therapist's repetition, in movement and in lyrics, is necessary to help coax and clarify.

"Music is such a funny thing," Farnan says. "People are self-conscious about singing, worried about hitting the wrong note. We try to take away any chance for error. Our use of rhythm is specific, the accompaniments are simple."

She calls rhythm "the organizer, the energizer that prompts people to respond, even below conscious thought," and draws parallels to the way car drivers subconsciously tap the steering wheel in time to the radio.

Music prompts other changes, too. Pupils dilate, posture and expression change, breathing can become deeper. But what is noticed in practice can't always be explained by research.

"Much of it is still a mystery," Farnan says. "The research that has been done is good, and our body of knowledge is good, but we want to know more."

Farnan, when diagnosed with breast cancer in 1996, used music — Vivaldi's Guitar Concerto in D and Leonard Bernstein's Mass to selections by King's Singers and the Beatles' "Here Comes the Sun" — to help her through surgeries.

"It is something to divert your focus away from pain and onto something else," she says, a supplement, or substitute, for medication. "If you're good at yoga, you probably can accomplish the same thing."

Low, slow vibrations will help people relax. So music therapists tap contrabass tone bars or may place a resident's hand on the omnichord, a small keyboard.

When a resident is confined to bed, or there is a need for distraction from pain, there is a bed that has speakers under the mattress, which allows music to be felt all along the back of the body. In a darkened "sound room," the raised wooden floor (there are rubber feet on the 2x4s under it) will bounce slightly as tones deepen.

The emphasis on deep vibrations during therapy makes the Central Wisconsin Center program unusual, Farnan says, and it is in the elite company of facilities in England and Norway.

The first degreed program in music therapy was established in 1950, and it's still a relatively small field of study. There are around 4,000 certified music therapists in the nation; Central Wisconsin Center is the state's only clinical training site for music therapy students.

Since it secured this American Music Therapy Association distinction 24 years ago, 106 interns have each received six months (1,040 hours) of clinical training here. Besides Farnan, there are two other registered music therapists on staff -- Jane Meyer and Michelle Schumacher (who also has a master's in special education).

The coordinator says Alverno College in Milwaukee and the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire are the only in-state institutions that offer music therapy as a major.

Just like art and music education in the public school setting, Farnan acknowledges, music therapy is an emphasis that some consider disposable. UW-Oshkosh dropped its music therapy major in 2003. Northern Wisconsin Center for the Developmentally Disabled, Chippewa Falls, laid off its sole music therapist two years ago.

"This work is not about ringing the bells, clicking the sticks, beating the drum," Farnan tells her interns. "It is using music to achieve something meaningful in the residents' lives. In turn, it will become meaningful for your life."

She considers her work a privilege, describes music as "a uniquely human creation" and says her students have taught her to both slow down and listen more closely.

For her, these also have been lessons in the importance of kindness, and a sharing of "the deep thrill, joy, expression and goosebumps" that music can arouse.

"Laurie Farnan, music is a holiday," one student told her, a few years ago, and that is the epitome of what makes the job worthwhile.

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