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On the Job

Music therapist takes melodic approach to healing

Lisa Summer (standing) with students at Anna Maria College, where she directs the music therapy program

Christine Peterson for The Boston Globe

Lisa Summer (standing) with students at Anna Maria College, where she directs the music therapy program

Music has healing properties — whether it’s quiet jazz or cacophonous rock anthems, a song can help long-repressed feelings to emerge, said Lisa Summer, one of more than 5,000 board-certified music therapists in the United States, and director of the music therapy program at Anna Maria College in Paxton.

“Music can address issues that people can’t express using words alone,” said Summer, 60. “Whether listening to music, singing, playing an instrument, or even writing lyrics, music can make positive changes in mood and emotions.”

After music therapy reportedly helped Congresswoman Gabby Gifford recover from a brain injury, all sorts of music healers have emerged. Are they the same as a music therapist?

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They make all sorts of claims: Mozart can make you smarter; playing crystal bowls or drums are healing; or even that music can cure cancer. These assertions are reductionist simplifications; there is no quick fix. A legitimate music therapist has a degree and board certification to practice.

How do you use music therapy in your sessions?

One way is to use short pieces of evocative music, such as Edvard Grieg’s “Holberg Suite,” and pair it with drawing or writing. For example, I was working with a college student who was anxious. I asked her to listen to the “Air” movement, which features very churning tension, then release. She drew a flower encased in two glass boxes, and said, “This is my inner self, disconnected from the world.” Several sessions later, she drew a flower planted in the earth, receiving nutrients and sunshine.

How do you choose songs for patients?

The music I find most helpful doesn’t call attention to itself. I have a pool of about 300 classical pieces, such as the slow movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony or Brahms’s Third Symphony. I also use a lot of ethnic music, including Brazilian, African, and Asian.

You’ve been a music therapist for several decades. How has the field changed?

The field started with focus on psychiatry, but new applications are constantly emerging, the latest being hospice care. In the ’70s, we used mostly composed songs; now improvisation models are also applied. Finally, music therapy is no longer as dependent on importing psychological therapies; we have our own theories and philosophies.

How did you come upon this career?

When I was a teenager, I played piano and French horn. I remember my mother would come home from work in a snarky, angry mood. She’d start banging pots and pans and slamming cabinets. I would sit in the other room, playing the songs I loved. I’d gradually hear the sounds from the kitchen getting calmer and calmer.

Cindy Atoji Keene can be reached at cindy@cindyatoji.com.

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