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Minnesota music therapists spark healing and growth…and fun

Brandon Leu at Toneworks.  (Photos and video by Minju Kim/MPR)
Brandon Leu at Toneworks. (Photos and video by Minju Kim/MPR)

by Marla Khan-Schwartz

March 13, 2019

As Brandon Leu began playing his cello, his body seemed to become more and more relaxed. His facial expressions almost implied a music-induced trance.

As the prelude to Bach’s first cello suite came to an end, Leu finished with a proudly raised cello bow after an almost flawless performance. He finally smiled as he continued to perform his hand-picked songs both on cello and guitar. His fluid version of Wonderwall never missed a beat as he comfortably strummed each chord on his acoustic guitar. His singing was almost a carbon copy of Noel Gallagher's.

Since the age of three, Leu’s life has been filled with different practitioners due to his diagnoses of Autism Spectrum Disorder, Pervasive Developmental Disorder, and low cognitive dysfunction. Although he was being treated from a medical perspective, Leu continued to struggle with language and the ability to project his emotions.

Leu’s aunt and legal guardian Liz Voss wrote in an e-mail, “I needed to find a way to reach him.” Voss recalls that Leu seemed “disconnected from his world” after losing both of his parents before he was a teenager. Voss decided to make it a goal to use music as a way for Leu to connect with himself and others. Voss had friends introduce him to the cello.

“I hoped the music would bring him back to us,” Voss wrote. “After several weeks, like a light switch, Brandon noticed he had fingers and he was creating sound. The doctors told us we woke Brandon up.”

Music Therapy Toneworks 3

Despite the difficulties Leu endured, he eventually mastered the cello, piano, and guitar — wowing his audience by playing music that was completely learned by ear.

Leu has not let his diagnosed disabilities defeat him and has learned how to express his emotion through his chosen instruments. He completes most of his learning in a music therapy environment at Toneworks in Golden Valley. Toneworks not only provides ample opportunity to play and learn various instruments, but provides music-related goals that eventually lead to life-changing behaviors. “Through music, Brandon continues to grow independent, learn about himself and his community,” Voss said.

“I love playing the piano, cello and guitar. I like to learn things. I have fun coming here.” Leu beamed.

For clients like Brandon Leu, the ability to play and perform most certainly has impacted his life. Leu has recorded an album illustrating 13 songs that he passionately plays on both the cello and piano. Classical hits from the likes of Mozart, Debussy, Saint-Saens, Bach, and Chopin create the exceptional framework for the album.

Watch Brandon Leu perform during a music therapy session at Toneworks in Golden Valley.

“You do not have to be a musician to enjoy music or be able to use it in cool ways,” said Lyndie Walker, founder of Toneworks.

“Music can transcend condition,” says Lindsay Markworth, founder of Twin Cities Music Therapy Services, another local music therapy agency. “That could be dementia, a mental health diagnosis, or it could be a language barrier. The way that we can use music flexibly to meet a person where they are at and establish connection — that is something hard to do exclusively with words. Especially a lot of our clients. They may not have words.”

Both Markworth of Twin Cities Music Therapy Services and Walker of Toneworks mostly serve people that have disabilities such as autism, Down’s Syndrome, dementia, anxiety, depression, schizophrenia and other cognitive issues, but keep their doors open to anyone who wants to try this unique approach. Both agencies serve people of all ages either on-site at a sensory friendly office, or at the client’s home, depending on therapeutically what is deemed best for them.

“The benefit of it is that you are working in the client’s natural environment so if you come to our space, it is not where they are all the time,” Markworth says about using the home environment. “We may be able to generalize things that we work on in therapy more seamlessly in the home setting.”

Walker also believes the home environment can benefit the therapeutic process for a participant. “For adults, sometimes the home environment is a little more safe,” Walker said. “Sometimes clients have issues such as anxiety that prevent them from leaving their home.”

Both agencies pack their vehicles full and bring all equipment for the sessions to the participant’s home. “So one of the qualifications of a music therapist is how much they can carry,” Markworth laughs as she describes her car trunk. “All of our therapists travel with guitars, smaller percussion instruments — so smaller drums, shakers, or various things like that.”

Depending on the unique interests of the participant, trunks are often packed with guitars, ukuleles, xylophones, hand drums, maracas, and sometimes the sensory-friendly “ocean drum.”

Therapists work on a number of goals with their clients and cater each session to what the participant wants. Therapists typically help their clients work through their emotions using music that is either created, played, or written during a session. Clients can decide if they simply want to play music and process emotions without talking to the therapist afterwards, or discuss their emotions as they desire.

“Some clients like to verbalize about the music to process the music, but for some clients, it is not necessary. Our specialty is seeing and assessing our clients within what happens in the music whether that is the lyrics of a song, or the way they were playing the drum of the instrument they chose, or the way they are not engaging in the music,” Markworth said.

Goals can range from building self-confidence, developing fine and gross motor skills, empowering a client, promoting independence, and teaching the ins and outs of a social interaction. Clients sometimes change their behaviors without ever actually talking about the process, but rather, finding the ability to change through the process of the music. These are the successes that allow music therapists to measure its impact on a participant.

Many music therapists also participate in music outside of their 9-5 therapist gig. Markworth plays the cello occasionally around the city for private events, while Walker subs for the Minnetonka Orchestra, participates in the Mill City Quartet, and also helps develop the sensory concerts played by the Minnesota Orchestra.

Alexa Rosenbaum, a music therapist at Toneworks who performs with VocalEssence says, “I have found it so beneficial to have outside music as a social outlet and being part of a community. It is easy to forget to take care of yourself.”

A music therapist by day, moonlighting in the group Mae Simpson Music after hours, Keaton Judy practices with Sholom Community Alliance as a hospice music therapist primarily serving the needs of older adults with dementia and cancer-related disease. Keaton said that music therapy couples both “my desire for pursuing music, but it also allows me to pursue a career in which I can actively be a part of other people’s lives and help them with music through whatever issue they are going through.”

For clients like Brandon Leu, music therapy has not only freed his underlying spirit, but has helped him find an inner voice he never knew he had.

“Music can be this key to unlock whatever it is that needs to be unlocked in order to establish this connection through that, Markworth said. “All of the possibilities for growth are behind that door.”

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Music Therapy Toneworks
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Marla Khan-Schwartz is a writer who is mostly inspired by desserts, deep conversation and a bold glass of red wine.

Clean Water Land & Legacy Amendment
This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.