Emma Dislers was about 2 when her occupational
therapist started encouraging her to crawl, placing her on hands
and knees for as long as Emma would tolerate it.
"Her endurance was really low," says Emma's mom, April.
"Just to get her to last through an entire session was hard on her.
It was hard on all of us."
April wondered whether her daughter, who has global
developmental delays and hypertonia, would ever have the strength
to move on her own. About that time, Emma's therapist suggested
teaming up with a music therapist.
The change was immediate.
"I'm getting goosebumps even now," Dislers remembers.
"Emma's in a crawling position, the OT is behind her and the music
therapist is there playing on the guitar. She's singing, 'come
crawl to me.' And there's my daughter, moving towards her so she
can strum on the guitar."
Dislers, who lives in Roselle, says she hadn't heard of
using music therapy with children like Emma. "I don't know that
many parents know about it."
Slowly, though, the field of music therapy is gaining
attention. Earlier this year, after Congresswoman Gabrielle
Giffords was shot in the head, music therapy was highlighted as a
key part of her recovery. The Arizona representative went from
mouthing "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" to belting out "American
But as the public learns about the potential benefits of
music therapy, they may not know how to find a therapist. It is not
This fall, the Illinois Association for Music Therapy will
be asking the state legislature to approve a registry of all
licensed music therapists in the state. The registry would make it
easier to find someone locally who has the training and national
credentials necessary to be called a music therapist.
"As music therapists, we're not claiming we own music,"
explains the association's government relations chairman Becky
Wellman. "It's just that we have been specially trained to harness
music to help clients meet their goals."
Many who work with people find music a helpful tool,
Wellman says, from physical therapists who use songs to encourage
movement, to a volunteer who plays the piano in a nursing home
The difference is that a music therapy degree requires
courses in anatomy, psychology, even neurology, along with music
theory and mastery of an instrument. Music therapists must have
1,200 hours of clinical training and sit for the national
Certification Board for Music Therapists licensure.
Judy Simpson, with the American Music Therapy Association,
says such training allows music therapists to write specific music
or lyrics for each client. But more importantly, they are trained
to observe how clients respond, emotionally, as well as physically,
to the music.
"What's so unique is that the music therapist can look for
those responses and then change-on the spot-not only the approach,
but the music as well." She says potential harm can be done "if the
music triggers strong negative emotional reactions that a
non-trained person would not know how to deal with."
Simpson is working with 32 states to implement registries
or licensure requirements. Wisconsin created a music therapist
registry more than a decade ago. This past spring, North Dakota
went further by becoming the first state to require music
therapists to hold a state license and face penalties if they
If the Illinois legislature can establish a registry, it
would be an ideal first step to making sure anyone who seeks music
therapy receives standardized care, Simpson says. Until then,
parents can find trained music therapists online or can search for
therapists with the "Mt-Bc" title after their name, which stands
for music therapist, board certified.
As for Dislers, she recommends trying music therapy to the
parents of any child with special needs who she thinks might
benefit. She tells them how Emma responded so positively to rhythm
and harmony, and eventually stood for long periods behind tall
bongo drums. Even though Emma, 4, is still unable to speak, she
will make sounds and babble, always in response to
"I can't imagine that this would have ever happen if she
didn't have motivation" through music, she says.
Lisa Applegate is a freelance writer and mom living in
Lisa Applegate is a freelance writer and mom of one living in Chicago.
See more of Lisa's stories here.
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