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Music for the Soul in Therapy

Music has the power to move a person between different realities:
from a broken body into a soaring spirit, from a broken heart into the connection of shared love,
from death into the memory and movement of life.
Music has the power to touch the heart of a child with God.
Dr. Deforia Lane  – Music Therapist

When I was in high school a career counselor called my mother and me into his office. He suggested that I should consider a career as a therapist. By that time I was already committed to becoming a songwriter. Sure, everyone was always telling me their secrets and wanting me to listen and give them advice. But I thought that’s what happened to everybody.

It was only after becoming an adult that I realized that perhaps total strangers weren’t telling their most painful and traumatic secrets to just anyone.

By then I had already devoted years of practice to guitar, voice, piano, and composition. There was no turning back, even if I had wanted to, which I didn’t. Little did I know that the path the school counselor had suggested years ago would ultimately mesh with my desire to connect and communicate through music.

One day many years later the phone rang. It was a call from a man I had never met. It turned out that he had visited my church on a day when I had played one of my Christian songs in the sanctuary for the first time ever.

He said, “My name is Stephen Breithaupt. I’m currently starring in Les Misérables at the Schubert Theater. I’ve licensed a Christian children’s book on the issue of childhood sexual abuse, and I am going to produce a stage play with music. I think you’re the guy who’s supposed to write the songs.”

There was no way he could’ve known that I had been praying for a way to make a difference with my life and music. I went to meet with Breithaupt and the minute he put the book on the table and I looked into the eyes of the child on the cover, I said, “I’ll do it.“

I didn’t feel qualified but that afternoon I read the book, I Can’t Talk about It by Doris Sanford and Graci Evans. Then I got down on my knees next to the piano for the first time in my life. “Lord, I don’t know why you’ve brought this opportunity to me. But I know it’s important. Please help me to write these songs.”

After completing the songs, I took them to a therapist I knew on a Friday afternoon. I was concerned that what I’d written could potentially do more harm than good and wanted her honest opinion.

“Would you listen to these and tell me if you think what I’ve got here could help somebody?” The following Monday morning she called me. “Steve, I hope you won’t be angry with me, but I used your songs with clients over the weekend.”

Until that moment it had never occurred to me that songs could be used in therapy.

Stephen and I ultimately did create a stage play and a recording that included the songs.  Later I was invited to sing one of the songs called Innocent Child during the closing ceremonies at the VOICES conference for survivors of incest, in Newark, New Jersey.

When I first arrived at the conference the organizer approached and, cautioned me, saying, “Don’t hug these women. They hate to be hugged by men who are strangers.”

So imagine how deeply moved I was, when after I finished sharing the song a long line of women lined up to hug me. They all spoke kind words of appreciation for the song.

It was then that a woman said the words to me that planted the seed for what would become Music for the Soul. “People have been telling me I was an innocent child my whole life, but I never believed it until I heard you sing it today.”

Since then I’ve had the privilege of creating content in consultation with professional Christian therapists in order to help achieve our mission of using songs and stories to share the compassion and healing of Christ with people who are hurting.

Additionally, for all of our projects, we’ve maintained the policy of doing extensive interviews with people who have actually lived through, and are in recovery from, the issue about which we are writing. When they gasp and say, “That’s me!  That’s exactly what it feels like!!” then we know we’re creating something that will truly help.

These two groups of people, along with input from pastors, act as our quality control department. Once we’ve written the songs and they have been thoroughly vetted only then do we record.

When I tell people what we do often they will immediately say, “Oh, I get it, you do music therapy.”

I can understand how it would seem that way especially when, as you will see, many therapists utilize our resources with their clients. But actually, a music therapist degree requires a wide range of competencies that include activities that are different than what we are talking about here. Dr. Linda Mintle says, “In music therapy, they don’t use that kind of specific word and lyric in order to apply it to somebody’s issue or problem–so {Music for the Soul} is very unique in that sense.”

To learn about the wonderful work that music therapists do we recommend that you visit the American Music Therapy Association.

In music things can come out and be opened in a really helpful and necessary way.
Regina Williams

No one else has lived your life. As you listen to a song you hear it through the paradigm of your own lived experiences. The break-up memory it evokes – that’s your break-up. That summer day at the beach it reminds you of – that’s your summer day at the beach. The song becomes yours because you listen with your own heart, your own memories, and you have an individual experience based on your own imagination.

When we write songs about issues like grief and abuse and addiction we work to strike the delicate balance between being specific enough to be topical while leaving enough space for the listener to fill in the blanks with their own story.

In addition to our exhaustive research, we also incorporate prayer in the creation process. Only God knows who will ultimately hear our songs so we ask for divine help as we write and record. As a result, we pray before the writing process with each and every song that God will help us craft what we write in a way that will help make it meaningful to everyone who hears it.

Michael Cusick of Restoring the Soul in Littleton, Colorado says, “Music for the Soul uses songs to invite people into their own story so that they can begin the healing process.” Since founding Music for the Soul in 2001 we’ve had therapists from all around the world affirm that our songs are successful in accomplishing this.

But I’ve also met many therapists through the years who have resisted the idea that a song could be helpful. I believe a lot of this has been due to the fact that up until recently there was no body of academic research to support the claim. There were no studies to which I could point.

I have a distinct memory from 2005 of being at the world conference of the American Association of Christian Counselors (AACC) standing at our booth and being largely ignored while therapists swarmed a large collection of books set out on tables across the aisle from us.

Don’t get me wrong. Nobody loves books more than I do. And I get that therapists are intellectual, highly educated people who have had to do a lot of reading to attain their credentials. They are used to reading and thinking deeply about how the human mind works.

But I couldn’t help thinking at that moment that there needed to be a way to convey the efficacy of songs as a healing tool – some new education that needed to take place. I felt as if logic dictated that songs create a different response in people or else, why would singing have been such an important part of all cultures in recorded history?

That’s why I was so delighted when a Vice President with the AACC recently said to me,” The brain science has finally caught up to you.”

In all fairness the science, as described in the previous section, was there before I came along. It’s the way that God created us.  But now, instead of relying on things I’ve been saying are true because of my own personal and anecdotal experiences therapists can rely on studies that have been validated by the scientific community.

Music acts like a magic key, to which the most tightly closed heart opens.
Maria Von Trapp

The healing process, of course, is a dialogue. It is a dialogue that the person is having with his or her self.  It is a dialogue between the person and their therapist. It is a dialogue between the person and God. None of those dialogues can begin until there is an acknowledgment that a person is carrying something from which they need to heal.

Sometimes the source of the pain is buried so deep that a person doesn’t even know what it is. They may even be acting out because of a traumatic event that they don’t consciously remember. Because melody is processed primarily in the right hemisphere of the brain where trauma is stored, a song can help a person to get in touch with the source of their pain.

Victoria Kepler Didato, Director of the Child Sexual Abuse Institute of Ohio says, “I use Music for the Soul in both individual and group therapy with astounding results. It speaks directly to the hearts and souls of victims of trauma and their emotional pain. I became fascinated that the medium of music could so quickly tap into what took traditional left brain talk therapy weeks – or months – to get to.”

Recently I heard from a therapist who had heard a few of our songs on a radio program featuring music from our project Mercy Great Enough: Finding Hope After Abortion.  “A song can go through the side door and sometimes be more effective than talk therapy,” she told me.”

Many therapists have talked with us about the way our songs provide a breakthrough.

A therapist in Fullerton, California told us about a woman she had been treating for two years. In all that time her client had never cried about her abuse. “She heard your songs and she began to cry. She is finally letting the pain out.”

I had a striking in-person experience with someone having a breakthrough because of one of our songs. It came when a woman showed up one day at our Music for the Soul office in Nashville, Tennessee. She was a single mother who had recently lost a teenage son to a suicide death. She had heard our song How Could You?

She told us after her son’s death she had lost her faith. She said, “I hadn’t been able to pray to God. I just said, ‘That’s it.  I’m done with you.’”  Then she continued, “Somebody gave me a copy of Chaos of the Heart and I listened to the song on anger. You gave me a way to talk to God. All I’m doing is screaming. All I’m doing is raging.  But at least we’re talking again.”

Just as certain selections of music will nourish your physical body and your emotional layer,
so other musical works will bring greater health to your mind.
Hal A. Lingerman

Who hears music feels his solitude peopled at once
Robert Browning

Browning’s quote affirms the need for songs that speak to those among us who feel the most alone. Whether it’s because of loss, abuse, addiction, personal failure, or any other life circumstance that induces feelings of depression, guilt, or shame, a song has the power to let someone know that they are understood. No matter what they’re feeling, they are not the only one who has ever felt this way.

Often when therapists hear about the work of Music for the Soul for the first time they ask, “How do I use it with clients?” In 2016 I wrote a book called Music for the Soul, Healing for the Heart. In the appendix section, I invited professional therapist Suzanne Foster, MA, LMFT to contribute some thoughts about how our song resources can be used in a professional counseling setting.

She suggests that Music for the Soul resources can be used to elicit an emotion, to break the ice, to overcome denial, to soften a resistant heart, to help process feelings, and help to reinforce a message. She highlights the advantage a song can sometimes have over reading. A client may be in too much pain to concentrate on and retain written material but can close his or her eyes and allow the music to wash over them.

Here are some other examples of ways therapists use our songs.

  1. To anchor / confirm something that the client is sharing
  2. To create a breakthrough with a client who is stuck or not making progress / Songs always lead to something, they shift things and draw people out
  3. As a homework assignment to prompt journaling
  4. In group therapy – encouraging group members to write down a phrase that jumps out to them – then discuss as a group
  5. In support of reading materials to help reinforce an idea

An increasing number of therapists are utilizing EMDR in their practices. It stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing.

The therapy is an integrative psychotherapy approach that has been extensively researched and proven effective for the treatment of trauma. Lisa Carter, MA, NCC, and an integrated EMDR Technician, L2 says,“ Nothing compares to what Music for the Soul offers.  EMDR clinicians – Music for the Soul songs are excellent tools.”

Of course, as the founder and Director of Music for the Soul, I’m very proud of the catalog we have assembled but I want to make sure that therapists reading this will understand that I am advocating for the use of any song that you believe will help your client. His or her musical taste may be a factor in getting a client to listen. There are terrific topical songs available in a wide variety of music styles.

Dr. Gregory Hasek of Southwest Florida Christian Counseling makes extensive use of songs in his counseling practice. Hasek has consulted with us on some of our projects to assist us in identifying themes that will help listeners who are dealing with trauma. At the clinic’s website, he has compiled a list of songs that he has found valuable in helping clients with a wide range of issues.

The thing that has amazed me is the creativity that many therapists have shown in utilizing our songs in their practices. One therapist was counseling a couple where the husband had struggled with Internet pornography. He saw them every week helping them to heal their relationship from the betrayal that had taken place.

For their last session together he had the husband and wife speak vows of recommitment to one another in his office. They used our song “Free” from the Somebody’s Daughter: A Journey to Freedom from Pornography project for the ceremony!

Several therapists have created their own videos to go with our songs, specially designed for an individual client.

I have a friend who is a marriage counselor in Colorado. He had a couple come to see him and say, “We want a divorce but we know how ugly they can be.  We want to avoid that kind of experience for our family. We don’t want you to talk us out of it. We just want you to walk us through it amicably.”

He said, “Sure. I’d be happy to do that.” Then he asked them, “Do you mind if I play you a song?” They said that would be OK and he proceeded to play our song Fifty Years from Now. When the song concluded, through their tears the couple asked, “Will you help us save our marriage?” It has been more than five years and that couple is still married all because of a therapist intervening in a creative way. Would he have been able to change their mind with just words or was it the combination of words and the melody that disarmed them, taking the message to a different place in the brain?

After twenty years and over two hundred recordings, Music for the Soul has become a comprehensive library of songs for healing. Christian therapist Dr. David Walley says “Music for the Soul reaches where most of us cannot go. It is a ministry of unique presence; an arrow in the bull’s eye when the target is the heart.” Marsha Means, MA, IACSAS says our songs “provide a rich resource that ministers to the human experience as nothing else can.”

Dr. Linda Mintle encourages therapists to take advantage of our catalog. “We need to use whatever we have that’s a resource to encourage us in all kinds of different ways. Music is one of those resources that can heal, and help, and encourage anybody who is struggling with any kind of life problem no matter what it is. I would like to see every therapist have access to music almost like a special library.”

It has been such an honor over the last several years to work with and learn from professional therapists. I admire the work they do every day in the trenches, painstakingly helping wounded people find wellness and rediscover hope. Perhaps no response has meant more to me then, than hearing that our work is meaningful for the caregiver as well as the care receiver.

Not only does Music for the Soul provide companionship for hurting people,
it also provides partnership to those who have the privilege of caring for others.
Sharon Hersh, LPC

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