Sound Treatment

Jason Roeder
January 15, 2003
Suzanne Hanser
Hanser (far right) leads students in an improvisation exercise in her Music in Psychotherapy class.
Photo by Kim Grant
Photo by Kim Grant

Maybe Suzanne Hanser's childhood piano teacher didn't know her student as well as she thought she did. She told Hanser to stay away from music therapy. "You wouldn't like it," she said. "It's too depressing." Hanser has gone on to devote most of her professional life to music therapy, and is founding chair of Berklee's Music Therapy Department and president of the World Federation of Music Therapy. How depressing can it be?

Maybe Hanser's instructor didn't understand what music therapy was all about. A lot of people don't, Hanser says. Misconceptions abound.

"These days there's a lot of attention to New Age philosophies and approaches to life, and drumming circles have become very popular," Hanser says. "People get a lot out of that, and for some it's a spiritual experience. They think that's music therapy. But music therapy is scientific in addition to being an artistic endeavor. It's really a structured and formulaic approach to meeting individual needs...Music therapy is the systematic approach to using music to meet the specific need of a person or group."

In concrete terms, Hanser's talking about using familiar and pleasing melodies to help people with Alzheimer's disease overcome their agitation and disorientation. She's talking about helping developmentally delayed children increase their interpersonal skills by teaching them to improvise and collaborate with other instrumentalists. She's talking about boosting the self-esteem of people with cerebral palsy by adapting a guitar to play chords simply by sliding a capo up and down the frets. She isn't claiming to cure cancer; she's improving quality of life.

"We let them know that everyone has a song within them, something beautiful," Hanser says. "Even if their bodies are crumpled and dysfunctional, and even if their minds are not clear, they have this song, they have this creativity, and they have something that not only can they feed themselves with, but that they can give to the world."

Technically, Hanser began her studies in music therapy when she entered Florida State University's program as an undergraduate. But her experience with the healing properties of music began years earlier. Hanser was very sick as a child in New York City, so sick that she was often unable to attend school and was educated by tutors at home. But she didn't go through her illness alone.

"The piano was my best friend," she says. "I certainly feel like I grew through the music."

Despite her struggles with her health, Hanser didn't fall behind academically-actually, she leapt ahead, enrolling at Boston University as a music composition major at the age of 15. But she wasn't happy there.

"I was just locking myself in a practice room every day," Hanser says. "Around Christmas Break, I decided I wasn't going to spend the rest of my life in a practice room."

Hanser says that her childhood trials had given her a unique insight into the restorative power of music. She realized that it wouldn't be enough for her to make music. She had to make people better with it. Despite the discouraging words of her former piano instructor, Hanser began to seriously explore options in music therapy education. But at the time, Florida State University was the only option on the East Coast. She transferred to FSU, and after earning both a bachelor's and master's degree there, went on to get her doctorate in education from Columbia University and to pursue postdoctoral work at the Stanford University School of Medicine. In 1995, with years of clinical work under her belt, Hanser moved back to the Boston area with plans to create an innovative new curriculum at Berklee.

"I came here to establish a music therapy program that was state-of-the-art," Hanser says. "I knew that we could take advantage of research and impressive medical advances here in Boston, which has some of the finest hospitals. I also knew that Berklee itself was the finest institution training contemporary musicians."

Berklee, Hanser says, offers its music therapy students some unique advantages. For one thing, jazz training enables Berklee students to improvise with music, which is helpful because in a clinical setting music has to be second-nature if the client is to be put first.

"The music has to come so naturally to them that they're totally with the person and tuned in to what they need at the moment," Hanser says, "and totally empathizing, understanding not only what the person's saying, but what they're feeling."

Hanser says that music therapy programs traditionally are rooted in classical music. But as a contemporary music school, Berklee teaches its students popular styles such as rock, Latin, and R&B, styles that fall outside the Western musical canon but are still important to those who listen to them.

"We work with the people who listen to the radio and who may buy the Top Ten or have some favorites they've heard in concert or on television," Hanser says. "It's the music of the people that our students know and learn."

Of course, only so much preparation can be accomplished in a classroom. It's out there in the world, among clients, doctors, families, and, perhaps most dauntingly, bureaucracies, that the rest of the training takes place. Hanser says the reality of the workplace can frustrate new music therapists.

"Our grads go out, and they might be quite idealistic," Hanser says. "They know they can do great things, and there are a lot of barriers to providing those services because not everybody knows how effective music therapy can be, not everybody knows what it is, not every insurance company will reimburse, not every doctor will refer. These are the kinds of barriers and frustrations that don't allow you to do the work."

But there's reason for optimism, Hanser adds, as music therapy continues to prove its worth. In Boston, Berklee music therapy students serve internships in prestigious medical centers such as Children's Hospital and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. They work with the Boston and Cambridge school systems to provide services to students and with the Boston Housing Authority to work with housebound adults. Overall, they provide services to 60 different facilities—and to people glad Suzanne Hanser ignored her piano teacher.