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The Power of Music: Meet the Milwaukee VA music therapists

Posted at 6:36 PM, May 26, 2020
and last updated 2020-05-27 09:42:09-04

MILWAUKEE — "Last week, an outcome of music therapy treatment was my patient's sister singing to him and he passed while she was singing to him," Christine Wiggin, a board certified music therapist with the Milwaukee VA, said.

Wiggin is one of three music therapists at the VA helping veterans with the power of music.

"I particularly work with some folks who are dealing with psychosis and it's really incredible to see music reach them when they are really out of touch with reality," Makenzie Kojis, another one of the board certified music therapists at the VA said.

Kojis has many patients with dementia.

"So I’m helping them achieve goals like increasing their ability to be mindful. Increasing their ability to express their emotions in a healthy, safe, and effective manner. So my goal isn’t necessarily to teach them how to play the guitar or teach them how to sing," Kojis said.

Music therapy is the process of using songs and instruments to help achieve therapeutic goals.

"If you just ask someone tell me about your war experience, that's not going to workm you know. So maybe choose a song that reminds you of a time you were struggling. Then - through the song plays and then - they say, 'I remember. Geez this was playing when I was going over seas.' And then the memories start to flow," Sandi McCormick a Creative Arts Therapist for Music at the VA said.

It's a special program that the VA has for these veterans. Wiggin works with those in hospice care, Kojis works with those in the mental health facility, and McCormick works in adult day healthcare for veterans over the age of 60.

McCormick said music therapy is so powerful because music can impact us in ways we didn't know possible.

"I would say that music can touch parts of a person that they didn’t know they had. That it brings out something that they were struggling to find but didn’t even know they were struggling to find it. And then when they find it, there's just this cacophony of emotion and pleasure and sadness," she said.

For World War II veterans John Bosch, getting to hear Wiggin play the guitar is one the best parts of the day for him.

"When (Wiggin) comes in and talks - sings to you and brings back some memories with her songs, you couldn’t ask for more," the veteran said.

Wiggin plays a lot of classic songs for Bosch like 'Pennies from Heaven' by Bing Crosby.

"And I'll be listening with my eyes closed and next thing I know I wake up. She’s gone, and I fell asleep, and I said don’t let me sleep. And she said I play the songs for you so you can relax, and I say wake me up I want to hear your music.”

The music therapists at the VA see many patients a day. Sometimes it is in group therapy sessions and others get one-on-one time. It's all dependent on the needs of the patient. That's also true for the style of music and songs that the therapist and patient will sing. All three pick the appropriate genre to fit the theraputic goals of the patient.

"The reason I like to use the steel tongue drum for pain anxiety and pain management because it's very low toned. It's very soothing. It's weighted, so that can help to create a very grounding experience. And it's very pleasing tone as well. And it's soft, so if an individual is very anxious or they are very sensitive to sensory stimulation, this might be the least threatening instrument," Wiggin said.

Music therapy isn't about learning an instrument or becoming a better singer. It's about the therapeutic process that helps the veteran.

"For us I don’t think we really focus on their music skills as much, you know. If someone's had a stroke, for example how well are they able to use their arm again if that's the effected side of their body by the stroke."

It's a way to rehabilitate motor skills, recollect forgotten memories, and do so much more in a unique way that only music can do.

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