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The New Orleans Sacred Music Festival: The power of sound to heal

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A Mardi Gras Indian performs at the 2012 Sacred Music Festival. - PHOTO BY ALEXEI KAZANTSEV
  • Photo by Alexei Kazantsev
  • A Mardi Gras Indian performs at the 2012 Sacred Music Festival.

There's no doubt music is good for the soul, but now researchers are finding it works wonders for the body. The Healing Center will host the Second Annual Sacred Music Festival, a celebration of spiritual music from around the globe featuring Hindu kirtankars, Jewish cantors, Japanese taiko drummers and Southern gospel singers on Saturday, March 16. Over the last few decades, the healing musical traditions that inspired the festival have found their way into conventional medicine as music therapists harness the power of song in clinical settings.

  Voodoo practitioner Sallie Ann Glassman founded the festival in New Orleans last year to prove sacred music doesn't just belong in the church.

  "You can see in communities all over the world that instead of turning to crime and violence and cruelty and meanness, there's another urge that calls people to come together to make music and to celebrate," she says. "There's something that happens when air and vibrations travel over our vocal chords. It literally harmonizes the body and attunes the vibration of the body, so there's an effect of healing that happens."

  Work being done in hospitals, clinics and universities supports Glassman's belief in the healing power of music. The practice of music therapy first took hold in hospitals after World Wars I and II, where musicians played for "shell-shocked" soldiers, a condition now recognized as post-traumatic stress disorder. By 1950, the first graduate degree program in music therapy was offered by the University of Kansas and the National Association of Music Therapy (now the American Music Therapy Association) was founded as a governing body. Among that first wave of academic programs was New Orleans' Loyola University, which established undergraduate and graduate programs in 1957.

  Since those early days, music therapy has evolved from just mental health into being used in physical rehabilitation, neurological disorders, pain management and many other areas. Therapists train as musicians and are expected to be proficient with voice, piano and guitar, but they also train in psychology, counseling and research.

  Victoria Policastro Vega holds a doctorate in music therapy and spent more than 18 years as a clinician before teaching music therapy at Loyola. She's worked with patients at Touro Hospital, Children's Hospital and Greenery Neurologic Rehabilitation Center and she continues to work as needed at River Oaks Hospital.

  "Health care is changing so rapidly," she says. "I've found as a teacher the best guidance you can give students is not what's found in the book, but what's found by being out there in the trenches."

  Much of Vega's current work is with patients dealing with social and emotional distress. For these patients, songwriting and performance can be a way of articulating issues and confronting and overcoming problems. She also points out that music therapy has proved effective with physical and physiological issues.

  "Say I'm working with a cancer patient and they're in a coma, and I'm playing music at the bedside," Vega says. "I'm looking at their respirations, I'm looking at their pallor, I'm looking at the machines they're hooked up to, and what I'm trying to do is show support through the music. You're matching the mood in the music to the person, and you can actually get the physiological responses of a person to change and to be more rhythmic, to increase it, to decrease it, whatever you're trying to do."

  Music therapy also can be an integral part of rehabilitation for patients recovering from head trauma, stroke or other causes of neurological abnormalities.

  "I might have them learn to play the piano," Vega says. "Not because I want them to be a wonderful musician, but because of the need for new learning, eye-hand coordination, fine motor skills."

  Kimberly Bell has worked as a board-certified music therapist at Children's Hospital for more than 20 years. She uses many of the same techniques with older patients in rehab, but she also treats children in the neonatal and pediatric intensive care units as they combat illness or injury. Many of these children require lengthy hospital stays, and music therapy provides a way of coping with pain and discomfort.

  "If you have a toddler or a small child, not only might they be in pain, but pain in children breeds fear," Bell says. "You're scared about being in the hospital, you're scared about why you're in pain, you're frightened about why this is happening to you. Small children may not really have a way to understand what's happening to them."

  In these cases, attending physicians refer patients to Bell. She works with a team of therapists, including physical and occupational therapists, to determine the most appropriate course of action. According to Bell, research shows that exposure to soothing music can reduce the perception of pain by as much as 50 percent in some patients. She adds that playing favorite songs for a child or playing a recording of a child's parent singing can provide comfort for children who are in a frightening environment.

  Effective therapy often results in more compliant patients and less need for pain medication, which in turn leads to shorter hospital visits. According to Vega, this is not only good news for patients and families, but for health professionals as well.

  "In this day and age of health care, the cutting edge is length of hospital stay," Vega says. "Everybody's looking at the money. Music therapy is cost-effective, so that speaks really highly to an administrator."

  At the Sacred Music Festival, the emphasis on the healing nature of music is more metaphysical than physical, but Glassman agrees that music can be a positive force in the world whether it's part of an ancient ritual or modern medical treatment.

  "These are all ways to cope with terrible conditions and unhealthy circumstances and to find something uplifting that transcends the immediate circumstances," Glassman says. "All of it's healing."

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