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From musician to therapist

Tom Curry explains the benefits of music therapy

by Jon Grant

Tom Curry uses music to help others. (Photo: courtesy Tom Curry)
Tom Curry uses music to help others. (Photo: courtesy Tom Curry)

Tom Curry is living out his dreams through music therapy.

Curry, a prominent singer-songwriter from Nova Scotia, decided to study the field after seeing the positive effect of his songs on his 91-year-old grandmother when she developed dementia after taking a fall.

“She became very anxious ... and it was really difficult for us to experience because she was such a mobile, active woman prior to that,” remembers Curry.

"I started to bring my guitar up to her hospital room and play her three favourite songs. I'd walk in and she'd be very anxious ... but then I'd start playing guitar and she would totally chill out."

Upon graduating the music therapy program at Acadia University, Curry accepted an internship at Heartsparks Music Therapy in Halifax.

Heartsparks Music Therapy, founded by Anna Plaskett, deals with a diverse array of clients.

Curry immediately identified with her work.

“She was dealing with seniors and youth at risk, and children and adults with autism, and children and adults with muscular dystrophy. That was the direction I really wanted to go in" he says.

He wants to use his music to give back to those in need.

"Music therapy is using music and the elements of music to foster a positive change in someone physically, mentally, emotionally, or spiritually" he adds.

There are many myths surrounding the field of music therapy. It's not true that therapists simply play music that makes people feel better – clients can be treated for mental or physical illness through different elements of music and performance.

A client suffering from Alzheimer's might gain increased cognitive skills by singing; clients with muscular dystrophy may experience increased motor skills through movements involved.

Curry's internship taught him to treat each client as an individual. Different people react different to different approaches, and Heartsparks exposed him to several different methods.

"I take a laid back approach and try to figure out how the root music resonates with them and how it makes them react. I do that through playing, I do that through getting them involved" he says.

He chooses a laid back approach because he doesn't “want to make people feel like they're on stage.” Getting to know clients through improvisation to see what will evoke a reaction has been a growing experience for Curry.

One of the key components of music therapy is motivating clients to discover how to express themselves through music.

Curry describes a typical scenario where he creates and tells a story with a client, and eventually implements music.

"The hope is that (the client) acquires all these musical skills and as his condition progresses down the road he will have those skills to express himself,” he says. “As the physicality of his body breaks down he will still be able to express himself through certain avenues. The hope is that it will help him cope with having muscular dystrophy while all of his peers don't.”

One of the rewarding aspects of music therapy, he adds, is the ability to pursue music professionally while helping others.

"It really works and you can see it work. It works over a span and you get these little moments that are really exciting when you're working with someone, and you both get those.”

As with any career, there are challenges. Many music therapy programs are funded through community organizations such as Home Bridge, but funding for programs is generally limited. Many clients are not able to pay for therapy out of pocket.

Curry takes home many musical ideas generated through his experience with clients to use in his own practise. He continues to play live shows in and around Halifax and recently released an album with the rock band Scrapes

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