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Musical Instruments Bring Families Together

  • Shelley Schlender

In the symphonic fairytale Peter and the Wolf, the part of Peter is played by the orchestra's string section, the Wolf is portrayed by the ominous French horn, and the grumpy grandfather is the big bassoon. Now, a music therapist is using a similar "personality as musical instrument" approach to help families understand what they sound like… and how they can harmonize better. From Denver, Colorado, Shelley Schlender reports.

Tony Edelblute is a music therapist at The Children's Hospital in Denver. These therapists use music to help people reduce pain or stress, and help them improve thinking, physical and social skills. Some counselors work one-on-one, while others, such as Edelblute, work with groups.

Today, in a room filled with an assortment of instruments, he's giving Paula a chance to choose instruments that will show how her family sounds. "If we walk into your house, what kinds of sounds are we greeted with?" he coaches her. "Is it loud? Is it soft? Sort of . . . judge for yourself, what does my family sound like? Who are the talkative ones? Who are the listening ones? Maybe wonder about . . . what do YOU sound like?"

For Becky, her younger daughter, Paula picks a tambourine. "Because she has a lot of energy and it's a lot of … " She shakes the tambourine as she searches for the right word. "Exciting."

For her older daughter, Sarah, she chooses the xylophone, explaining, "I think of it as keeping a melody, like the piano and it can be everywhere and very expressive."

For their dad, Paula chooses the steady beat of a drum, and for herself, she picks a rainstick. "I guess maybe I'll do this for me. 'Cause it makes a lot of sort of soft noise, and I think I'm told I talk too much sometimes. But this can be very comforting and soothing, too."

The family does a short jam session. As the instruments fall silent, only the soft shushing of Paula's rainstick lingers, which Sarah says is just right. "I do think it's funny, because we do think my mom talks too much, and we all stopped and that thing [the rainstick] just kept going."

As everyone laughs, Becky agrees. "If our family was a song, my dad would be the one keeping the beat, my mom would be the one dragging the song on!" Paula points out, "I've been really working hard at trying to be the quiet thing and listen more." That prompts this response from Sarah, about the different roles her parents play. "He listens, you talk. Even for us. When we need to say something, we say it to him. When we want a response, we go to you."

Edelblute asks Becky how she feels about her tambourine. "I don't know," she answers hesitantly. "I just kind of see myself as, like, I don't know. I don't really see myself as something, like, that important."

But her mother and sister see things very differently. Paula says, "When Becky walks into a room or gets home from school, there's this excitement and energy that she has, people notice her energy, she has a lot of energy." And Sarah agrees. "She's kind of like the chorus [of a song], when everybody gets real excited because those are the only words of the song they know . . . so it's kind of like, YEAH!!!"

After hearing that, Becky's more upbeat. "You notice me when I get in the room because I'm loud and you notice that." She emphasizes that with a jangle of the tambourine. "I never would have thought about it that way before," she admits. "I would have just thought of it as, we're a family. This is our family. That's probably what I would have done."

It's good to see things in a new light, Tony Edelblute tells them. "You start having a choice. 'Oh, my family works like this,' as opposed to – you know the metaphor – the fish swimming in the water but they're not aware of the water. This is a nice way to pull you out of the water for just a second so you can say, 'Oh! This is what I'm swimming in.'"

For families facing a crisis, Edelblute says this new awareness matters even more. Most of his clients are teenagers at The Children's Hospital in Denver, where they've been admitted due to a mental illness. "And you walk up, as a therapist, and say, 'How do you feel right now?' They don't want to talk with you. They may not, or they'll say, 'Who are you?'" He says music is a friendly, non-invasive way to get a lot of intimacy.

Edelblute recalls one session in which a patient played his instrument so quietly, no one could hear him. "And it came out that the kid who was in the hospital didn't feel like [he] had a voice. And that was a big thing for the family to say, really. You feel that way? Of course the parents didn't want that, but that's somehow what came to be."

Despite some discordant moments, Edelblute says, this musical experience can help the whole family play healthier tunes.

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