Your Brain’s Protected Music Room – Debbie Benkovitz - President American Music Therapy Association [Podcast]

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Health General info about music therapy

Did you know there's a protected "music room" in your brain? A place where music goes that disease cannot touch?

Debbie Benkovitz, president of the American Music Therapy Association, joins Jim to talk about why music is critical to the treatment of brain diseases and how it impacts our development as babies. Jim asks Debbie about how she uses music to bring relief to those suffering from cancer, and Debbie reveals a story about a time she wrote a song with a patient during surgery!

Find out how 5 minutes of music therapy a day can impact your life.


Debbie Benkovitz: We are learning that this is something that is so good for your brain and as we get older, this is kind of the defense against developing dementia. It’s something that we’re being told to do. Try new things. And because music impacts so many areas of our brain, we’re thinking that this is going to help us fight the plaque development that leads towards a dementia.

Jim Donovan: Well welcome to the show. Today we have Debbie Benkovitz with us. She’s the president elective of the American Music Therapy Association. Good Morning Debbie. How are you feeling today?

Debbie Benkovitz: I am wonderful Jim. Thanks and I’m just happy to be here.

Jim Donovan: So glad to have you on the show. I know we’ve been trying her for a couple of months. I’m really excited to talk to you and I’m really excited for my listeners to hear all the different things that you’ve got to share. And the first thing I was to say is, congratulations on becoming President Elect of this American Music Therapy Association. That’s a huge deal.

Debbie Benkovitz: Thank you Jim. It is a big deal and exciting times for us right now. So, I’m very honored to be in this position. I become president in January.

Jim Donovan: Oh, great.

Debbie Benkovitz: And I’m honored to be here on this show with you today.

Jim Donovan: Well, I appreciate that. Thank you. I remember when we were scheduling this a few days ago, you were talking about a trip that you took to DC recently to the Kennedy Center and you were telling me some excited things about that. And, I was just wondering if you could share that with our listeners?

Debbie Benkovitz: I absolutely could. Most recently the American Music Therapy Association has been working with the NIH and the NEA. So the National Institute of health. The National Endowment for the Arts and the Kennedy Center. And, we are doing with those organizations, some extremely exciting and important research on the brain.

Jim Donovan: Oh, wow.

Debbie Benkovitz: It’s amazing. Part of this program is opera singer Renee Fleming, who is a fabulous soprano. But, she’s become very interested in the field of music therapy and in the research. We have Neurosurgeon Charles Limb, who is also a musician and the head of the NIH, Dr. Francis Collins.

Jim Donovan: Oh, wow.

Debbie Benkovitz: So, they’re focusing on music and the brain right now. And, using MRI scans to study the brain while musicians are experiencing music in different ways. So, this Dr. Limb actually has different musicians in the MRI and he has them playing their instruments or singing and he’s examining their brain while they’re doing this. Now, for people who know about MRIs, they know that nothing metal can be in the room with the MRI, which is Magnetic Residence Imagery.

Jim Donovan: Yeah, right. Oh, boy.

Debbie Benkovitz: So, he has actually designed a plastic keyboard.

Jim Donovan: Okay.

Debbie Benkovitz: And, figured out how to have different instruments, have the metal parts removed so he can do this. It’s just amazing.

Jim Donovan: Oh, wow.

Debbie Benkovitz: And, I’ve seen some of these MRI scans. Well, what we’re learning is that, the entire brain lights up with music. And also, in hearing Dr. Limb speak, just a few days ago, he is saying that there is a music room in the brain, which to me is pretty fascinating.

Debbie Benkovitz: You’ve probably heard stories of people who had a stroke and they couldn’t speak, but they could sing.

Jim Donovan: Yes.

Debbie Benkovitz: Well, we have learned that music memories are stored in a different place than other memories. And, those music memories are untouched usually by stroke or other traumatic brain injuries.

Debbie Benkovitz: So, it’s just really fascinating. And, based on this research, we are learning that all kinds of diseases, Alzheimer’s and dementia, looking at MS, different neuro degenerative diseases, we’re learning about them by studying music and the brain.

Jim Donovan: It’s interesting to hear you say all these things, because what I’m getting is that, a music therapist has to know about so many different things to be able to be with people and to manage the problems that might show up.

Debbie Benkovitz: That’s true. Our study involves of course, music. And, no matter what instrument we show up with at college or university, we all have to learn and be proficient at voice, piano and guitar.

Debbie Benkovitz: Why? Because, those are probably the most common instruments we use as therapists. Then, we also take a number of psychology classes and then there

are a number of music therapy courses. Such as, the psychology of music, where you learn how does rhythm impact, say a heart rate. How does harmony and dissonance impact us?

Jim Donovan: Right.

Debbie Benkovitz: How does a certain key or a different mode impact us? And then there’s, how do you work with, what kind of problems would you expect with Alzheimer dementia patients? And, how do you deal with them?

Debbie Benkovitz: How do you work with people in the community health setting?

Jim Donovan: The thing I loved you said about that was, that we can use music to help the medical communities start to understand the disorders even better.

Debbie Benkovitz: Absolutely.

Jim Donovan: Because we’re joining these fields together, which for eons were always together. It’s only been in the last few hundred years that it hasn’t been connected. So, I’m really happy to see that that’s come back.

Debbie Benkovitz: Yes. And, they’re excited because, they’re saying that music is showing them things about the brain that were not previously known. It’s very exciting. And, music has been around forever and we’ve known it’s been important, but now we’re really seeing scientifically how important it is.

Jim Donovan: Yeah. And, when that stuff is right, when the research is happening and we’re starting to get peer reviewed studies and all these different things that people with the purse strings need to be able to invest in it. All that just helps the cause.

Debbie Benkovitz: Absolutely.

Jim Donovan: So, I want to, just to pivot to some work that you’ve done quite a bit with, which is working with people with cancer.

Debbie Benkovitz: Yes.

Jim Donovan: Just a short aside, my father just went through throat cancer. He’s on the other side of it, did all of the radiation. I think it was maybe three months of that. So, I’ve got to see a lot of this up close. And I’m wondering, when you work with people with cancer, what are some of the things that you do to help them?

Debbie Benkovitz: That’s a great question. And again, it’s very individual. In the adult population, I think a lot of it has to do with helping people relax through painful treatments. Perhaps helping them be a community with other cancer patients, so they can

share what they’re experiencing and not feel quite as alone. Feel more empowered.

Jim Donovan: Yup.

Debbie Benkovitz: But, if it’s okay, I’d like to turn to children, because that is where I’ve done a lot of work.

Jim Donovan: Definitely.

Debbie Benkovitz: We talked about pain management, which is a huge thing. Although, kids can be pretty resilient when it comes to pain. I will never forget a little girl who did not want to give up her music therapy session, even though the chemo was making her very sick and she would throw up and she’d say, “Okay, next verse.”

Jim Donovan: Aww.

Debbie Benkovitz: And then she’d say, “Wait a minute,” and she’d throw up again. And she’d say, “Next verse.”

Jim Donovan: What a trooper.

Debbie Benkovitz: So, music can bring a lot of pleasure. In general, I think people who have cancer and who are facing the unknown in the way of pain and their own mortality, often need to express themselves, especially children.

Jim Donovan: Sure.

Debbie Benkovitz: And, children maybe don’t have the … they don’t have the maturity yet to say, I’m really scared or to say, what’s going to happen next. They just know that they don’t like it.

Jim Donovan: Yeah, there’s no words for it yet.

Debbie Benkovitz: Yeah. They don’t have no words for it yet. So, in song choices they might be able to do that better and I’m giving them permission. For example, if we write a song to express themselves. One of my favorite formats for writing a song would be to say, “Let’s write a song about what you love about the hospital.”

Jim Donovan: Nice.

Debbie Benkovitz: And, I usually get dead silence. It’s okay. Well, what about if we write a song about things you don’t like about the hospital. I’d even say, “things you hate about the hospital.”

Debbie Benkovitz: Well, now we have a song. So, we’d make a list and it was usually … could you guess what number one would be?

Jim Donovan: The food.

Debbie Benkovitz: Food was usually number two.

Jim Donovan: Number two.

Debbie Benkovitz: But, that’s an excellent guess. Being stuck with a needle, that was usually number one.

Jim Donovan: Oh, sure. I get that. Yup.

Debbie Benkovitz: Food and being awakened in the middle night for vital signs, those two fought for number two.

Jim Donovan: Yeah.

Debbie Benkovitz: But, it was real interesting. We’d use a 12 bar blues pattern and we’d write the words out. I’d help the child sing it, we’d kind of do it together.

Jim Donovan: Sure.

Debbie Benkovitz: And, by the time they were able to express what they hated about the hospital, most children were able to turn their minds in a different direction and say, “Well, you know, but I really do like my nurse Tammy and Dr. So & So is really gentle and talks nice to me. And, even though I hate the food here, they do have good chocolate pudding.”

Debbie Benkovitz: So, kind of helped them process their experience a little bit. That was something that I felt was very powerful. And, if a child was so inclined, we might even record their song, and I would let them make their own CD label. Or, we could also just transfer it to moms phone or whatever.

Jim Donovan: What a powerful thing, not just for the kid, but the parents too.

Debbie Benkovitz: Yes. And another thing I like to use is imagery. Children are more open to suggestion, shall we say-

Jim Donovan: Sure.

Debbie Benkovitz: …Than many adults. I would talk about favorite places with the children. If you could be any place, because they might be saying, I hate it here, I want to go home. I’d say, “If you could be any place, where would you like to be?”

Debbie Benkovitz: And, a lot of kids would say Disney World, the beach was another favorite place. A lot of kids just wanted to be home.

Jim Donovan: Yeah.

Debbie Benkovitz: And I’d say, “Well, if you were home, what room would you be in?” And it varied. For example, there was a girl who wanted to be home in her bedroom and she lived a couple hours from the hospital, so she really missed it. She really couldn’t get home for several months. So, I would have her describe her bedroom in great detail and then I’d sing a very soothing song that would include the details she gave me.

Debbie Benkovitz: And, invite her to go there in her mind.

Jim Donovan: Wow.

Debbie Benkovitz: And, that is something that works really well with many people.

Debbie Benkovitz: There was a girl who was six years old and I say was, because she did eventually die of her cancer. But, she was quite a live wire and really liked all kinds of humorous songs and was very engaged. But, when she was getting tired and the pain was getting to her, she’d say to me, “I want to go to the beach.” Or, she had two different imagery’s that she liked. One was the beach and one was the woods.

Debbie Benkovitz: Both visualizations we had worked on for a while, it wasn’t just that I dreamed them up. I asked her specifically, what do you want, what’s in your beach scene. And she said, “Well, mom and dad are there with me and the air smells so good. And, I can smell the hot dogs from the stands and mom always buys me lemonade. And, I like to dip my toes in the water.” So, I could formulate a whole song with those images. While I’m singing the song, I’m also taking deep breaths, so she is modeling that after me. She just kind of gets into that zone.

Debbie Benkovitz: And, sometimes she’d say, “Let’s go to the woods.” And, that was a whole different imagery. That was cool and calm, but those kinds of things can really help people with pain. It takes them out of their physical body and into their mind and allows them to get through their pain experience.

Jim Donovan: It makes so much sense and it’s similar to what you talked about earlier, which is we’re filling up that person with things that aren’t their pain. The imagery’s, the smell, the pictures, the memories, and it helps us to get through.

Debbie Benkovitz: It does.

Jim Donovan: It’s so beautiful. I remember a few years ago you told me a story that really stuck with me. It’s one that I tell my students all the time, every year, in every class I teach at St. Francis on Music and Wellness. About, a young girl who, I think you said that she wasn’t able to get anesthesia and that you wrote one of these with her in the operating room, so that the doctors could do their thing and help her with her condition.

Debbie Benkovitz: Yes. Yes. You have a good-

Jim Donovan: You mind telling me about that?

Debbie Benkovitz: Yeah. I am happy to tell you that story. It’s actually a little boy named Luke, he had a disease that did not … you could give him all kinds of anesthesia and it just had very little impact on him. He had mitochondrial disease.

Jim Donovan: Oh, wow.

Debbie Benkovitz: His gut would not absorb the medication.

Jim Donovan: Oh.

Debbie Benkovitz: So, he had to undergo certain procedures that were painful and the pain medication just did not work with him.

Jim Donovan: Oh, my God.

Debbie Benkovitz: So, he really loved the song “Down By The Bay.” And, I think a lot of people know that song. Down by the bay, where the watermelons grow, that one.

Jim Donovan: Oh, yeah.

Debbie Benkovitz: And, there’s a million verses, but we also could make up verses too. So, for example, one verse that’s written is: Did you ever see a whale with a polka dotted tail down by the bay? And, I would let Luke make up his own verses. And, of course, we would get sillier and sillier and it didn’t matter if they rhymed.

Debbie Benkovitz: But the point was, he was engaged and he was humored. So, when we would get wheeled into the OR, Luke started to learn that he could ask the staff to sing. And, because he was such a difficult case, people wanted to keep him happy. I mean, he wasn’t difficult in that he was a difficult person, but they knew it was going to be really hard to keep him out of pain.

Jim Donovan: Sure.

Debbie Benkovitz: So, he’d say, “I want nurse Nancy to do the next verse.” And, she would sing.

Jim Donovan: Uh-huh.

Debbie Benkovitz: It was kind of funny because, we were trying to keep a sterile field, so Luke would be on the table under this sterile cover and I was usually seated next to him and I was down low, so I could kind of have my head under the sterile drape.

Jim Donovan: Oh, wow.

Debbie Benkovitz: And, we would sing together. But, he would shout out to people who he wanted to go next and he knew his team pretty well.

Jim Donovan: Wow.

Debbie Benkovitz: And, I remember one time he said, “I want Dr. So & So to sing.” And, the doctor said, “Oh, I don’t sing, I don’t sing.” And, I looked up at him and I said, “I think you do.”

Jim Donovan: Yeah you do.

Debbie Benkovitz: So, he very nervously sang a song, added a verse. It was like he needed a little help from the nurses.

Debbie Benkovitz: This song could go on for … lots of times we were in there for about 45 minutes or an hour.

Jim Donovan: Oh, my God.

Debbie Benkovitz: If Luke got tired and I saw that he was kind of drowsy, just from the stress of everything and letting go. I’d keep singing the song, matching a slower heart rate and respiratory rate. And, he might perk up and he’d say, “Okay. I want nurse Dawn to sing the next verse.” So, this just went on until we were done.

Jim Donovan: Wow.

Debbie Benkovitz: And, it worked. And, what really got to be funny, Luke was in the OR a lot because, he had a lot of central line infections.

Debbie Benkovitz: So, we’d have to go in to get his central line changed. And, the nurses and the doctors got used to him asking for verses. Lots of times I think in their off time, they’d think about what funny verse they could do next and they’d actually be a little sad if Luke did not remember to ask them to sing along.

Debbie Benkovitz: So, it got to be a thing and it was a good thing.

Jim Donovan: Yeah. And interestingly, I love that the doctors and nurses are also getting a little bit of medical therapy while they’re in a high stress environment.

Debbie Benkovitz: And, that is so true Jim. I hadn’t made that point and that’s kind of a bi-product, but it’s a very good one. And, I have had some hospital staff say to me, “Man, you’re putting me to sleep too, but it’s okay.” Sometimes it just takes one person to really influence an entire group of people. In one of the hospitals I worked in, the chief surgeon had worked on and saved a life of a trauma patient I was working with.

Debbie Benkovitz: When I would show up to do music therapy, if the surgeon happened to be there, he’d say, “I’ll be right there. I’ll be right there. Don’t go away.” And he’d say to me, “You’re more important than I am.” I couldn’t say that was entirely true, but I really appreciated it. And, he would often stand by and stay for part of the music therapy session. And, in the beginning I’d look at him and say, “Is there anything I could do for you?” And he’d say, “No. I’m just getting a little music therapy myself.”

Debbie Benkovitz: But, he saw how important it was to his patient and this patient was in intensive care. And because of that, I think it opened a lot of doors for me in intensive care.

Jim Donovan: It makes sense because, when you’re in an ICU situation and I hope none of our listeners never have to do that.

Debbie Benkovitz: Yes.

Jim Donovan: You can see all the vitals the entire time, and you can see the effect of every little thing that’s going on, even a thought that somebody’s having, you can see it in numbers. Yeah, I could just imagine this surgeon seeing the effects of it and going, wow, this really is doing something.

Debbie Benkovitz: It was a wake up call for me too. I think even though I knew the power of music, throughout my career I have repeatedly been surprised and reminded and delighted at how powerful music is. We have such a powerful tool.

Jim Donovan: Just a couple more things. I noticed that you have done a lot of work in the NICU with babies.

Debbie Benkovitz: Yes.

Jim Donovan: And, I’m wondering if you could share a little bit about some things that you do with babies to help them in that situation?

Debbie Benkovitz: I’d love to. In the music therapy world there are two trainings that have helped me work in the NICU. One is a very well researched protocol out of Florida state by Dr. Jane Stanley in which, we work with premature infants. And, the protocol involves layers of first, singing.

Jim Donovan: Okay.

Debbie Benkovitz: And then, adding a layer of rocking and then adding another layer, a third layer, of massage.

Jim Donovan: Oh, wow.

Debbie Benkovitz: So, these are three types of sensory stimulation. The singing is oral stimulation, the rocking is vestibular, and massage is tactile. Now, when a baby is still in the womb, they are hearing their mothers voice all the time.

Jim Donovan: Right.

Debbie Benkovitz: When the baby’s still in the womb and the mother walks and her hips swing back and forth, she puts her right leg forward then her left, the babies are being rocked in the womb.

Jim Donovan: Of course, yeah.

Debbie Benkovitz: And, the amniotic fluid also massages them. They’re getting that tactile stimulation. And, when a baby’s born prematurely, they’re out of the womb, most of the time they’re in an Isolette®. And, of course, we do our best to keep them swaddled and warm.

Debbie Benkovitz: But, they’re not getting that sensory stimulation. Or, if they’re hearing, their oral stimulation is not hearing their mothers voice in the context of the womb, but hearing beeping noises from the IVs and nurses talking and bright lights of the NICU, that kind of thing. Often, premature infants have problems with sensory integration.

Jim Donovan: That makes sense.

Debbie Benkovitz: Yeah. So, this protocol, which has been very well researched, has been designed to help premature infants with their sensory integration.

Debbie Benkovitz: So, doing that, I would swaddle the baby and there’s a very specific way. And, I would hold them a specific way, with their head on my left so they could hear my heart. And, I would begin singing very softly to the baby.

Jim Donovan: Wow.

Debbie Benkovitz: Maybe I’d first hum to make sure they could tolerate my humming. And, there are signs we look for in infants. If they’re experiencing any kind of stress.

Debbie Benkovitz: So, they might scrunch up their face, tighten their fist, they might straighten their body’s out. Showing any kinds of signs of tension. If the baby tolerates singing, then I would add rocking to that. And, I’m rocking pretty good, because I want them to feel their body moving through space.

Jim Donovan: Right.

Debbie Benkovitz: If they tolerate that, then I add the massage. And, the massage I use was designed by occupational

outer parts of their body. And, that has been developed for premature infants and we know that it helps them organize their senses in their brains.

Jim Donovan: So, this helps them in the future with their brain development. These early interventions-

Debbie Benkovitz: Yes.

Jim Donovan: Wow.

Debbie Benkovitz: These would be things that would develop naturally if they were still in the womb.

Jim Donovan: Yeah.

Debbie Benkovitz: But, being out of the womb, they’re not getting the opportunity to integrate their senses in the same way.

Jim Donovan: Wow.

Debbie Benkovitz: So, what is really amazing Jim, is that, the babies who are born prematurely and who receive this protocol, leave the hospital anywhere from two days to two weeks earlier than the premature babies who did not get this protocol.

Jim Donovan: Oh, that’s fantastic.

Debbie Benkovitz: They feed better, they heal better, they reach the landmarks that are necessary faster than the other babies.

Jim Donovan: The thing I like there is that there’s no pharmaceutical intervention causing this.

Debbie Benkovitz: Now, there’s another whole teaching that doesn’t disagree with this at all, it’s just a slightly different kind of … it’s not even a protocol, but a different, like a psycho social approach to premature infants. Or, babies who are hospitalized, not necessarily premature. It might be a cardiac problem, maybe they were deprived of oxygen at birth. Maybe they had alcohol or drug exposure during the pregnancy.

Debbie Benkovitz: Helping the babies cope deals with the whole family. Helping the parents bond with their child. And I can tell you Jim, I had a son who was born with a birth defect, he is fine now at 40 years old. But, I was afraid to hold him.

Jim Donovan: Oh, that makes sense.

Debbie Benkovitz: Yeah. I would think I was afraid I would lose him. And, I understand parents being afraid of holding their children. And, it’s not just that, lots of these babies have a lot of tubes and IVs and all different kinds of things going in and out of

their bodies. And, they’re in these little Isolettes®, they seem so much more fragile.

Jim Donovan: Yeah.

Debbie Benkovitz: So, part of it is, helping them — through music — bond with their children, helping them hold their children, rocking them, singing lullabies with them. Things that they might be nervous about doing in a hospital setting.

Debbie Benkovitz: It’s one thing to go home and sing to your baby.

Jim Donovan: Right.

Debbie Benkovitz: But, if you’re in a hospital and there’s nurses coming in and out, or other parents in the room. Depending on the setting of your NICU, it’s a little daunting to try to do some of these things.

Debbie Benkovitz: So, teaching them how they can help their child and help them grow by loving them and hugging them and singing to them.

Jim Donovan: And, to educate the parent, that those natural things that we do actually make a huge difference. That they’re not just sort of a throw away activity that doesn’t matter.

Debbie Benkovitz: That’s a very nice way to put it. I think being in the hospital setting, it changes a lot of thinking. It’s a little scarier. And, it’s unnatural. So, we forget about those things.

Jim Donovan: Yeah. It’s like, all bets are off, we’re in the hospital now and all the things that we know to do, let’s throw those out the window because there’s another system that’s in place.

Debbie Benkovitz: Right. And, I also have worked with siblings. I was thinking of a boy who was born prematurely and he had a cardiac issue. So, he was in the NICU and mom was kind of afraid of holding him. And, for a few days they didn’t even bring in the little sister who was three and a half. And, when she came in, she just couldn’t understand first of all, why her baby brother couldn’t come home. Because mom had said, “we’re going to get you a new brother and he’s going to come home.”

Debbie Benkovitz: And, she just didn’t understand it.

Jim Donovan: Sure.

Debbie Benkovitz: And, I had been working with the mother and together we were singing with her son. And, with all of his tubes and different connections, I held him and then mom finally felt comfortable holding him. But, little sister came in, she couldn’t

see him because he was in a crib and he was too high. And, mom didn’t know how to help her daughter relate to the new baby brother.

Debbie Benkovitz: Normally you’d set your little child down on a sofa and say, “Okay, I’m going to let you hold your brother.”

Jim Donovan: Right.

Debbie Benkovitz: We couldn’t do that with all those tubes.

Jim Donovan: No.

Debbie Benkovitz: So, I got a stool for her and stood behind her so she wouldn’t fall. And, played guitar, and we sang all of her favorite songs to her baby brother.

Jim Donovan: Oh, wow.

Debbie Benkovitz: And, I was able to say, “Look, I think he likes you. He’s smiling.” Any little thing I could take from his face and say, “Look how he’s so comfortable. He must just love hearing your voice.” Helping them relate.

Debbie Benkovitz: So, there’s that psycho social piece that is often missing when a child is hospitalized. And, especially when a three and a half year old doesn’t really have the language to ask the questions or truly express her feelings.

Jim Donovan: Sure. You use music to be the bridge for that-

Debbie Benkovitz: Exactly.

Jim Donovan: Feeling that’s in place.

Debbie Benkovitz: Music is so great when we don’t have words.

Jim Donovan: You do so much work in the world, you’ve been doing for a long time. I’m wondering, are there any go-to things that you do for yourself when you’re having stress or decompressing? Any musical things that you do just for yourself?

Debbie Benkovitz: I absolutely do, and that is a really great question. I do a lot of things and I’ll tell you why. I think just having one thing is kind of dangerous. It’s good to have a tool box because you don’t always feel like the same person every day. And, I am a singer and a pianist, so I would say that singing and playing the piano is something I go to most often.

Debbie Benkovitz: I think my husband could probably tell you what kind of a mood I’m in because of what I’m playing or singing.

Jim Donovan: She’s playing Stravinsky again, uh-oh.

Debbie Benkovitz: If I’m playing Bach Two-Part Inventions, steer clear, because I have things I need to process and sort out.

Debbie Benkovitz: If I’m singing Broadway, I maybe need to just belt it out or maybe I need to lighten up. If I’m singing sacred music, I maybe need a spiritual connection of some sort. There’s kind of a jazz pianist I like, David Benoit, his piano music is a little on the difficult side. And, I can play some of it, but I just love some of his chords. And, if I just kind of need to hear something chillingly beautiful but challenge myself, I might play him.

Jim Donovan: Nice.

Debbie Benkovitz: And Jim, I have to tell you, I do sit down with my drums sometimes.

Jim Donovan: I’m glad to hear that.

Debbie Benkovitz: I love drumming and I do find it most of the time, a little bit more fun to drum in a group. But, every once in a while I just like to sit down and sometimes even do some soft drumming. Just that back and forth bilateral processing, my brain works things out.

Debbie Benkovitz: So, yeah. Music is something that I do pretty much every day.

Jim Donovan: I’m so glad to hear that. I talk to so many people, a lot of helping people. And, they’re helping and they’re helping and they’re helping, and then they tell me that they’re so burned out from all the helping. And then, we forget to do and I’m guilty of this too, we forget to do the thing that we love that we’re teaching to help ourselves.

Debbie Benkovitz: Well, you’re right. And, it’s actually in our standards of clinical practice that we have to practice self care. And, part of that is to have some kind of mentoring or supervision, someone we can speak with. Whether it’s a paid mentoring or a friend who works in the same field, who experiences some of the same things. When we are working in the helping profession, we are often taking on secondary traumas.

Debbie Benkovitz: We’re taking on the issues and the problems of other people, whether we like it or not.

Jim Donovan: Right.

Debbie Benkovitz: And, we kind of have to brush that off at the end of every day. So, music is a natural way to do that.

Jim Donovan: Yeah, and this is something I try to get across the college students that I work with is that, putting up at the top of your list while you’re in school, taking care of yourself. Because, it doesn’t matter how smart you are or how successful you are, how much money you’ve got, how big the house is, if you’re not well, none of it matters. And, to start the habit of doing these kinds of things that are regular self-care daily, multiple times daily, so that you take that as a pattern out into life.

Jim Donovan: One thing I’m wondering about. So, if someone’s out there and listening right now, and they don’t play an instrument, they don’t play guitar, but they’d like to start to get some of the benefits of the things that you do with people. Are there any kind of DIY things that someone could try today to help get some of the benefits that we’ve been talking about, even just in their own way?

Debbie Benkovitz: I think there are a lot of things Jim, that’s a really good question. And, it depends on where you’re coming from and what your interests are.

Jim Donovan: Sure.

Debbie Benkovitz: I believe that singing is such a cool thing. With singing, we have to breathe more deeply.

Jim Donovan: Okay.

Debbie Benkovitz: So, even if you get into the habit of singing in the shower or singing when you’re driving some place, when no one else is listening. Or, when someone else is listening. And, I always tell mothers who say, “Oh, well I don’t have a good voice like yours.” It doesn’t matter, our children love the voices of their parents better than anybody else’s in the world when they’re young.

Jim Donovan: It’s true. Yup.

Debbie Benkovitz: So, to use those God given gifts that we have right from the get-go, we are born with voices, we are born to sing.

Jim Donovan: Yeah.

Debbie Benkovitz: So, that is something that we could do easily and you don’t need any special instruction. You don’t need to pay for anything, just sing along with the radio. Sing favorite songs, sing anything you like.

Jim Donovan: And, sing out of tune as loud as possible.

Debbie Benkovitz: Absolutely. It doesn’t matter, because you’re still expressing yourself. You’re getting rid of unwanted or unnecessary emotions. You’re giving your body more oxygen when you sing, you’re reducing your stress hormones. That’s one thing.

Debbie Benkovitz: There’s also a lot of music that you can listen to. And, it would take a long time to try to explain how different we are and why different music is going to work for different people. But, you have to find something that suits you. What is your favorite music to listen to Jim, might not be my favorite music. But, what kind of music makes you happy and helps you slow down a little bit? It might be different things for different people.

Jim Donovan: Sure.

Debbie Benkovitz: But, that’s always a good thing. This is kind of funny, but I’m going to tell you anyway. I had a very lengthy dentist appointment yesterday.

Jim Donovan: Mm-hmm.

Debbie Benkovitz: And, I have on my iPod, recording of Tibetan Monks chanting.

Jim Donovan: Oh, I like the sound of that already.

Debbie Benkovitz: It’s very deep. It kind of goes right to your gut. And to me, it’s very calming. So, that’s what I plugged into when the dentist was working on me.

Debbie Benkovitz: Cut out the sounds of all the work that was being done, and I told the dentist, “If you need to get my attention, just say Debbie really loud.” But, it just allows me to go into a zone. That might not work for everybody. Everybody has their own zone that they can get into. There’s all kinds of things out there. You can look on YouTube and find stuff.

Debbie Benkovitz: The other thing I wanted to add Jim is, for people who always wish that they had played an instrument, there’s still time to do it. And, we are learning that this is something that is so good for your brain. And, as we get older, this is kind of a defense against developing dementia. It’s something that we’re being told to do. Try new things. And because music impacts so many areas of our brain, but we are thinking that this is going to help us fight the plague development that leads towards the dementia.

Debbie Benkovitz: So, don’t be afraid to try a new instrument. If you’ve always wanted to play the piano, you’ve always wanted to play the violin, you’ve always wanted to try guitar, do it. It’s great exercise for our brains.

Jim Donovan: Yeah. The thing I’ve learned about teaching people drumming is, I use this phrase, “that the benefit’s in the process. It is not in your perfection or your dexterity.” Right?

Debbie Benkovitz: Yes.

Jim Donovan: It’s all about, just do the thing, and you get the benefit, even if you can’t stand the way it sounds, it’s still giving you brain benefit.

Debbie Benkovitz: Yes. And, that’s perfect Jim. And, you just really touched on an important part of music therapy. The process is what it is. What’s happening in the process. If I write a song with a child who has cancer and help them express themselves, and allow them to record it and design their own CD cover, the final product is not what’s important, it was the process of allowing that child to express themselves, to learn a little about recording, to being able to play their recording for others so they could express themselves and their feelings in a different way. It’s all the process.

Debbie Benkovitz: Thank you. That was a great way to say it.

Jim Donovan: Yeah. I think in our culture we are really trained to be product focused. What are you going to get out of this? What’s the result going to be? Who’s going to buy this? Where are you going to perform this? Who’s ever going to want to listen to this?

Jim Donovan: Those are just all the wrong questions when it comes to using music for health, because the health benefit is in the doing.

Debbie Benkovitz: Yes. Another thing about that Jim is, we don’t have to do these activities, these musical events. We don’t have to spend hours every day doing it. Five or ten minutes of singing is going to change your life. It doesn’t have to be two or three hours of singing. If you take a new instrument, 20 minutes of practice a day is going to do it. You don’t have to practice for 10 hours.

Debbie Benkovitz: It’s all beneficial. So, just starting small is a good way and it’s a very positive change.

Jim Donovan: That is so helpful. So, I just want to wrap up and just ask you a couple quick things here. Where can people go to learn more about you?

Debbie Benkovitz: You may feel free to share my email.

Jim Donovan: Okay, I’ll do that in the show notes. Debbie Benkovitz: And, to learn more about music therapy,

Jim Donovan: Okay, great. I’ve been on that site, there’s a lot of great research on there. There are places where you can go to get help if you’re looking for a music therapist or need to know how all that works with insurance and things like that. Very, very helpful resource there.

Debbie Benkovitz: Yes. And also, the information from the Kennedy Center Reach Program is also on our website.

Jim Donovan: Great.

Debbie Benkovitz: And, that is, I think it’s pretty intriguing information for anyone who feels like digging a little deeper.

Jim Donovan: So, we’ll put the Kennedy Center website in the show notes as well, or just search Kennedy Center on google and you’ll find it.

Jim Donovan: Are there any ways that our listeners can support and advocate for music therapy?

Debbie Benkovitz: Advocating for music therapy, we’ve just talked a lot about the power of music. So, I would invite anyone who wants to know more to, first of all, go to and read more about us. And, if you go into the hospital or if your child, god forbid, or a relative, ask for music therapy. If the hospital doesn’t have it, it certainly is helpful if people are asking for it.

Debbie Benkovitz: And say, “Well, why not?” Music therapy is a way to reduce our need for medication. In some cases we can completely cut out the medication or we can cut it back.

Jim Donovan: Yup.

Debbie Benkovitz: And, that’s always a good thing. So, ask for it, get to know about music therapy. And, for anyone who is interested in donating to music therapy, you could certainly contact me or look on the website. We’d love your support.

Jim Donovan: Beautiful. Well, Debbie, I really appreciate you taking the time with me this morning and sharing these stories. Explaining things about your world. I’d love to have you come back on another time and we’ll talk about some other things and dig into a few of these things a little bit deeper.

Debbie Benkovitz: Jim, thank you. You are doing great things and I am so appreciative of you.

Jim Donovan: Oh, thank you so much.


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