In a small Christchurch office full of instruments, music therapist Kimberley Wade helps her clients heal one song at a time.
When Kimberley Wade meets a client for the first time, she’s used to that interaction being entirely negative. “They say, ‘Hell no,’” says the music therapist, who operates out of a small office full of instruments at the BrainTree Wellness Centre in the Christchurch suburb of Papanui. “It’s quite a confronting room if you’re not musical.”
Over the years Wade has developed plenty of techniques to counter this reaction. “I say, ‘Just sing one phrase with me, and then you can go.’” Often, it’s during these first five minutes, after explaining her process, that she watches some of her clients have their biggest breakthroughs.
It happened with someone she was working with just moments before her Zoom call with The Spinoff. Five years ago, the former police officer suffered a stroke that resulted in aphasia, a language disorder. He was embarrassed to even try and speak in front of people.
When Wade first met him, he saw her guitar and tried to run out of the room. “He was like, ‘What the heck? I’m not doing this.’” Like she does with many she meets for the first time, Wade politely asked him to stay, sit and attempt to sing a single phrase with her while she played a simple drum pattern.
It worked. Within five minutes, she’d helped him start singing. “It was the first time he’d been verbal [since his stroke],” says Wade. “And now he’s been with me for four and a half years.”
I was due to meet him with Wade after their session but we’d suffered technical difficulties with Zoom and he’d had to leave. Instead, he passed a note to Wade to relay to me. It said: “The sessions have … helped me to feel good and gave me the confidence to use my voice again.”
Honestly, all this blew my mind. I knew little about music therapy and expected Wade to tell me about how she uses music as a relaxation tool for clients with brain injuries or who’ve suffered life-altering health events. Part of this is true: among those who come to her include people with intellectual disabilities, those with neurological conditions, and children.
Wade says it can also help with dementia, psychosis, autism, depression and anxiety; her room is often filled with the sound of music and smiles on the faces of everyone involved. That, she says, is the sheer joy felt by those who are suddenly able to communicate verbally again. “We have massive conversations through just improvising and playing all the instruments in the room and really loving life.”
But music, says Wade, can also help rewire the brain in ways that physical rehabilitation can’t. She’s watched people begin walking again using the power of song. How does that work? “Music is processed in both hemispheres of the brain,” she says. “It’s a really amazing tool to be able to help people with brain injury because it can bypass some of those pathways that were damaged from the brain injury or from the stroke.”
Sometimes, that’s as simple as singing the words, “Left, right, left, right,” while playing the guitar. Wade says new clients struggling to walk will sometimes give her a look that means, “This feels really silly.” She agrees that it does, but encourages them to give it a go anyway. “Someone may be thinking about it too much. They’re thinking, ‘Oh, my God, I’ve got to lift that right leg and it’s really heavy, and it’s got hemiplegia (some paralysis) and it’s going to be too hard.’ If you break down the mechanics of walking, it’s actually quite complicated.”
Instead, she encourages them to let go, listen to the music and allow the process to happen. “If they stop listening to that [internal monologue], it fires off different pathways in the brain. If they stop thinking too much and they just trust … the rhythmic live music played by the therapist [will] draw them forward. And it does work.”
Wade’s career in music therapy happened entirely by accident. She was training to become either a psychologist or a classical singer when someone suggested it as a possible career option combining both of her passions. “I jumped for joy,” she says. “It is amazing. It’s such a cool job.”
But it’s also one that stretches her. She has children, runs her own business, manages nine staff and sees up to 20 clients each week. That therapy keeps her on her toes: she never knows what kind of music she might be making at any given moment. Sometimes, a client might be in an angry mood so something heavier might help them. Other times it’s more dance orientated. Some stroke victims enjoy childlike singalongs.
But she also needs to be a trusted companion for those she’s working with. “We’re often counsellors … a lot can come up,” she says. “We can have a lot of grief that can come up because they may be really struggling to communicate some frustrations with carers or frustrations with life, with the fact that they can’t move their arm anymore if it’s a stroke client, or frustrations of constantly being misunderstood.”
That message is especially important now. It’s Music Therapy Week, and Wade says she and her peers are constantly looking to entice new therapists to undergo training, or searching for funding for clients or instruments. Some patients can’t afford as much therapy as they need, she says (her sessions cost $110 + GST an hour). Like many businesses, she’s struggling with staff shortages and illness. She sees 20 clients herself each week. “That’s too many for me.”
But the sheer joy Wade experiences at random moments makes up for her frustrations. She had one of those a few weeks ago with an 80-year-old impaired by a stroke. “His daughter dropped him off and she said, ‘Good luck today, [he’s] not in the best mood.’ He came in and I just started singing something with him that I knew was important to him. He just started singing along with me and he sang the entire chorus word perfect. He looked at me and smiled, and then burst into tears.”
She later learned he’d had a bad week – he’d moved rest homes and wasn’t a fan of his new carer, but his stroke meant he wasn’t able to express those emotions. Using music, Wade helped him work through it with a hard session on the drums. “He smashed the crap out of those drums,” she says. “Within 15 minutes, he improved. He felt heard.”
Music Therapy Week runs until Friday. For more information or to donate, visit www.musictherapy.org.nz.