For Nevada music therapist, rhythm and melody are healing tools

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Editor’s Note: This article is part of “Nevadans at Work,” a video series from The Nevada Independent. Watch more here.


Elizabeth Lenz has worked in the pediatric ICU at Renown Regional Medical Center in Reno since she started working for Note-Able Music Therapy Services three years ago.

For two hours, three days a week, she brings her Radio Flyer cart filled with musical instruments to patients’ rooms and gives them the chance to drum or sing a song together.

It may seem trivial, but the practice of music therapy has documented clinical benefits. Lenz says doctors came into the room while she was with a patient and told her they could come back because what she was doing was more important.

“It’s so nice to be part of the team,” she says, “and have people actually use you for what you’re there for.”

The idea that music has healing properties is far from new, but the modern practice of music therapy has its origins in veterans’ hospitals after the First and Second World Wars. Doctors at these hospitals noticed that patients fared much better after being exposed to music. In response to the growing demand for trained music therapists, Michigan State University established the first formal degree program in 1944.

During its 2011 session, the Legislature declared that the practice of music therapy is a “related learned profession” affecting the safety, health and welfare of the public. However, no college in Nevada offers a degree in music therapy.

Nevada has a well documented history of not providing adequate mental health services to meet demand. A UNLV study released in February shows Nevada continues to rank last in the nation in overall mental health rankings, despite increased funding through federal coronavirus relief programs last year.

A spokesperson for Note-Able Music Therapy Services said their schedule was full and the waiting list for new patients was nearly 55 people. Although some progress is being made, they struggle to hire locally because trained music therapists want to live where they know insurance will cover the treatment. Contrary to some statesNevada Medicaid does not cover music therapy.

Drums for notable music therapy services in the basement of the McKinley Arts & Culture Center on Friday, Feb. 11, 2022. (Tim Lenard/The Nevada Independent)

The American Association of Music Therapists defines music therapy as “clinical and evidence-based music interventions”, but misconceptions remain.

“People call us the women of music,” says Lenz. “They think we’re just here to sing for people.”

While singing for patients is sometimes part of the job, Lenz points out that music therapists are not artists. Music is a tool to achieve specific goals for the patient. The steady rhythm of a song can help people feel safe, and singing encourages deep breathing, which reduces stress.

The first one full-scale review research papers on the neurochemistry of music in 2013 found that listening to music was “more effective than prescription drugs in reducing anxiety before surgery”. The study also found that music improved the functioning of the immune system and reduced stress levels in patients.

In 2019, the National Institutes of Health, in partnership with the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, announced $20 million in grants over five years to support research on the effect of music therapy on neurological disorders.

Assessing patient progress through a variety of measures is an important part of a music therapist’s job on Friday, Feb. 11, 2022. (Tim Lenard/The Nevada Independent)

At the end of each day, Lenz catalogs his work in a database – from the patient’s blood pressure to emotional state – so that Note-Able can track each patient’s progress.

During the pandemic, Lenz began working with a woman who suffered a stroke that left her unable to speak, making it difficult to communicate with her daughters via Zoom. Lenz still meets her and uses the music to help rebuild neural pathways damaged by the stroke.

“The result isn’t always perfect,” says Lenz. “She still has a lot of trouble with her speech. But during the session, she was able to tell her daughters that she loved them, and that’s something we practice singing.

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