The following was published in The Brookville Democrat newspaper in June 2011.
By Melanie Padgett Powers, Special Contributor
Marly Rychener Hobson never enjoyed performing music in front of an audience. And yet, she plays music every day to help students in their education and emotional learning. “I’ve always hated performing,” said Hobson, a music therapist. “I like to share music in a different way.”
Imagine you just heard a familiar song on the radio. It takes you immediately back to those slow-dancing jitters you had at a junior high dance. Or, think of how you were anxious before a job interview, so you turned on some soothing music. Or, one day you were steaming mad after a fight with a family member so you turned on some bass-pounding music, your hand keeping the beat against your leg, as the anger faded away.
Music is powerful. Most of us have certain songs that bring back specific memories as clearly and quickly as a particular scent does. A certain genre of music, a favorite song or a beloved singer’s voice can make us feel a variety of emotions. But music goes a step further. Research shows that it can help people improve communication skills after a head trauma, ease pain and anxiety, deal with anger, promote physical rehabilitation, and improve cognitive learning (problem-solving, attention, memory, comprehension).
Hobson uses music every day in a variety of ways to help special needs kids. She is a music therapist at a special education cooperative in the Chicago area, working in about seven schools with students ages 3 to 21. “They’ve all got very diverse disabilities and very significant disabilities,” she said. Their disabilities include autism and physical, developmental and emotional disabilities. “We’ve got the whole gamut; I love that variety.”
Hobson long dreamed of working with people with disabilities. “That’s always been my passion,” she said. She was able to combine that dream with her love of music. A 1996 graduate of Franklin County High School, she is the daughter of Ron and Tomma Rychener of Brookville. She lives with her husband, Craig, and baby daughter, Lena, in Chicago.
Music therapists can work in medical and psychiatric hospitals, hospices, rehabilitation facilities, substance abuse centers, nursing homes, private practice and schools. But they are not music teachers, nor entertainers. They are therapists who use music interventions to accomplish individualized goals, according to the American Music Therapy Association. (Visit musictherapy.org for more information.)
Hobson uses the goals outlined in each student’s Individualized Education Program (I.E.P.) to develop a curriculum specific to that student. (The federal government requires I.E.P.s for all special education students.)
Hobson plays the piano, guitar and hand drums. For her youngest students, she may play and sing songs about colors and numbers. “So they’re able to learn in a different way,” she said. She may create a song that helps students with autism work on improving their eye contact. She may teach kids with anger management issues how to beat out music on the hand drums. Her sessions can also help students improve their eye-hand coordination, learn how to be a part of a group and learn how to share and take turns better. “I use music to work on nonmusical goals,” she explained. Students with severe disabilities enjoy feeling the vibration of the music, placing their hands on the instruments as Hobson plays.
When Hobson and her two sisters were growing up in Brookville, their house was always filled with the sounds of music. Her dad would play “Beatles” albums, and her mom would play the piano in the front room. And, “we always put on [music] shows for our parents,” she said. All three girls took piano lessons, but, Hobson said, “I was the only one that stayed with it.”
Hobson first heard of music therapy her freshman year at Indiana University, but she had never seen it in action. After graduating with a psychology degree and a music minor, she and her future husband moved to Seattle, where she found a music therapist for people with disabilities who let Hobson shadow her. “That’s when I started to see it up close and personal,” she said.
Hobson was hooked and soon moved to Iowa to earn a master’s degree in music therapy at the University of Iowa. She also has a master’s degree in special education from Northeastern Illinois University.
In Iowa, she did music therapy at an adult psychiatric facility. She met with about 24 people, from their 20s into their 70s, in a rec room in a dingy basement. She was intimidated at first. “I wondered, ‘how am I going to connect with all of them?’ You always want people to feel welcome and to feel like they’re part of a group,” she said. She wanted them to feel comfortable, “but almost as soon as the music started, the music did it for me.”
She knew she had found her career. In Chicago, she became a music therapist at a medical hospital, but it was tiring to try to explain to everyone what she was. She was often forced to explain what she wasn’t: She wasn’t there to entertain sick kids; she wasn’t a volunteer. She was available to help patients with pain management, anxiety and physical rehabilitation. She also helped women who were on weeks of bed rest because of high-risk pregnancies. But to work with patients, first she needed referrals from the medical staff. And those could be difficult to come by if the staff didn’t understand what a music therapist’s role was.
After two and a half years, she left the hospital to accept a job at her current school co-op, where she has been for four years. She has used her expertise to author two articles published in the journal Music Therapy Perspectives (vol. 24, Issue 2, 2006): The Collaboration of Music Therapy and Speech-Language Pathology in the Treatment of Neurogenic Communication Disorders: Part I-Diagnosis, Therapist Roles, and Rationale for Music and The Collaboration of Music Therapy and Speech-Language Pathology in the Treatment of Neurogenic Communication Disorders: Part II-Collaborative Strategies & Scope of Practice.
Being a music therapist requires patience and creativity. “I’m coming up with these interventions based on the student’s goals,” Hobson said. “You need to be creative all the time; you need to be fresh all the time.” She added, “I would say a person who would be well-suited to be a music therapist is someone who wants to work with people, first and foremost.” Music therapy is certainly not for someone who wants to be a musician and sees music therapy as a “fallback” career, she said.
“Every day is different,” Hobson said. “Every session is different, and it makes you really observant of human behavior. To me, it’s just the most awesome field on the planet.”