John's song

by Various Writers

Sometimes a simple song is enough to transform a whole relationship. The following post is from Jennifer Buchanan of JB Music Therapy, Room 217’s wonderful Calgary partner organization.


john: alone…but not for long…it just took one song.

For those faced with a difficult life circumstance, we know that music can provide the needed space to help that person focus— focus on something else besides the issue or situation at hand. By using music to focus, oftentimes the person can find some clarity about their situation.

When I was referred to a patient on the mental health inpatient unit at the local hospital as one would expect, I went to the unit anticipating I would be working with someone coping with depression or psychosis. What I didn’t expect was a six-foot tall eighteen-year-old boy who looked scared. He was curled up in his bed.

Before entering his room the staff gave me a brief description of what they were experiencing: physical outbursts such as banging on walls, no verbal communication, and many obsessive behaviours including repetitive spinning and stripping to nakedness. He was just a scared boy with autism. My referral came from the nurse who felt badly that the boy was misplaced in the healthcare system. The unit he was supposed to be on would not have a bed available for another week. When I arrived I found John in a brightly lit, stark white, windowless room with a guard outside his door. I was told the guard was placed there just in case his physical outbursts got out of control.

The guard audibly snickered when he saw my guitar and drum, and said, “Good luck with him,” when I entered the room.

John lay in bed with his face to the wall. Because I have worked with many individuals with autism over the years, I knew he most likely was trying to block out the blinding white lights in the room. It was quite overwhelming, even for me. I introduced myself to John. I told him that he didn’t have to move and that I was there just to bring some music into the room. I told him he could tell me to stop at any time and that I would immediately go away if he wanted me to.

He didn’t move. I began to play a slow lullaby on my guitar gradually adding melody in a gentle hum. His hand came out of the covers and he reached towards me. I let him rest his hand on my strumming wrist and together we strummed the guitar while he remained facing the wall. He began to hum a little and slowly sat up with his eyes tightly squinted. The guard entered; however I shook my head, assuring him that I was fine. The guard kept his hand on the doorknob when John stood up and began to move back and forth.

As his rocking speed increased so did the rhythms of the music. When the lullaby turned into the blues, John started to smile. I incorporated his name into the melody and he increased his eye contact with me immediately while repeating his own name. During thirty minutes of making music together, John calmed down and relaxed. Before I left the room I turned on a CD of music. As I went out the door and looked over my shoulder through the glass window, I watched him continue to rock slightly as he sat on his bed with a smile on his face. The guard looked at me but didn’t say a word.

We don’t always have to utilize music dramatically and often. Sometimes the subtle use of music may be more practical to improve the well-being of individuals. At times, it may be more effective to just slow the pace or turn the volume down to create a sense of balance. Often just the slightest change in tempo, volume, pitch, or key can have a tremendous effect, whether the goal is to achieve focus or create distraction. John just needed music that his body and mind understood.

Jennifer Buchanan is a certified Music Therapist (MTA), Past-President of the Canadian Association for Music therapy and owner of JB Music in Calgary, Alberta.  Learn more about her book TUNE IN at www.tuneintomusic.com