iPod, therefore, iAm.

It’s hard to stroll down the street or ride on the subway these days without seeing digital music devices attached to the ears of people from all walks of life, of every age and race. These individuals go about their day while gazing off into the distance, enjoying their self-made soundtracks to life. Indeed, to many people, music has moved beyond simple entertainment, seemingly bordering on being classified a necessity.

For American Counseling Association member Leah Oswanski, music is not only her livelihood, but also a way to live a healthier life. Oswanski is a board certified music therapist who has eight years of experience working with adults in hospice and oncology settings. As the music therapy director at the Carol G. Simon Cancer Center at Morristown Memorial Hospital in New Jersey, she often sees patients at their bedsides, where she teaches them to tap into music’s healing power.

“Music is an inexpensive, noninvasive medium that can be used to facilitate a relaxation response in people,” explains Oswanski, who is proficient on both piano and guitar, but uses her vocal abilities as her principal instrument. “As a music therapist, I help clients, but I often teach my coworkers and other hospital staff music therapy techniques, and I personally use those techniques as a form of self-care.”

At the time of this interview, Oswanski was preparing to present an Education Session titled “I’ll See You on the Dark Side of the Moon: Music Therapy Techniques for Self-Care” at the ACA Annual Conference in Honolulu. The title of the session is not only a play on words, but also a nod to one of her favorite groups, Pink Floyd, and its 1973 album The Dark Side of the Moon. The session will teach counselors how to effectively use music for personal relaxation and stress management.

“We all have a dark side and a light side,” Oswanski says. “We have to take care of ourselves so we are not only in one spot or another, but a balance of both sides. Burnout is widely known as a universal problem for those in the helping professions. Evidence has shown that basic self-care to reduce stress and increase relaxation can prevent or prolong the onset of burnout in many cases. When you are feeling really depleted, poor, unpleasant and on that ‘dark side,’ you can use music to reconnect the mind, body and spirit and nurture yourself.”

She notes that self-guided music therapy is an easy and accessible method for counselors to relax and rejuvenate, because with portable music devices and a pair of headphones, a “therapy session” can be conducted almost any place and any time. The hallmark of music therapy work is meeting the client where they are in the moment — and in their own music. In essence, Oswanski says, the same goes for counselor self-care.

“The crux of it is that self-selected music is the most effective music,” she says. “We need to use music that resonates with us in our own cultural, religious, ethnic and societal context first and foremost. I have always said that one person’s Metallica is another person’s Mozart, and vice versa. It’s really experiential. I teach people the basic guidelines of how to utilize music in self-care so that they may plug in their own selections and favorites.”

Different pieces of music can be used to achieve different goals and objectives, she says. Some musical selections are better for guided imagery. These selections can stimulate thought or help counselors to problem solve, whether the issue concerns a client or is an obstacle in their personal life. Other selections are more useful for relaxing and focusing on breathing.

“The bottom line is there’s no such thing as prescriptive music, although many people try to sell that idea,” Oswanski says. “There is no one piece of music that will make everybody relax or everybody stimulated.” She notes that people often ask her if she knows of a musical composition for depression. “Certainly there are pieces of music that might be helpful to facilitate relaxation when someone is dealing with depression,” she says, “but there’s no musical cure.”

Oswanski suggests that counselors become familiar with many different genres of music and listen to samples online to help determine their personal preferences. Websites such as Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.com provide digital song snippets for free.

Jennie Band, a member of ACA and the Association for Creativity in Counseling, agrees that the best way for counselors to find what works is to listen to and experience a variety of musical categories. Band, a certified music therapist and school counselor, suggests counselors take 30 minutes a day to listen to public radio, perhaps choosing a jazz station one day and classical the next.

“What I have found to work best is to start a music journal,” she says. “Listen to a song and then write down how it made you feel. How did it affect you physically or emotionally? What did you like about it? What did you not like about it?” The journal will eventually become a resource to help counselors determine which selections are better at helping them achieve specific goals or moods, she says.

Connecting with the music

Oswanski uses the phenomenon of entrainment to physically connect with music. She explains this as the process of joining with the feelings conveyed in the music and sensing commonality with those feelings. This beat synchronization leads to musical entrainment — an experience of the body harmonizing with the music being played.

Oswanski says entrainment has the potential to:

  • Resonate with the listener’s feelings
  • Transform negative feelings into more positive feelings
  • Promote a state of liveliness or serenity

“It’s about taking a certain rhythm and matching the body to that rhythm, and then usually trying to modulate it,” she explains. “For example, if a client comes in extremely anxious and their breathing is very quick and shallow, I will use music to meet them in the moment. I will play (an instrument) fast to match their heartbeat and breath, and then, over time, I will modulate the music and make it slower. Over a matter of minutes, I’m gradually slowing down the pace of the music. What you find is that their body will entrain to that rhythm. Obviously, it works best if you have live music in the moment, but there are some pieces of music that will help in this situation. They start out a quicker meter, about 80 beats per minute, and slow down over time to 50 beats per minute, which is about the same as a resting heart rate. The idea is to modulate through entrainment.” In theory, she says, the next time a person hears that particular piece of music, the recognition will prompt the body’s relaxation process to occur sooner.

When selecting music, Oswanski says, first consider the specific goal — either to relax and come down from a heightened state or to rejuvenate and stimulate. “For relaxation, you are going to want to choose something with a slower rhythm or meter and not listen to something fast. It sounds pretty logical. It’s not that you can’t relax to something with a quicker tempo, but if it’s really busy — like some classical music, for instance, is really busy, with many key changes or movements — it’s not going to be as relaxing as something with a slow steady rhythm,” she says. “Additionally, if you are in a really heightened state, putting on a slow-metered song at first isn’t good either. You will still feel anxious, so that’s why you need to find selections that modulate over time, quick to slow.”

She notes that the same principle is at play when attempting to stimulate the mind for improved problem-solving abilities or self-guided imagery. The musical selections should gradually increase in both meter and tempo. Music doesn’t need to be “chaotic” to achieve mind stimulation, Oswanski points out. More structured or livelier music selections are the best choices for stimulation, she adds.

Oswanski warns people to be leery of the mass-market “relaxation” CDs found in general merchandise stores. “I have to be honest,” she says. “There is a lot of New Age relaxation music out there that is really bad. It’s garbage. It’s not well written or well produced and not the least bit relaxing for most people. They usually have some weird nature or running water sounds that just don’t work. The selection suggestions I give have been proven to be helpful to most, time and time again.”

Among Oswanski’s tips for preparing to relax with the help of music:

  • Choose a time when you will not be interrupted.
  • Dress in comfortable, unrestrictive clothing.
  • Find a warm place. Body temperature will decrease with relaxation.
  • Get comfortable. Lie down or sit in a chair.
  • Close your eyes.
  • Do not try too hard to relax, and do not judge yourself. This will only create more tension.

Oswanski also suggests using one of the following techniques while listening to music:

  • Focus on your breathing. As you inhale, gather up all your worries and tensions. As you exhale, release them.
  • Allow your face to relax. Drop your jaw slightly so your mouth is comfortably open.
  • Think of a place that makes you feel comfortable and safe. This special place can be in nature or simply a favorite room. It can be real or imagined. Use all of your senses to explore the area: Look, listen, smell, taste and touch everything you can.
  • Imagine a soothing ball of light or energy massaging any tensions or discomforts out of all the parts of your body. Start with your head, and move down to your toes.
  • Think of positive affirmations (statements) you wish to convey to yourself. Repeat them to yourself, either in your mind or out loud.
  • Imagine that you’re immersed in a warm ocean of music. Notice how the music feels on your skin. Imagine diving into the depths of the music.

Personal favorites

So what’s in Oswanski’s musical library? The Dark Side of the Moon, of course.

“It’s a great existential, thought-provoking piece, so I may use that when I want to problem solve or when I’m stuck on something, though some people would think that’s bizarre,” she says, quickly adding that she isn’t some stereotypical “hippie music therapy chick” who hangs out in her basement listening to Pink Floyd. “But it is a powerful piece of music and a great selection for looking within.”

For relaxation, she prefers The Köln Concert by renowned jazz pianist Keith Jarrett. “It’s a great piece for me to relax and revitalize. But again,” she says, “that’s not for everybody. It’s jazz. It’s free and improvised solo piano, which is an acquired taste. But it’s one of the best pieces for me.”

Oswanski is currently working toward finishing her master’s degree in counseling at Montclair State University. She hopes to one day start her own private practice in creative grief and bereavement counseling. For more information on self-guided music therapy, contact her at leah.oswanski@atlantichealth.org.

Building a music library

American Counseling Association member and board certified music therapist Leah Oswanski offers recommendations to help counselors begin creating a library of music resources.

Stephen Halpern
Inner Peace Music

Janalea Hoffman
Rhythmic Medicine

Belleruth Naparstek
Guided Imagery & Music

Chuck Wild
Liquid Mind Series-Real Music

Some classical pieces used to stimulate imagery:

Beethoven: Piano Concerto no. 5 (second movement), Symphony no. 6, Symphony no. 9 (third movement)
Massenet: “Meditation” from Thaïs
Mendelssohn: “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Nocturne op. 61
Mozart: “Andante” from Piano Concerto no. 21, Concerto for Flute and Harp
Rachmaninoff: Piano Concertos nos. 2 and 3

For classical music-based relaxation, Oswanski suggests the following RCA-produced CDs:

Beethoven for Relaxation
Mozart for Relaxation
Vivaldi for Relaxation
Chopin for Relaxation

All classical selections are available by searching www.amazon.com or checking other online music sites.

— Angela Kennedy

Angela Kennedy is a senior writer at Counseling Today. Contact her at akennedy@counseling.org.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org