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Therapy suitable for many situations

Kathryn Cotter, left, accompanies Jeannie Allen in a song during the Opus I Music Society's program last week. As a music therapist, Cotter talked about how she has used the power of song to improve lives.

ADAMS TWP — Guitar in hand, Kathryn Cotter was faced with a situation of immense sadness.

A licensed music therapist, Cotter was called to the bedside of a dying man who was no longer verbally responding to his loved ones. His wife, facing the thought of losing her spouse, was “fussing,” that is, attempting to care for her husband. The room was filled with anxiety and stress.

Enter The King.

Cotter was able to have enough of a conversation with the wife to learn that she and her husband were fans of Elvis. She began strumming the chords to “Can't Help Falling in Love,” the singer's 1961 hit. It was enough to calm the wife, who stopped hovering and sat at her husband's bedside.

“She holds his hand and she says, 'That's our wedding song,'” Cotter recalled recently during a presentation to the Opus I Music Society at LifePointe Alliance Church, 997 Route 228.

The woman began reminiscing about her and her husband's life, the songs they danced to and other memories. The man attempted to talk, but was unable. Eventually, though, he was able to take his wife's hand and place it on his heart as the two listened to Cotter strum the familiar chords.

“That's music therapy; that's quality of life,” she said. “Instead of his last moments being this fussing, they were quiet and still.”

Cotter's presentation for the music society focused on the positive impact music can have, and how she has used the power of song to improve the lives of everyone from newborns to those facing the end of life.Cotter, who owns a music therapy practice in Butler, said music therapists can be found in children's hospitals, psychiatric units and nursing homes.The goal, she said, is to help those in need express, emote and find a way to work through their trials via music. That could be anyone needing to better themselves physically or emotionally or dealing with chronic pain and disease progression or with grief, loss and mental health issues. Music can also help with stress management, and it has been proven to lower blood pressure and heart rates, Cotter said.Cotter's background was in palliative and hospice care, where she was often called to the bedsides of those who were “actively dying.”“That person is not shaking a tambourine,” she said.However, the music could help them relax by recalling memories, or serving as a distraction. Often she would see a person respond in a way that they hadn't in weeks, triggered by the sounds of familiar tunes.“We're looking to provide comfort for that person and maybe that family,” she said.It can also be used to help at-risk and troubled youths, Cotter said. She has spent time working with juvenile sex offenders whose days were spent locked behind gates and barbed wire. For those individuals, music was used to explore appropriate uses of power and control, and to show how to communicate and compromise and deal with emotions.In once instance, a group wrote songs about their experiences at the detention center, which explored their fears of being housed there, as well as what life would be like once they left. The youths were able to record the song and then perform it at a concert, receiving an ovation for their work.

“Most of these young men had never had any reason in their life — or an opportunity for that matter — to be on a stage and be applauded for something they had accomplished,” she said. “It's empowering to them.”Cotter performed similar work last year as part of the Butler County Drug and Alcohol Program Success, working with children at the Camp Success kickoff event. There, children who had been affected by Children and Youth Services came together to create a song of their own.They composed the “Camp Success Theme Song,” which they then performed at an end-of-week banquet for an audience that included their families.The song was made up of sounds and beats that were aimed at helping the children relax. Cotter made it available to them to use when they feel overwhelmed.“They composed the lyrics, they chose the instruments, they chose the tempo, they chose the length, and it's on YouTube, so if they have a device with Internet, they can have access to it for the rest of their lives,” she said. “They can turn on that song and take a deep breath ... and chant with it and sing with it.”Linda Maurhoff, president of the Pennsylvania Federation of Music Clubs and a member of the Opus I Music Society, said Cotter's work shows the impact and importance music can have on a person's life and demonstrates why the group is so focused on promoting song and the craft of creating music.“Music speaks where words fail, and it is our organization that needs to continue to support this kind of thing,” she said to her fellow members. “We've witnessed today what value there is in music, and with the shape of our world and our country, this is the joining factor.”

Kathryn Cotter, left, is accompanied by Jeannie Allen to play a song for the Opus I Music Society. Cotter said music therapy is important for the quality of life for patients in psychiatric units and nursing homes, as well inmates of children's homes.
Licensed music therapist Kathryn Cotter plays a song last week for an Opus I Music Society program in Adams Township. Cotter demonstrated how music therapy can affect people's lives and peace of mind.