Therapist employs musical notes as special tools 'Resolution' approach yields results with troubled patients

July 24, 1992|By Angela Gambill | Angela Gambill,Staff Writer

The woman lies on a foam-rubber mattress on the floor, eyes closed, letting the sound wash over her.

She is thinking about a beach cottage and a room with white curtains. Then the image shifts, and she is standing by a fountain with a college boyfriend. The flowing sounds of Vaughan Williams' Rhosymeadre fill the client's consciousness. She murmurs something about sadness.

"Where do you feel sad?" asks Carolyn Sonnen, music therapist.

The woman touches her chest. "My heart, I guess."

"What color is the sadness? Does it have a color?" asks Ms. Sonnen.

"Blue. Light blue. A sad sort of blue and white."

Distressed about forthcoming changes in her life, the woman analyzes the sense of loss she is feeling. Ms. Sonnen guides her through the analysis, emphasizing the need to acknowledge loss as a means to healing.

This is guided imagery and music, which Ms. Sonnen practices both as a consulting therapist at the Psychiatric Institute in Washington's Center for Abuse Recovery and Empowerment and in private practice at her Arnold home. The mother of three TC also recently became a contracted therapist with the Hospice of the Chesapeake. Her husband, Phil Greenfield, is a teacher at Annapolis Senior High School and music critic for the Anne Arundel County Sun.

"Music is a mirror for the inner self," she says. Whatever a patient feels, music helps them acknowledge and identify. Ms. Sonnen then can help them work with what they've discovered.

A 43-year-old bright-faced woman with a relaxing voice and manner, Ms. Sonnen is also a professional flutist. She stands next to a wall plaque hanging in her living room: "Bach gave us God's Word. Mozart gave us God's laughter. Beethoven gave us God's fire. GOD gave us Music that we might pray without words".

The quote from a German opera house aptly summarizes Ms. Sonnen's reverence for music, as a reservoir of healing and a moving force in therapy.

For example, one patient had had a mastectomy and was undergoing chemotherapy. She was frightened. Music helped her find a place with an image that was comforting to her -- a beach scene.

"She felt supported and buoyant in the water, an image of floating, free from her aching body," explains Ms. Sonnen. "We worked on how she could bring some of that freedom with her into daily life." The woman overcame her fear of the illness and now swims daily.

Typically, a music therapy session at Ms. Sonnen's home works like this: She first discusses with the patient their feelings that day. She then talks them through a 30 to 40-minute music session.

"If they are sad, I use music that suggests sadness. If they're really angry, I won't put on nice, floaty music," she says. "That doesn't support what is there, what they're feeling. The music gives permission for feelings."

She has a selection of taped music, with topics such as Empowerment, Catharsis, Transitions, Expanded awareness and Crucible. After the music session, she works with the patient to discuss what stands out for them in the images the music brings to mind, and how to make the information work for them.

The psychological principles behind music therapy are many. For one, music is vibrational, as are our life experiences. "We're so verbal, but some experiences don't have words for them. Resonating with the music can help us work with those pre-verbal feelings," says Ms. Sonnen.

Also, classical music, which the therapist uses exclusively, resonates with inner tension and resolution. "It always resolves," she says, which helps patients think of ways to resolve their own conflicts. Classical orchestral music also provides a wide range of vibrations.

Her own involvement with music began with piano lessons in first grade and blossomed into a music performance degree from the University of Miami. An elective music therapy course piqued her interest, so she added enough additional psychology courses to become a registered therapist.

She worked in Philadelphia at both state and private hospitals, then studied music therapy under Helen Bonny at Catholic University while earning a master's degree in psychology.

Basic guided imagery, a sort of New-Age therapy in which a patient imagines a guiding figure or path, has been extremely popular in recent years, but using music offers more levels of experience, Ms. Sonnen says.

At the hospital where she works, Ms. Sonnen's patients are severely emotionally disturbed, including schizophrenics and multiple-personalities. Classical music provides stability, encouraging inner harmony within such patients.

"It helps their parts work together as a whole," Ms. Sonnen says. "Afterward, [multiple personality] patients may say, "I was in harmony.' "

The music also aids memory retrieval for patients who have blocked the memory of sexual abuse.

In her private practice, Ms. Sonnen also works with problems such as depression and anxiety disorders, as well as any type of life crisis. And she works with dreams, using music to help the patient retrieve a dream image and then interpret it.

"Music allows us to ask 'What is in there?' " of ourselves, she concludes. "It reflects parts of us; it helps us discover our great inner potential."

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