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From Connections: “Music and Memory”

1 Aug

Clockwise from top left: Associate Professor of Music Therapy Betsey King, music therapy graduate student Theresa Lemmerman ’09, ’12G, and Assistant Clinical Professor of Music Therapy Laurie Keough lead Lou, George, and Nola, three participants in Nazareth’s music therapy group for people with Alzheimer’s disease.

Many people are familiar with using rhymes and songs to help remember information. But can melodies and harmonies help maintain—and even improve—the memory skills of aging individuals with dementia?

Sheila Konar certainly thinks so. “The benefits of music therapy on mental health are astounding. We’ve always been interested and involved in this field as well as in giving back to the community.”

To that end, Konar donated a major gift in 2011 on behalf of the Konar Family Foundation to the music therapy program at Nazareth College. “Nazareth has always been socially minded and involved in community service, so this grant was a given.”

Among other initiatives, the gift enabled the creation of a special music therapy group for persons with Alzheimer’s. Konar was personally interested in supporting this endeavor since her own husband was diagnosed with the disease.

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia. At present, there is no cure and the disease worsens as it progresses. As research into medications and other treatment options continues, professors at Nazareth were interested in studying the effectiveness of individually tailored small group music therapy sessions for those living with Alzheimer’s. And it was the donation from the Konar Family Foundation that kick-started the program.

The music therapy group at Nazareth was led by Associate Professor of Music Therapy Betsey King, Ph.D., and Assistant Clinical Professor of Music Therapy Laurie Keough, M.S.Ed.—both of whom are board certified music therapists with extensive experience in the field.

“With the help of the Rochester chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association, we recruited enough participants and caregivers for 12 sessions in the fall semester,” explains King. The sessions involved singing songs (occasionally combined with sign language), playing instruments, and building memory skills through repetition and engagement.

The research was compiled throughout the semester, and the preliminary results and analysis indicated significant improvement in areas of concern for persons with Alzheimer’s. “Improvement is especially meaningful for people who have a progressive debilitating disease,” explains Keough. “Intervention is often necessary simply to maintain skills in this context.”

Examples of improvements included increased social interaction among group members, active participation, and ability to participate in more complex musical interactions.

In response to the encouraging results, the music therapy group continued to meet during the spring 2012 semester. “Not only did we see changes in the participants on account of the direct stimulation of music therapy, but what’s most promising is the carryover reported from this 50-minute session to the world outside of this room,” says Keough. Indeed, the participants’ caregivers reported back on their loved ones’ positive affects, increased activity, and energy levels.

Most surprisingly, notes Keough, was not just the maintenance of existing skills, but the building and development of the participants’ memory skills. “At the beginning, we saw anxiety, confusion, and disorientation, but that gradually faded with the weekly sessions. The structure remains the same, but each session is different and builds on the skills from the previous week. It’s incredible to see so much improvement and growth in the participants.”

The group’s successes are especially poignant considering logistics nearly prevented the sessions from occurring. “Space is at a premium on this campus and in the beginning we couldn’t find a suitable place to hold the sessions,” says King. “If we want to continue giving our students real-world experience while also doing outreach, community support, and research, then we need proper clinic space.”

And so the question now from both the participants’ caregivers and the music therapists is the same: What’s next?

“As we increase the visibility of Nazareth’s music therapy program and educate the health care agencies and facilities in our community about music therapy,” says King, “we can provide new jobs for our graduates, varied clinical training for our students, and services for underrepresented and underserved populations. In a real and tangible way, this generous gift from the Konar Family Foundation will enable us to do just that.”

And Konar insists that her work with Nazareth and the music therapy program is not over. “We are determined to secure an appropriate clinic space so they can keep doing the amazing work they do every day for the community.”


Article written by Sofia Tokar, assistant editor in Nazareth’s marketing department. To read more from the this issue of Connections magazine, click here. Back issues of Connections are available at

Healing with Harmony & Beat

5 Jul

A group of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder gathers for a drum circle led by a graduate student in music therapy at Nazareth. Data collected after the music therapy sessions shows that the drumming reduces levels of anxiety and stress over time while it enhances mood.

In other parts of the music therapy clinic, children with autism communicate through chant and rhythm when they don’t have access to words, while changes in harmony help Alzheimer’s’ patients focus their attention during therapy sessions.

Music therapy involves people in music in order to reach non-musical goals, explains Dr. Betsey King, an assistant professor of music therapy at Nazareth.

“We work on communication skills, physical skills, social skills, cognition, emotional life, and wellness by singing, moving to music, composing music, improvising, and playing music,” King says. “We get our patients involved so that some other part of their self is enhanced.”

The Power of Song

To illustrate, she tells a story about a Parkinson’s patient during a test that timed how long it took him to stand up from his chair, walk 10 feet, turn around, walk back to the chair, and sit down. The test, without music, took 28 seconds. Then King, who was teaming with a physical therapist on a home visit, started singing “off we go, into the wild blue yonder” to the patient, who was retired from the Air Force. He then did the same test, to King’s vocal accompaniment, in 18 seconds.

“My therapeutic style is to get patients laughing at me,” says King, “and he was already laughing at the crazy music lady as he started the test. All music therapists know that building relationship is a big part of what we do.”

The Rochester area has the state’s largest concentration of practicing music therapists outside New York City, King says, thanks in part to Nazareth’s program. And every music therapy student also plays one or more instruments.

A Foundation for Health

The new Integrated Center for Math and Science will help serve Nazareth students, faculty, and patients better,  King says. The undergraduate major has 44 students; about 20 people are enrolled in the graduate program.

It will also be easier to do interdisciplinary research about how the brain responds to changes in the environment, for example, or test the effect of music on the immune system.

“Our students were usually musicians in high school,” King says. “But most of them do not have the science part until they get to Nazareth. A new facility is important. The better support we can give our students, the more effective they will be with their patients and the better they will work with their colleagues. If they think like scientists and researchers every day, they will do better work.

“And every new discovery we make here on campus – or that one of our graduates makes – can have an impact on hundreds of thousands of people.”

Healing in Harmony

1 May

Dr. Betsey King, director of Nazareth’s music therapy program, recently presented at the American Music Therapy Association’s national conference. She spoke about how music can help people recover brain functions after a stroke or aid children with autism in dealing with sights and sounds around them.

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