More catching on to music therapy

SINGAPORE - Donning a trendy dark blue baseball cap, 64-year-old Yap Chwee Ann performs a set of songs with gusto, and finishes off the session by signing autographs.

But Mr Yap is no pop star. He is living out his last days at a hospice, stricken with cancer that leaves him in constant pain.

Music therapy, however, helps to lift his mood.

"I am tired every day," said Mr Yap, who is single. "But before I was sick, I used to sing a lot."

That was why his music therapist at Dover Park Hospice initiated the concert-cum-autograph session three weeks ago.

When The Sunday Times visited Mr Yap about a week ago, he was being given a chance to have a go at instruments like the guitar, and learn the lyrics of songs that he likes on the iPad.

Lifting patients' spirits with familiar melodies and rhythms is just one of the ways that music can be used in the health-care setting. It can also help people relax, alleviate pain, sharpen perception and improve muscle strength.

And the music therapy profession is slowly gaining a foothold here, with the number of qualified therapists climbing from 11 in 2007 to more than 20 today.

They are based in places ranging from public hospitals to voluntary welfare organisations and even hospices, and they work with autistic children, elderly people with dementia and the terminally ill.

The Association for Music Therapy Singapore said it "fields more inquiries that we can adequately manage", and has a waiting list of parents seeking services to help their children with special needs, learning impairments and disabilities.

It is also sitting on requests from three organisations that have yet to progress beyond the proposal stage "due to lack of manpower or sustainable funding".

American music therapist Nicholas Sager, who works with frail elderly people in San Francisco, agreed that music therapy is "a growing trend" here.

"I'm not going to pretend that music is going to cure stroke," said Mr Sager, who was in Singapore two weeks ago for a forum organised by the Agency for Integrated Care. "But music is a powerful tool to reach out to people. Magic happens when doing music together."

Dover Park Hospice music therapist Melanie Kwan described how one patient, whose body was tensed up in pain, visibly relaxed the moment he started strumming a reverie harp. She uses anything from keyboards to home-made instruments.

"All objects have sounds," she explained, rapping her knuckles sharply against the table top.

But the field still has a long way to go before it becomes more mainstream.

Independent music therapist Ng Wang Feng said the lack of training in Singapore has kept the group of professionals small. All therapists here are trained abroad in countries such as the United States, where music therapy is a relatively established field.

She added: "The fact that music therapy is not yet recognised as a core therapy in Singapore poses another big challenge."

Music therapist Jane Tan of Khoo Teck Puat Hospital said: "There are still people who doubt what music can do. It is certainly not about prescribing music, or a 'musical massage' as a friend once joked."

Ms Tan works mainly with elderly dementia sufferers, so songs that are familiar to them are a useful way to jog their memory.

"It's amazing how a person might have forgotten what she has said or done in the last hour, but can remember a song she sang as a child," said Ms Tan.

The practice is here to stay, said Dover Park's Ms Kwan, who also heads the Association for Music Therapy Singapore. "Music can be accessed at all ages, by people with all kinds of conditions," she said.

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