When Amy Rodgers Smith was 16, she thought she wanted to be a psychologist. She grew up loving music, finding herself through singing in the choir and playing piano.
Smith wanted to help people, but didn’t want to leave music behind. Her piano teacher at the time gave her another idea.
“She said, ‘You should give music therapy a try,’ and I just looked at her like ‘what is that!?’ ” Smith said. “After learning more about it, I decided it was perfect for me.”
Smith, who is now an assistant professor at West Virginia University, learned music therapy was a way to combine the compassion of psychology with her love of music. Certified professionals in the field, like Smith, work with clients of all ages by creating and listening to music, which can help them tackle physical, mental, social and behavioral problems, among others.
These sessions are intimate, much like therapy sessions, and can help with an array of disabilities and cognitive functions (like autism, addiction and Alzheimer’s) by activating the listener’s entire brain at once. This allows broken connections to be fixed and the brain to produce chemicals, like dopamine, that can help with healing, among other things.
This month Smith became the first health care-focused music therapist at WVU.
“I wanted to bring music therapy to my neighbors, friends and family. No matter where I was, I’d check up on the music therapy opportunities in West Virginia,” she said. “I could never leave it alone.”
There were only three or four music therapists in the state in 2013, Smith said. Now there are 10, and that number is rising.
A year from now, eight more music therapists will be certified to serve the state upon graduation from WVU’s music therapy program.
Smith hopes these graduates will bring the benefits of music therapy to communities across the state, making the services more accessible to West Virginians, and hopefully breaking down some stereotypes in the process.
“It seems like a lot of [mental health and therapy] services are not offered and are not accessible here,” said Haley Crane, director of On A Better Note, Music Therapy LLC, a music therapy organization Smith founded in Morgantown a few years ago. “Part of the culture is acceptance of [these problems]. We’re trying to break down those walls.”
Currently, music therapy is not reimbursed through insurance in the state, and while there is a Medicaid waiver that can offset some fees, most patients pay out of pocket. Smith and Crane hope to see that change in the next few years as the industry grows and people in the area can see evidence of the effects and benefits of music therapy.
“Music immediately makes a human connection; it was a part of our culture long before language was,” Smith said. “It almost leaves me speechless [to see how much the industry has grown]. I want nothing more than my friends, family and neighbors to have access to this in their communities.”