Music As Medicine

Apr 01, 2016 1 Min Read
Music As Medicine
Armed with an extended degree and masters in music therapy—Isabel Tan is touching the lives of those often forgotten.

She is currently a full-time music therapist and private practitioner for kids with special needs. Today, Tan shares with Tamara Jayne how her life, and how music can heal people and help them grow.

Q: Tell us about what you do as a music therapist.

I help people with different forms of disabilities using music as a tool to treat certain areas of need. For every client that I attend to, I will set different goals and objectives to be achieved at each session by using various kinds of methods that are related to music. In order to be a music therapist, we have to actually be registered with the association in our respective countries that we studied in to have a music therapy license.


Q: When did you first discover your passion for helping people?

I grew up inspired by my mum. She is a music teacher. In some way, I’ve always wanted to do something with music. Performing, alone, gives me no sense of satisfaction.

But helping people does. It is more rewarding to help people. I wanted to do something interesting, different and rewarding.

Q: What are some of the hindrances you’ve faced or are currently facing with your clients?

The biggest challenge I face with children with special needs is that they struggle to communicate what they are feeling or what they want, if they communicate at all.

Hence, I have to read their body language and understand their unique dynamics in order to address what they need.

Kids diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder can—unexpectedly—be very forceful in their mannerisms. Therefore, I would have to direct their energy into a safer environment such as instruments they can use to hit or teach them to hit real hard or soft on the target instrument.

Q: What were some of the interesting highlights of your experiences so far?

I have had some diverse and interesting experiences. Some of which include clients whom are primarily interested in numbers and music.

Hence, a lot of them would request for certain music-related activities such as focusing on matching the numbers of fingering to the notes or write their own number and hit the drum as they count from one to the desired number.

This would be modified to achieve the goals and objectives as I believe in choice and control to enhance their creativity and sense of leadership at the same time.

Q: Can you share some cases where you have, personally, seen the child or adult improve?
There have been several similar cases of clients who would have resisted listening to instructions and would have sudden outbursts i.e. jumping towards you and would retaliate once he/she finds out that they are being taught.

However, as sessions are being conducted every week, I see signs of openness through music. It helps to strengthen the bond between the client and myself.

Every twelve sessions, as I evaluate each client, I would notice different changes in behaviour and improvement in social skills such as following instructions, taking turns, verbalising short sentences, maintaining eye contact, maintaining good hand-eye coordination as well as cognitive skills such as learning to count and identify numbers, colours, directions and body parts.

These signs of improvement are definitely rewarding and fulfilling to myself as a therapist, as well as the parents.


Q: How do parents know if their child needs therapy or intervention?

Parents normally seek therapy when they find out that their child cannot cope in school or has been reacting and presenting behavioural problems in their own homes. Their expectation is to allow their child to lead an independent life.

For music, most parents would want their child to learn an instrument at the end of the day. Hence, if their child needs help—in any area or skill—and likes music, they can consider sending their child for music therapy. Most of the time, when the child is being diagnosed, the psychologist would then recommend certain types of treatment or therapy suitable for the child.


Q: Any parting thoughts or words of advice to anyone who might be interested to do music?

Music is evidently an effective and powerful part of the human experience and can benefit everyone in different ways. Hence, being open to this type of therapy as well as other emerging therapies can be a non-invasive and excellent alternative intervention.

Some therapies might work better for others but everyone loves music so why not make music a tool to help people utilise it as more than just a form of entertainment?

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Isabel Tan is working currently in rehabilitation centres, education learning centres and music schools, teaching various instruments as well as conducting individual and group therapy work. She has also been invited by HELP University as a guest lecturer. She conducts workshops and talks for allied health professionals as well as parents and volunteers handling kids with special needs.
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