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REPORT | Music Therapy In Toronto: The Art Of Well-Being

By Ludwig Van on June 6, 2024

L-R (clockwise): Music therapists Andrew Costanzo and SarahRose Black at Whole Note Psichotherapy, nearby Eglinton Subway. (Photo: Antonio Pelaez Barcelo); Reenie Perkovic in the class where she performs music therapy. (Photo: Antonio Pelaez Barcelo); Entrance of the Music Therapy Centre at 1173 Bloor Street W. (Photo: Antonio Pelaez Barcelo)
L-R (clockwise): Andrew Ascenzo and SarahRose Black at Whole Note Psychotherapy, nearby Eglinton Subway. (Photo: Antonio Pelaez Barcelo); Reenie Perkovic in the class where she performs music therapy. (Photo: Antonio Pelaez Barcelo); Entrance of the Music Therapy Centre at 1175 Bloor Street W. (Photo: Antonio Pelaez Barcelo)

For more than ten years, Dr. SarahRose Black has been working as a certified music therapist at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre. She is also a registered psychotherapist, pianist, vocalist and violinist.

When she arrives home from work, she tells her husband, cellist and sound designer Andrew Ascenzo, some of the stories she’s lived thanks to music and its healing power.

“Hearing these stories for me was really impactful, and I thought the world needed to hear them too,” Ascenzo said. “We need to share this with the world because not enough people know about it.”

For confidentiality reasons, they changed names and details, as Black did in the stories she told her own husband. Nowadays, Pulse Music Media is the name of their firm and they have collaborated with organizations such as the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, University Health Network, Canadian Opera Company, University of Toronto, and Toronto Public Library, among others.

Ascenzo usually coordinates the performances, where Black is the main speaker. In addition to her work at Princess Margaret, Black opened her own private clinic, Whole Note Psychotherapy, in June 2023.

Andrew describes how it all fits together in a concert setting. “In this concert, we did in the fall, the story that went along with it was quite powerful. It was about a patient describing their experience of the Brahms B Major Piano Trio, the first movement, and how it sort of tells the story of a life, and it goes into detail, the different sections. As someone who’s played that piano trio quite a number of times, in many different contexts, it’s always been one of my favourite pieces to play; suddenly, I felt so different playing it.

“Even after knowing the story that was written and rehearsing it with the story, in concert, you hear the story, and you feel the energy of the people listening and then, something that I rarely feel, I have to say on stage, the audience was so primed to listen to this piece, this 13 minute Brahms piece. This piano trio that I’m sure most of them had never heard before. Suddenly, as a performer, you feel all eyes and ears are focused on you. You’re in the moment of having just heard this story, and then you want to do the story justice with the performance. You know, so there’s an extra layer, or many extra layers, that go into the actual performance.

“So it’s not just about hearing it from the audience. I think it’s a two-way, three-way communication thing that’s just really beautiful.”

L-R (clockwise: Aprajita Saxena in the hall of the Music Therapy Centre. (Photo: Antonio Pelaez Barcelo); Fran Herman, founder of the Music Therapy Centre, holding the check of the first donation. (Photo: Antonio Pelaez Barcelo); Whole Note Psychotherapy's reception with Andrew Costanzo. (Photo: Antonio Pelaez Barcelo).
L-R (clockwise: Aprajita Saxena in the hall of the Music Therapy Centre. (Photo: Antonio Pelaez Barcelo); Fran Herman, founder of the Music Therapy Centre, holding the check of the first donation. (Photo: Antonio Pelaez Barcelo); Whole Note Psychotherapy’s reception with Andrew Costanzo. (Photo: Antonio Pelaez Barcelo).

Music Therapy

Despite not being widely known, music therapy has an extensive scientific background that dates back to the end of the 19th century, when the first papers about it were published. Black herself has not only published papers but is also the editor-in-chief of the Canadian Journal of Music Therapy.

Most authors are both researchers and practitioners, like pioneer Canadian music therapist Fran Herman, who wrote a book about music therapy’s benefits for children with cerebral palsy. She started promoting music therapy in 1955, and there is a picture of her holding a cheque in the hall of the Music Therapy Centre (MTC) in Toronto.

“Her dream was that there could be a space for music therapists where people could just come for music therapy,” said the manager of the centre, Aprajita Saxena. Inaugurated in 2002, it is located in Toronto, at Bloor and Dufferin, and launched thanks to a generous donation from the music industry. In the hall, on top of Herman’s picture, there is a tree whose leaves hold the names of the donours who gave “substantial amount of funding that can help us run our programs for at least a year.”

“The unique aspect about the Music Therapy Centre is that we are run by a nonprofit,” Saxena said. “We’re trying to reach out to people from underserved communities who may face socioeconomic disadvantage or financial barriers.”

The MTC also provides therapy offsite at senior’s homes, schools, or individual’s homes around Ontario, and beyond. Whole Note, Black’s private clinic, provides psychotherapy, talk therapy, or music therapy in person, virtually or hybrid. But live music lies at its heart.

“I don’t send people MP3s and suggest they listen to it prescriptively, like a physician might prescribe a medicine. I engage in a relationship with my patients, with my clients,” said Dr. SarahRose Black. “Establishing that connection, and for a patient to share their story, and to be willing to hear it through music, or willing to sing, […] or willing to describe the relationship they have with a piece of music, can be life changing. And this is the power of music therapy. It’s the relationship as much as it is the music itself.”

In this regard, Reenie Perkovic, a music therapist at the MTC, said, “In the music therapy world, we’re all musicians.” The centre offers group and individual music therapy sessions. “[T]o participate in music therapy, you actually don’t have to have any music experience; the only requisite is enjoying music.”

“With people with physical disabilities, we can use music to encourage different movements,” Perkovic said. “And also, for folks who have trouble accessing their emotions […] music helps to bring that out. Or we can use other people’s lyrics to describe how we’re feeling.”

Another program offered at the MTC is Guided Imagery and Music (GIM), which is for “people who are cognitively independent, can make decisions, but need something to feel regulated and to navigate day-to-day stress in life,” said Aprajita Saxena.

Regarding the activities or tasks, Black mentions that she performs the same at the hospital or at her private clinic. “I play, I sing, I engage with my clients to play or sing music; we do songwriting, we improvise, we do lyric analysis, we do musical autobiographies where we create playlists based on people’s lives.” And age does not matter. “We harness the power of music and support people at any age or stage of their lives.”

Below: SarahRose Black and Andrew Ascenzo perform with Tristan Savella (piano) and Bora Kim (violin), and SL interpretation by Jaideep (ASL performer), Savannah Tomev (interpreter) and Amands Hyde (interpreter) as presented by Xenia Concerts, which works to present high calibre music for the neurodiverse and disabled communities, families with young children, and others who face barriers to inclusion.

Side Effects

Nevertheless, music therapy has side effects. “Most of them are lovely, but, as music therapists, we know times when music can be dangerous,” Black said. “I often start with two or three minutes with a patient, and then I check in. How is that feeling? What’s going on in your body? What’s going on in your mind? Shall we continue?”

That is why being a music therapist requires a bachelor’s or master’s degree from a university and 1,000 hours of guided practice. Subsequently, the therapist can obtain the certification (MTA) provided by the Canadian Association of Music Therapists (CAMT).

Being certified is a warranty, but it does not mean that all music therapists are the same. Reenie Perkovic noticed music’s healing power during the pandemic after ten years of performing live music. Dr. SarahRose Black was a Suzuki piano teacher and realized her students’ emotional well-being was improving. Aprajita Saxena had studied Indian classical, and discovered that music therapy existed when she came to Canada to study and teach music. Every music therapist provides a different set of skills, as music therapy can help people in very different ways.

In addition, Andrew Ascenzo keeps planning future Pulse Music performances, for which they’re open to including new musicians. “Toronto is such a great place. I feel so lucky as a performing musician, because everyone I meet and perform with they’re just more and more wonderful,” he said. “We’d love to do the storytelling combined with an entire symphony orchestra at some point. There are lots that we’re building towards, so the collective can grow infinitely.”

In fact, openness and willingness to talk about it is common among music therapists. “You’re always welcome to come by the centre, see our space, and meet us. We’re always looking to meet people because so many people don’t know what music therapy is,” Aprajita Saxena said at the end of the interview. “So, we’re always open to welcoming people and discussing and talking about it.”

To learn more about music therapy and the , you can find the full interviews conducted for this piece here, here, and here.

*Written by Antonio Peláez Barceló for Ludwig-Van/Toronto

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