Healing in harmony
Music therapists transform lives through shared connections
Landon Spessard picked up two drumsticks and positioned his arms above his instrument. The darbuka sat in front of him, requiring him to hunch slightly. He focused his gaze on Erin Haley, seated on the piano bench facing him, and awaited a cue to begin his beat.
She signaled for him to begin. With gentle miming motions, she encouraged his rhythmic strikes. Haley and Spessard—music therapist and client—worked together harmoniously.
Spessard, 30, suffered a traumatic brain injury when he was 3 years old. While walking across a school gym, a cafeteria table dislodged from a wall and fell on his head. He was rushed to Enloe Medical Center in critical condition, then helicoptered to UC Davis. He emerged from a nearly six-month coma with paralysis on his right side and cognitive challenges to rehabilitate.
He’s undergone extensive physical and occupational therapy. His father, Darryl, appreciates the “remarkable comeback” he has made: most conspicuously, walking and talking.
Yet Darryl felt his son could accomplish even more. So, when he encountered Haley at a charity event and learned about music therapy, he signed him up. Just over a year later, Darryl said he’s “seen a great deal of progress” in terms of Spessard’s capabilities and confidence.
“At first I thought, ‘Well, if he just enjoys this, this would be a success,’” Darryl told the CN&R by phone. “But what we couldn’t anticipate was that he was going to be making steady progress. He’s made remarkable progress in a lot of different areas—some breakthrough moments, some large accomplishments for him—and he always looks forward to going.”
Haley, who until just recently was the only board-certified music therapist in Chico, sees Spessard and some other clients at the Apollo Academy of Music (formerly the Wright Keys) on Vallombrosa Avenue. Others she’ll visit. Each 45-minute appointment is tailored to the individual’s needs, but one aspect is the same for all: a clinical, evidence-based process.
“It’s not just me singing to you—which, if you asked my mom, she would say is therapeutic enough,” Haley said after Spessard’s session. “Sometimes it is that, but that’s not all that it is.”
Music therapists perform assessments, prepare goals with clients, track progress and write reports. They work with people experiencing a range of issues: brain injuries, traumatic stress, developmental disorders, dementia, hospice, grieving and more.
“There’s that very clinical, quantitative side to it,” Haley continued, “but the beauty of music therapy is there’s also a very subjective, qualitative side to it, where we can’t measure. The enjoyment, how we respond to the sounds emotionally—maybe there’s not a way to put that into numbers … but the beautiful relationship [and] musical elements are still present.”
Pam Sachs, a music therapist from the Bay Area who just moved to Chico full-time in March, also finds power in the subjective side. She works with seniors, as well as hospice patients and families. She described the impact of a specific song, played live, in sync with the moment.
“I see music as just this incredible bridge between people,” Sachs said by phone. “We’re trained to be the best musicians that we can be and also to be the best therapists that we can be.”
Haley started her training at Chico State, where she majored in psychology and minored in music. She received her master’s degree in music therapy at University of the Pacific, which included a hospital internship in Arizona, then went to Colorado State to study neurologic music therapy.
After working for a few years in Los Angeles, Haley said, she “decided it was time to bring music therapy here,” so in fall 2014 she returned to Chico. She plays in a band, Erin Haley & Firefly; local scenesters also may know her from eight years in her father’s band, Mossy Creek.
Being the lone practitioner in town meant taking on clients of all ages and needs. She’s pleased about the addition of Sachs, who’s not only new to town but also to the field.
Sachs first came to Chico in October 2015, drawn to a place where her husband could retire in proximity to their daughter. Sachs initially was a stay-at-home mother who volunteered as an elementary school music teacher; she subsequently got hired and stayed well after her daughter moved on.
Upon turning 50 several years ago, she said, she found herself at a crossroads, wondering what to do with the rest of her life. Music therapy called to her; she completed her course of study in 2014 and began practicing at a senior center along with providing aid to those in hospice care.
Sachs already has met with one hospice patient locally and hopes to do more through an initiative launched by Haley. The Music Therapy Impact Fund raises money to offer services to those in need. The nonprofit, administered by the North Valley Community Foundation, holds events and other fundraisers.
“Hopefully we can show the efficacy so it can be part of the standard of care in Chico,” Haley said. “That [in turn] elevates the standard of care for all patients and that elevates Chico as a healing community.”
Darryl Spessard doesn’t need convincing. When his son went to his first appointment with Haley, he set an ambitious intention, declaring, “I want to be a performer; I want to go on stage.” Darryl attempted to soften expectations, telling him, “Well, Landon, that’s a little premature there, you’ve got some work to do here, but we’ll all take that into consideration.”
Months later, the younger Spessard fulfilled his goal. Darryl rented out the Chico Masonic Lodge for his son’s 30th birthday. The invitation stated a special guest would appear. After Haley and an accompanist played, she called Spessard on stage and he shocked the room by launching into “Free Fallin’”—the Tom Petty tune whose lead vocal he’d rehearsed for weeks.
“It was just a moment that we never thought we’d see happen,” Darryl said. “Landon has surprised so many people over the years. Doctors said with his prognosis there were so many things that he would not be able to do instead of things that he could do, and this was never going to be one of them. So it was probably one of the more rewarding moments that we’ve had … we’re more than grateful.”