Music Heals raising awareness by tapping into the power of song

A Vancouver-based charity is helping to bring music therapy to those who are in need of healing

    1 of 1 2 of 1

      The ultimate power of music is the way it touches nearly every person on the planet. No matter what your ethnicity, religion, economic status, or personal value system—you’ve likely got a favourite song.

      If you’re lucky, you’ll have cherished memories that are inextricably linked to music—marvelling at the Northern Lights to the Tragically Hip’s “Grace, Too”, or walking the sweeping beaches of Tofino to the meditative majesty of Sigur Rós. For those times when the road gets tough, music can also make it all seem a little better. Anyone who’ll argue otherwise has never reached for Lana Del Ray’s Born to Die or everything by Leonard Cohen when it seems the darkness is never going to lift.

      All this is not lost on David Barnett and Chris Brandt, the driving forces behind Music Heals. The Vancouver-based national charity was launched with the goal of funding music therapists—accredited professionals who work everywhere from hospitals to rehab facilities to seniors’ homes. In the half-decade since it was founded, Music Heals has given away close to a million dollars, which has been used to make music therapy available to those in need.

      Interviewed with Brandt in the Kitsilano offices of Music Heals, Barnett says he has a theory as to why the charity has connected with the public.

      “The majority of people you’ll talk to have some sort of relationship with music one way or another,” Barnett opines. “Whether it’s listening in the car on the ride home, or late at night, or on the way to school—everyone has a different relationship. There are people who play music, and doctors who use music. We’ve found that the conversation about the power of music is an easy one to get into with anybody.”

      In the beginning, building awareness was the goal. The Canadian Association of Music Therapists describes the profession as follows: “Music therapy is the skillful use of music and musical elements by an accredited music therapist to promote, maintain, and restore mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual health. Music has nonverbal, creative, structural, and emotional qualities. These are used in the therapeutic relationship to facilitate contact, interaction, self-awareness, learning, self-expression, communication, and personal development.”

      The idea of music therapy has been around since World War II, when it proved an effective way of treating soldiers with posttraumatic stress disorder. Locally, Capilano University has offered a training program for music therapists for the past two decades.

      Barnett—a former promoter who had his life changed by the Grateful Dead—comes from a family with a history of philanthropy. Along with his wife, he created the concept for Music Heals, registering the charity and then meeting with fellow music-industry veterans to discuss how the endeavour might best work. Getting the word out about Music Heals was crucial.

      “Our background is that we’re noisemakers—we’re not music therapists,” says Brandt, an indie-rock fan whose experience includes working at Universal Records. “We exclusively fund accredited music therapy. But Dave and I always kind of joke that we’re heads of a fan club. I can rave about a music therapist and it’s not arrogant because I’m not one.”

      Gemma Isaac is, unlike Brandt, a trained music therapist—she’s been working since 2012 and can currently be found in the Burns, Trauma, High-Acuity Unit at VGH. Stressing that music therapy varies according to the needs of different patient groups, she says: “What I do is work bedside of the patients, and also in the burn showers. I bring in my guitar or my piano and myself—I’m a big part of the tool. What I do is provide social, emotional, and spiritual support to the patient, and often their families, through the theraputic relation, which is based in music.”

      Therapy starts with an assessment—Isaac is part of the medical rounds in the morning.

      “As a music therapist, the real key things that I’m looking for are patients who may be suffering from anxiety, pain management, depression—all those are key words for me. I’ll come in and what might look like a fun jam session—and often it is—is actually a prescribed session, if I was to use hospital terms. I’m going to have a really good understanding of what their goals are, and what the goal of the medical team is. Then we look at what kind of musical interventions can best support those goals.”

      Many new to music therapy ask “Why music?”

      “It’s because music picks up where words leave off,” says Isaac, a Capilano University grad who also studied neonatal-intenstive-care-unit music therapy and neurological music therapy in the States. “Often in a place of traumatic injury like in a burn unit, pharmaceuticals alone cannot access efficient pain management. Live music especially is kinesthetic—so the sound and tone of my voice are used to support the patient. Always using patient-preferred music, it’s a distraction from pain.”

      Goal is to give away much more money 

      Music therapy isn’t covered under provincial health care. Money raised by Music Heals pays for therapy sessions, with the caveat that a facility or organization must already be using music therapists. Fundraising takes place in cities across Canada, with all revenue generated in a particular community staying in that community.

      “Vancouver is lucky because the top music-therapy program in Canada is at Cap U,” Brandt says. “So there’s no shortage of music therapists in the Lower Mainland. But of all the music therapists in B.C., I only know of one who is working full-time at one facility. They might have a couple of part-times that they add together to make a full-time schedule. [B.C.] Children’s Hospital doesn’t have a full-time therapist, VGH [Vancouver General Hospital] doesn’t have one.”

      Music Heals hosts a number of fundraising events per year, including an annual Strike a Chord gala that will take place at the Commodore this year on October 19. While the lineup will remain a secret until showtime, past editions have featured the likes of Jim Byrnes teamed with the Harpoonist & the Axe Murderer and Dan Mangan performing with a 60-person kids’ choir. Speeches and video presentations will explain how music therapy works and how to get involved with funding.

      “We’ve sold out the Imperial the last three years, so it was time to take it to the next level,” Barnett says. “As Music Heals evolves, I think we ultimately want to create some big fundraising event in each city so we can keep the money in each of those cities. The more artists and bands and big promoters like Live Nation that we can get into the room, the more that we’ll be able to build this thing.”

      Support from the private sector has also been invaluable. Music Heals holds events like an annual iPod Pharmacy drive, where people donate old devices that are then distributed to therapists.

      “We look for creative ways to get people involved,” Brandt says. “March is Music Therapy Awareness month. The first Saturday in March we do a night out for Music Heals. This year we had 70 bars in 30 cities across Canada give us one dollar from their cover charge. The message was ‘You’re going out on a Saturday, and you want to support music therapy—go to one of these bars.’ ”

      Both Barnett and Brandt hope to get Music Heals to the point where it’s giving away a million dollars per year for therapy sessions.

      “We fund hours,” Brandt says simply. “That’s exclusively what we fund—music-therapy hours—partly because no one else does. Most charities in Canada that are music-related are music education. Half of our mandate is awareness. If you go into a hospital with us and we all brought guitars in, it’s entertainment. It’s not music therapy. This is different. It’s health care.”

      And if those hours prove anything, it’s that music is a powerful thing.

      “We know we can’t get a thousand people into a hospital to show them music therapy working,” Barnett says. “That’s why we have the gala, and why we put videos on. The more people see how it’s being used in all different spectrums, the more they understand. You’ll get a child with a birth defect in the hospital where their heart rate is not where it needs to be, and music gets them back on track. We’ve met so many people with really heavy stories where music therapy has helped, whether it’s autism, palliative care in a seniors’ centre, or heart-and-stroke patients. The great thing is that more and more people are believing.”

      Strike a Chord takes place at the Commodore next Thursday (October 19). For more information on Music Heals, visit