This month Danica Cunningham ’13 invites our listeners into the world of music therapy, where she forges connections with her clients through all kinds of musical mediums. As Danica shares her love of music, she also provides some concrete ways that music can support mental health and introduces elements of the local music scene in Burlington, VT. Can’t get enough of Danica, learn more about her work on Instagram at @dcup_urgonnamissme and @asyouare.studio, and about her musical pastimes at www.thewormdogs.com and https://www.honeyandsoulmusic.com/.
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Amelia: Hello everyone. And welcome to another episode of Scarlet & Brown Stories. This is your co-host Amelia Jantzi back again, and this time I am joined with my co-host Megan Fry Dozier. You might have noticed if you've been listening for a while, that we do a little bit of a switcharoo of our hosts every now and again, so that you can get to know different members of our team. And I am so excited to be joined by my dear friend, Megan, who will tell you a little bit about the guest we'll be chatting with in just a minute.
Megan: Hi everyone. I am super excited to be here today, and even more excited to tell you about our guest for this afternoon. Danica Cunningham class of 2013. Danica is a founding member of the Upbeats on campus and is now a music therapist in Burlington, Vermont.
Amelia: So, let's jump right in.
Amelia: Welcome Danica.
Danica: Thanks so much for having me. I'm really glad to be here today.
Amelia: Well, we're so excited to have you here. And I think for me, I'm someone who grew up with a lot of music. I grew up down the road from the Crane School of Music. So, I was so excited to see your work history and your work in music therapy and that sounded so cool. I was wondering if you could just kick things off by telling us what music therapy is.
Danica: Absolutely. It really is the coolest job you've ever asked for. As a music therapist, I get to use music to address non-musical goals in a clinical setting. So, I work with all types of different populations, different age groups, different diagnoses, different levels of abilities, and I get to make their lives more meaningful or productive through musical interventions. So, it's going to look different for every single person. Music therapy is an evidence-based practice that's conducted by board certified music therapists. So, I might be walking down the Holloway of a hospital with an instrument cart, but I'm not just the music lady who's there to entertain kids or for pure entertainment. I get to go into different rooms, and I get to really just adjust the unique needs of the client.
Danica: Sometimes it's going to look like listening to music. Sometimes it's going to look like making music. Maybe we'll be composing original songs, and maybe we're just improvising and working on communication skills, whether it's taking turns or listening to each other and responding or mimicking each other, asking musical questions. Really just using the musical experience as a metaphor for communication, connection, and executive function.
Amelia: Wow. That just sounds so fascinating. And like you said, it sounds like there's a lot of variety in what you do and very tailored to each person that you work with. Who do you mainly work with?
Danica: Currently, I work mostly with young adults with different diagnoses from autism to down syndrome to mental health needs, as far as addressing depression, anxiety, and grief. I'm based out of Burlington, Vermont. This is my home now. And I work through the UVM Home Health & Hospice for pediatric palliative care. So, I get to work with families, with children who have really severe medical needs, and we're often working as the whole family unit. So, I'm assigned to a client, but that doesn't necessarily mean I won't be also working with their brother or sister or maybe grandma who lives in the house or a parent, because as you might imagine, when you're in that condition or that situation, it really affects everyone involved.
Amelia: For sure. So do your clients that you work with, have they had exposure to music at all before, or is it a mix that some people already have played instruments or musical, and in some cases, you're really introducing music to them?
Danica: So, you do not need to be a musician to benefit from music therapy. The only requirement is that music is motivating to you. So, if I have a new client, I'm going to go through an investment period and we're going to take a look at those baseline behaviors and assess where those levels are. And then we're going to implement musical interventions or musical experiences and see if that behavior changes in the direction that we want it to change in.
Danica: And if that does in fact happen in the initial assessment period, then that is a good sign that they're a good fit for music therapy. And there are instances where music therapy wasn't motivating for behavior changes. So, in that case, I would either recommend someone else in the community who might have a different set of specialty in music therapy, or maybe refer them to art therapy, talk therapy, occupational therapy, depending on what's presented.
Amelia: What inspired you to pursue music therapy?
Danica: Well, I really did not know what I was getting into when I applied for grad school to become a music therapist, but I did know two things. I knew that I loved music and that I loved helping people and working with people in the trenches, hands on. I graduated from St. Lawrence with a double major in psychology and music. So, I had that background of psychology and knew how much I loved the brain and just understanding how the mind works.
Danica: And then of course the music aspect, not only was it a big part of my social wellbeing, but also it never ceases to inspire me to be the best person I can be, whether it’s a good listener or a good communicator or a positive member in the community. So, it just felt like a really natural transition out of undergrad. And if I hadn't heard about music therapy, I don't know if I would've been doing it today. So, advocacy is a huge part of what I do as well, which is why I'm so glad to be here today to spread the word a little bit more about what I get to do.
Megan: Yeah. That's just so interesting of seeing how all those different threads of experience can come together and end up taking you on your life's course when it's not something you ever expected to see or expected to end up in. Those friends of yours that knew you in college, what do they say about knowing that you're a music therapist now?
Danica: I would say they probably aren't too surprised. I was a gangster as a freshman, and I was in all the ensembles from the lore and singers. I got to be one of the founding members of the Upbeats because I was a freshman that year. And I was so involved in the music community at St. Lawrence. And it really fostered a whole another side of my understanding of myself. And it really was the roots of also what got me into music therapy because growing up, I played classical violin and that was a very isolating experience. It was a lot of you go to your lesson, you come home you practice, you go to orchestra rehearsal where everyone has friends, but there was no orchestra in my school. So, I was the outlier and didn't have that social connection to music until I got to Gaines College and learned that I can connect with my friends without even talking.
Danica: You have this really rich interaction and this deep level of meaningful connection with my peers and my mentors through the language of music. And that was really powerful for me. And it showed me that I had more to offer than just being an ensemble member because I was innately connecting during our jams or supervising or learning a song together. It's so much teamwork and so much identity wrapped up in being a musician. So, it was my first time really exploring how to interact in that way in a relaxed environment. And without any rules, I got to do what I wanted. I got to break the rules. It was so exciting.
Amelia: Oh, it's so true. And there's so much about being a musician with others that relies on listening and hearing what other people are playing or singing and hearing yourself. I would imagine that critical listening that's so key to musicianship is something that must be really helpful in your work in therapy.
Danica: Absolutely. I have to have a really fine-tuned filter for what is this person trying to say? Or I know it might look like we're just playing the drums here, but I'm looking at their body language. I'm looking at that little breath they took right after they heard the chorus of a song where the words are really meaningful. Or I might have to read between the lines if someone's non-verbal or verbal communication is an area that we're working on. So, it really has become my superpower to enter an unknown situation and really just be receptive to, first of all, seeing the light and the authentic beauty of who they are just as they are. And also to see what little hints of offering they might provide for me to grab on and explore and build upon, and then scaffold from there.
Danica: And it's amazing because sometimes there's occupational therapists, physical therapists, speech therapists, who are also working with these students and they'll come into music therapy and say, "Wow. I've never gotten this person to communicate in the way that it's happening in here. And yeah, I'm using my facilitation skills, but that's where the music really does the work." And that just fascinates me every single day. And it's a continuous exploration in how I can use the tools that I know work and adapt them to those little hints of how it might be impactful to the other person.
Megan: How has the pandemic affected your ability to be able to do that work?
Danica: Well, here we are on... I've got my ukulele. I've got my drums. I've got my guitars. Everything's here. We are at the home studio. I've been doing a lot of Zoom sessions. Unfortunately, not much group work anymore, but it's been an adjustment to adapt to Zoom sessions, but it's the same thing. It's if I can open my heart and my presence big enough to still find those places to connect, the work is able to still get done. So, we have a ton of fun. We can still make a lot of music and every day I wish I could be in the room with them, because there's something about being in the space with a client and making music, sharing the same wavelengths of the room itself, but we definitely make it work.
Danica: And it's allowed me to see people who I wouldn't normally have seen. When the pandemic started, I started up a kid's, not music therapy, but just a kid's group for my cousin. She had just had a baby and they wanted music. So, it ended up being where there was someone from Australia. There was someone from London. There was someone from Seattle. And everyone was coming in together and we were making music and had a little, twice a week ritual of making music together and building a community during that really tough, uncertain time when things first shut down and it was a cornerstone for stability and routine that was really powerful.
Megan: That's awesome. I think that mental health is something that we've all been talking about a lot more lately and even still just missing that feeling of connection. I was wondering, are there principles from your work that people or even our students here at St. Lawrence can employ in their everyday lives as their going through their schoolwork and their relationships and stressors and things they have going on?
Danica: Absolutely. Music is so accessible outside of the music therapy space. And though you might not be working directly with a music therapist using music for self-care and self-regulation are just such important tools to navigate these times. Making a playlist for the drive home if you're anxious about seeing people out outside of your pod. Or creating space to learn a new instrument and to spend some of that downtime, we've had watching YouTube videos or just noodling around on garage band. Or writing lyrics and trying to collaborate with other musicians, whether in person or remotely. There's tons of tools to really find some peace, find some self-expression and ask some of those hard questions and those big questions of all the things that have been coming up in the last two years. I hope that addresses what you asked, because head is thrilling with just how much music and going to shows, being back in a space where I'm able to perform live again and go see live music. What a mental health shift that's been as well, just to be able to express a little bit. Let loose a little bit.
Amelia: Yeah. Do you perform live?
Danica: Yes. So, there's a really rich live music community here in Burlington, Vermont, and I get to perform in two different bands. The Worm Dogs is my bluegrass rock and roll band. And Honey and Soul is my folk trio band. And they fill up my cup so that I can offer myself to my clients and be as present for them as possible because I love nothing more than to perform on the weekends and then show up on Monday with a full schedule of making music for others for a completely different reason.
Amelia: Oh, it sounds like Megan, and I need to take a road trip to Burlington and listen to one of your groups. Both of those sounds so cool.
Megan: Absolutely. I have to ask the name, Worm Dogs, where did that come from?
Danica: If you do make it up here, you'll see. We're just a bunch of misfits who just have a good time and don't take any of the performing or the music too seriously. It's just about being together and having fun with our instruments on stage. It's just speaks to the joy that we bring to each other. And both of my bands have become my Vermont family here. It's also very cool to see so many St. Lawrence alumni just out and about at the shows too. And I think next weekend, there's a bill at the Radio Bean and all four bands are St. Lawrence folks.
Amelia: No way.
Megan: I love that.
That's so cool. And yeah, it's true. Special shout out to our Laurentians in Burlington. It's a really special community out there. That must be so fun though, to be able to share that love of music in that community as well.
Megan: Absolutely. Shameless Plug June 7th, we do have a reception out at Hula in Burlington. It's a venue that's owned by Russ and Roxanne Scully. So, we're super excited to get together with all of the Laurentians out in that area in just a couple months.
Danica: That sounds great. Maybe I'll be able to come on through.
Megan: I hope so. Bring the ukulele.
Danica: I should bring my fiddle maybe. That was just for fun exploration.
Amelia: Oh gosh. You're talking about these different bands that you're a part of and the different instruments, what is your favorite instrument of choice?
Danica: Well, I perform on the fiddle, and I love to harmonize and sing. So, I would say those are my main instruments. I love the banjo. I love electric guitar. I love the bass. I love any instrument because I see it as a tool to be curious and to be openhearted. So, I might not know all the chords to the banjo, but I'll play it. I'll figure out relationships between notes. I might hear a song that does have banjo on it, and I really want to learn just that song. So, I'll work towards learning just that. And that's the way I see music generally.
Amelia: Going back a little bit to music therapy and how impactful music is in people's lives and how personal it is. If you had to articulate what is the most rewarding thing for you as a music therapist, what would that be?
Danica: That's a really hard question. There's so much for me to be grateful about, and that is so rewarding in what I do. I think it's got to be seeing people having the courage to meet me where they're at and the courage to hit the drum just once. It's usually all it takes to really see someone emerge. I guess the best part is that music speaks to everyone in some way. And if I can create a space that feels safe enough and open enough that you can feel like you can be yourself and maybe take a risk and know that you are perfect just the way you are. That's what gives me the most joy just to see clients and showing up and being themselves and honoring me with being able to be present with them while they get to be themselves. It's really beautiful work because the smallest musical experience might shift someone's whole day or their whole outlook.
Danica: And we can build confidence through successful musical experiences. If verbal communication is the scariest thing in the world to you, I'm happy to practice that back and forth without talking. Might just be drumming back and forth and working on some of those social ideas for a long time, until that feels good. Then I get to see them push a little bit harder and maybe they'll vocalize with a song and maybe we'll start eyeing together. And how cool is that? That's a big step for that person. And then maybe they'll make a choice of they want this drum or a different instrument. So, it's really just a beautiful journey of facilitating individuals to be empowered to make their own choices and to live proudly and presently.
Megan: It's such a privilege to see people go through that journey.
Danica: It really is. And I get the best seat in the house because like I said, the music does the work. I graduated from Colorado State University for my gradual equivalency program. And there they specialize in neurologic music therapy. So, I got to take music therapy courses and neuro classes side by side. I was learning how the brain works on a very intimate level while learning how music fits into that. So, working with a lot of traumatic brain injury, rehabilitation and Parkinson's and stroke science and learning how there's no one spot in the brain that processes music, it activates both sides of the hemisphere of your brain. And it activates your motor cortex, your speech and language, memory, coordination, you name it.
Danica: Music has this neural network in your brain that is so rich. And now that we know more about neuroplasticity and neural neurons, we can apply that scientifically through scientific evidence-based practices to administer music rehabilitation. And you can see that these neural networks just working around a damaged area to rewire and to rehabilitate or to preserve those networks as long as possible depending on the diagnosis.
Megan: Wow. Can you use any type of music for that? The thing that's coming to my mind is I feel like you grow up hearing rap music or death metal, or like all these different genres and the effect they're having on the youth, et cetera, et cetera. Can you use all genres for this type of work or is anyone looking at how the classical violin versus the fiddle are interpreted by the brain?
Danica: Yeah. So, the most powerful thing about music choice in the music therapy world is the preferences of the client. If my client is in their 40s and they listen to heavy metal all throughout those really formative years of their early 20s, metal is going to be the thing that is really meaningful to them because there's so many associations to life experiences there. So, if we're working on something that is going to be addressing self-identity, self-expression, anything along those emotional self-areas, that's going to be really important.
Danica: However, if working on emotional regulation is what the goal is, then a client might be really heightened and really escalated. So, we might start some heavy metal, like meet them where they're at, ISO principle. And we're going to work our way down some really relaxing music that it might be like a distorted electric guitar, but the rhythm's going to be a lot slower. The busyness of the notes is there's going to be more space and we're going to really be trying to regulate the body.
Danica: So, it's all just based on the need. And music is so abstract and so versatile that I need to be able to see what that need is. Whether I'm reading bowl on IEP or from a case manager, I'm going to need to know what they want addressed, but I can't address any speech and language goals if we're really heightened right now. So, I need to be able to see that we need to deescalate and regulate before we can even think about attention or communication.
Megan: It's good to know that I will still be listening to Taylor Swift in 40 years because that's definitely been the soundtrack for a long time.
Amelia: There we go. It is so interesting thinking about how music impacts all of us. I think most people on this call know that I always cry at Christmas music because it's like for me in those formative years something that was really powerful. So, it's just interesting hearing about the cognitive reasons for why we react the way we do with music. Yeah. Super powerful. Super interesting.
Danica: So just knowing that you respond in that way to Christmas music, there's so many ways that we can look at that little nugget right there and try to expand upon it to create some more meaning around that. To be curious what's underneath that, how we can use it for tough times or for anything that might come up. And then of course, knowing how and why that's happening. It's just the groundwork for all the creative problem solving I get to do above that.
Amelia: Absolutely. Yeah. I mean, it's just you find these almost these little doors or windows into what makes people the way they are, it sounds like.
Danica: Exactly. Yeah. What inspires them or what is meaningful or what makes a response happen.
Amelia: For sure.
Megan: Is there a question that we don't know enough to ask or something that you wish people would ask about your work?
Danica: Well, if anyone who listened to this has someone in mind who might benefit from music therapy, that's going to be someone who like we talked about earlier, who's just behavior totally changes with the addition of music. If they're looking for a resource to explore music therapy in their town, the American Music Therapy Association is an incredible resource and there's a roster that breaks down by state different agencies or private practices that you can reach out to, to see if you can get some of those services. Because every day I get to tell people more and more about what I do.
Danica: And every day there's so many more referrals coming in. Especially during these times, there's a big need for just space and work around just being okay. And of course, that's going to look different for everyone. But music is translatable outside of the clinical space. It's accessible. You can just pop some earphones in if you don't have an instrument at home. So, it's really a functional and adaptable mode of therapy that can be on people's radar.
Megan: Thank you for sharing that.
Amelia: Yeah. And then I was curious if there's someone out there that was listening to this or had come across music therapy before and is really excited about that and wants to explore that more and maybe pursue a career in music therapy. What would you tell them?
Danica: I would say go for it. If you have a musical background or you don't, but want to work really hard to get that musical foundation, that's going to be step number one so that you can enter into these programs. Worldwide there's music therapy programs available at universities. I went through the Master's Equivalency Program, but there's also undergrad programs that you can start out as a freshman in. And there's amazing different schools of thought that come into play. Like I said, I came from the neurologic music therapy background, but there's behavioral music therapy, analytical music therapy. There's one called Bonny Method of Imagery. Nordoff Robbins is going to be more improvisational based. Just all these very cool schools of thought that make up our profession.
Danica: So, exploring what the different options are and just doing interviews, asking questions, reading up on the different programs and following your art on what feels right. I would highly recommend this for anyone who feels like they can be present with other people, and can problem solve in a creative way, because no one tells you how to do music therapy. They tell you what the tools are. You learn skills of how to be in a therapeutic relationship, but there's no prescription for specific things. You have to apply your knowledge and understanding of how music affects the brain and body. And then you have to apply your understanding of the diagnoses or the particular nature of the person you're working with. And you have to be able to meaningfully bridge those two together to facilitate those musical connections.
Megan: I don't know if we had started rolling yet, but in the beginning you referred yourself as a professional improviser. I just love that title.
Danica: Yeah. Always got to be on my toes and it's never a dull moment. Some of the clients I see I've been seeing for years, and I have a deep relationship with. Other settings, I see them once and that's it. So, it's really being able to adapt in the moment and if you've ever performed or done clinical work in any way that you might go in with a plan, but you have to be willing to adjust the plan, adapt to the plan and be ready for the curve falls because they will come and that's the best part. So that is why I get to have so much fun being the professional improviser.
Megan: Awesome. One question that I have that has nothing to do with musical therapy, but I'm just really curious about your insight. If you could put a billboard on Route 11 that had any message that you wanted to share with all the people driving down Route 11, what would it say?
Danica: You are enough as you are right now.
Megan: I love that.
Amelia: That's beautiful.
Danica: My private practice is called as you are music therapy. That's my philosophy, the wholeheartedly. So, I try to embody that in every decision I make, every interaction I have and every time I'm faced with a challenge, I try to come from that place of, wait a second. Everyone is already equipped with what they need. How can we find that together? How can we access those skills?
Amelia: Well, I think that's a great place to wrap up our conversation. Danica, I hope you had as much fun chatting with us as we did chatting with you and learning more about this. It's definitely making me want to go crack open my old piano books and find a way to fit a piano into my apartment. This was wonderful. Thank you.
Danica: And if anyone ever wants to reach out and talk to me personally, if they're interested in becoming a music therapist or have other questions, I'm totally open to that because that's what I believe in too, is sharing the knowledge and we tackled a big iceberg and we only hit the tip of it.
Amelia: What's the best way for people to contact you?
Danica: Yeah. So, if you want to reach me through the alumni association, that would be an awesome way to get in touch if you have any other questions.
Amelia: Awesome. Thank you, Danica.
Megan: Thank you so much.
Danica: Thank you.
Amelia: Well, there you have it. Our conversation with Danica Cunningham class of 2013. And I have to say as someone who has grown up around music, I absolutely love this conversation and Danica's joy with what she does was just infectious. What do you think, Megan?
Megan: I mean, like she said, we touched the tip of the iceberg in terms of the work that she does. And it was just so interesting to hear about the different ways that music affects the brain, the different ways that it builds relationship and communication. I know that I love listening to Spotify, but I didn't realize how much was going on behind that. So, it was really cool to learn a little bit about what she does in her day to day.
Amelia: Absolutely. And yeah, I feel like I now have to take a trip to Burlington and to listen to one of her bands. So, I better be looking at your calendar, Megan, for a road trip to Burlington.
Amelia: And all you Burlington based alumni out there, you should definitely be keeping an eye out for Danica's playing.
Megan: 100%. Let's go saints and let's go Worm Dogs.
Amelia: Awesome. Well, we'll see you next time on Scarlet & Brown Stories. Thanks everyone.
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Beth Dixon: Scarlet & Brown Stories is edited and produced by Amanda Brewer, Megan Fry Dozier, Dennis Morreale, Beth Dixon, and Amelia Jantzi.
Amelia: Our music was written by Christopher Watts inspired by Eugene Wright, class of '49.
Beth: Subscribe to Scarlet & Brown Stories on Apple podcasts, Spotify, and wherever you listen to podcasts.
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