Interview: Judy Anderson Castellano, certified music practitioner

13 December 2013

'Music has never lost its healing properties'

I work one-on-one with residents or with groups of people, to reduce stress levels, relax and encourage the mind, body, and soul to heal. I work with families, nursing staff, clergy, laypeople, chaplains, caregivers, and health-care providers, in homes, churches, in public, and in palliative care.

I'm also a 2008 graduate of the four-year Education for Ministry programme, from the University of the South at Sewanee, Tennessee, School of Theology, and from the three-year School of Spirituality programme at the Sisters of Mercy Center, Madison, Connecticut.

It's a loving occupation - an action shared with others at vulnerable times and cherished moments.

From upbeat and stimulating to quiet and reflective music, I serve all ages. They have many types of physical, emotional, cognitive, and spiritual needs.

There's no typical day for me. I'm a musician trained to provide an intentional presence and therapeutic music designed for specific conditions.

Last week, I was providing music for a group of women who all had dementia, some with oxygen, some stroke victims, all in wheelchairs. Marie came in disoriented, crashing into others and me, talking irrationally. Twenty minutes later. she sang her heart out, clear as a bell, telling others to join in, and directing me. The nurses' mouths were open in astonishment, as she hasn't been cognisant for months. In these types of sessions, speech can be tremendously improved.

I'm not a music therapist - they have a music degree, and provide teaching interaction using an instrument, and test patient skills.

We take clinical notes to record what happened during sessions, to assist with session-planning and share with those present. We can adapt our music by volume, beats per minutes, chords, or single notes, graduating up and down a scale, adjusting to the moment with different tempos and types of music, becoming attuned and more intuitive in the process.

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We must leave our own thoughts behind, and practise entering sessions grounded and at peace, in good times and for grieving families, and let compassion be our guide.

Before sessions, I pray as I design the music. When I arrive for a session, I pray: "Jesus, use me well today, help me be the best for them, help me step aside for you to heal." During a session I ask: "Show me, guide me," and afterwards I thank Jesus for the opportunity. I thank the person, reminding them to hum, sing, and listen to music that they love until next time.

Humming is one of my criteria for each session and myself. Results are amazing.

Any form of communication by hands, eyes, feel: that is our sole need - or soul need - when we're in a vulnerable state, or when we just want to be connected to others, and our animal friends as well. It is our soul's desire to be understood and cared for, to love and be loved.

One of the most difficult things is educating caregivers and administrators on the benefits of this type of therapeutic music, and the practitioner's intentional presence.

Scientific research has proved that vibration, certain sounds, music, and harmonies have a direct impact on body, mind, and spirit. We, and most creatures and plants, are mostly made up of water, which vibrates from within and outside our bodies. Our bones, muscles, organs receive a physiological impact, including our skin and hearing, and can be trained to relax and respond in a positive manner. This releases endorphins, serotonin, and melatonin - natural body chemicals that relax you, increase oxygen in the blood, and add dopamine to the brain.

It's actually an ancient practice, started by the first caregivers on the planet, then in convent and monastery infirmaries, which then became hospitals. These practices were abandoned when medicines were discovered to cure or lessen symptoms; yet music has never lost its healing properties.

This work is a calling and a ministry, and I love it - along with my beloved fretted dulcimers.

It's a lap or mountain dulcimer, from the Appalachians in the 1800s. I love its flowing shapes, which can play everything with only three or four strings. I prefer arpeggio, finger-picked styles, with some strums. I play my own compositions, hymns, classical, gospel, folk, and more - even the Beatles.

God led me to my first dulcimer in 1990. My Dad had contracted cardiomyopathy, and he'd always loved music, singing, and dance. I wanted to help his spirit as well as be one of his caregivers. I needed a portable instrument. The dulcimer's beautiful sound is like a melodic harp and guitar melded together. People always say "I love the sound, such soothing tone," even when I play jigs.

The most uplifting times are when I see or know that a person has been reached, and has begun feeling better on all levels. It may be a wink, smile, touch of a hand, speaking, a hug, a thank you: "That was beautiful." It's a blessing to know I have done some good in the world, been an instrument for Jesus even for a few moments.

I'd like to do as Jabez asked God: "Help me to expand my territory, that I may be helpful to others." Music attracts all and has always proved to have great influential power. I want to be part of the healing in the world.

I was brought up in the United States in the small town of Guilford, Connecticut, where I still live. We lived with both sets of grandparents. One set are Swedish farmers and crafters, the other city-oriented people. We're in an area of art, music, cultural, and historical venues, with forests and Long Island Sound, and just two hours from New York City.

I had so many people to love me as I learned the highs and lows of life. We were taught to be creative, to be team players, and to lead by teaching what we had learned. Now my family and close friends continue to share love with me.

The most important choice I have made is the decision to learn to love - both myself and others. My choice to follow my mother's example and be a church schoolteacher has brought me so much joy and love, teaching me more than I have taught to hundreds of children over 30 years.

One of my best-loved stories of the Bible is when the women apostles of Jesus find he is gone from the tomb, and they see and talk to him. I love Psalm 139, and historical information; but I don't usually think, "Maybe I'll read Leviticus tonight."

I regret not learning earlier in life to love myself as I do now. I would have made different choices. But we only learn and move onward when we are ready to listen to the teacher.

I'd like to be remembered for being a hope-filled, loving person, knowing that I could have done better at times. My gravestone will have the words I say when I take communion at St John's Episcopal every Sunday in North Guilford: "Thank you, Jesus, for your love."

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I have two women friends, now in their 80s: Joan Bates Forsberg, retired Dean of Students at Yale Divinity School; and Irene O'Day, a retired holistic nurse. I hope to grow up to be like them some day. I've also been drawn to St Teresa of Ávila, and St Hildegard von Bingen.

One of my favourite places has always been the seashore. All my senses are awakened as I watch and hear the ocean waves rhythmically shushing or crashing to and fro. Or give me a library or garden, and I'm in heaven.

If I get angry, it is usually about something I believe is unjust towards me or someone else, especially when happening to children, people in need, and animals.

I feel joy-filled and at peace when I notice what God is doing in my daily life, the everyday messages from those who don't even know they are being used by God for me, and when I'm laughing, creating music, dancing, holding a baby, being still, playing games, taking my walk, helping others, and being thankful.

Praying is like breathing. I pray in conversation with God, Jesus, and others for wisdom to grow in me.

As for somebody to be locked in a church with, I would definitely want to see Jesus in person. I have questions about his life he hasn't answered yet. But for today I would like to meet my great-grandmother, Maja Lisa Soderquist, and her sister Marta Kaisa, who raised Maja's son.

Judy Castellano was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

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