It isn’t unusual for Joan Kleinmann to ask group members in her music therapy sessions to rewrite lyrics or share a meaningful song. She’s a board certified music therapist with HopeWay, a nonprofit mental health treatment facility in Charlotte.
“Music therapy is the clinical and evidence-based use of music interventions to work on individual goals,” said Kleinmann, 35. “We work on cognitive, physical, emotional and social needs through music.”
Kleinmann facilitates 11 music therapy sessions a week at HopeWay’s 20-acre campus in South Charlotte. She is the only full-time music therapist on staff.
Music therapy is one of several integrative therapies, treatments that combine various styles of psychotherapy, offered to patients at HopeWay. Others include art, health and wellness, horticulture, mindfulness and meditation, recreation and yoga.
“The goal is not to make this person a better piano player or a better singer,” Kleinmann said. “The goal is to use music to help them have a safe place to express their thoughts and feelings.”
A session runs between 60 and 90 minutes. Kleinmann begins with a check-in to see how people are feeling. It may be a musical prompt meant to make everyone feel comfortable. She may ask group members about the first concert they attended or talk about the first album they owned.
“It’s really fun to see people open up,” she said.
After the warmup, Kleinmann pairs a song with one of 16 rotating lessons.
She may discuss acceptance with The Beatles’ “Let it Be,” coping skills with Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge over Troubled Water,” or self-esteem with Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World.” She gives the group time to process the experience by asking questions.
Sometimes instruments such as bells, drums, shakers and tambourines are added into the mix.
“(We have) instruments where you don’t need any experience in order to play them,” Kleinmann said. “The goal is to help their self-esteem and make them succeed, not give them something they can’t learn within the hour.”
Merging music and medical
Kleinmann, a Charlotte native, is proficient in voice, guitar and piano. She graduated from UNC Greensboro with a therapeutic recreation degree in 2007, and received her second bachelor’s in music therapy from Queens University of Charlotte in 2009.
After graduation, she interned with Fairfax County Schools in Virginia then coordinated the recreational therapists in a retirement community in Richmond. In 2012, Kleinmann returned to Charlotte to work in Behavioral Health at Novant Health Presbyterian Medical Center. She started with HopeWay when it opened in 2016.
Her father is a doctor, plays the piano and composes and writes lullabies. Her mother is a nurse, and her older sister plays jazz flute professionally. But it wasn’t until she researched music therapy for a senior exit project at West Charlotte High School that she decided on it as a career.
“I knew I wanted to make music, but I also wanted to help people,” Kleinmann said. “I wondered if music therapy was a thing. I didn’t think anything like it existed, but then I did my research and found out music was being used to help people therapeutically. It was that project that led me on this career path.”
Although music has been used to soothe people for centuries, it wasn’t until the 1940s that the music therapy profession emerged.
The first degree program started at Michigan State University. Today, the American Music Therapy Association represents more than 9,000 board certified music therapists including 221 in North Carolina. Appalachian State University, East Carolina University and Queens University of Charlotte offer music therapy education and training programs in the state.
“Music therapists may work, depending on their sub-specialties, from cradle to grave ranging from premature infants as an advanced practice sub-specialty to palliative and hospice care,” said Barbara Else, a credentialed music therapist and consultant with the American Music Therapy Association. Other groups may including people who are hospitalized, have mental health issue, autism or dementia.
Lauren Morse, owner of Curious Kind Designs in Charlotte, met Kleinmann last year when she was a patient at HopeWay. Morse’s experience with post-traumatic stress disorder made her feel disconnected from herself, and Kleinmann’s music therapy sessions helped her regain that connection.
“It helped me with expression and understanding,” said Morse, 31. “It gives you a space to be vulnerable without having to fully own it. It’s like a gentler way of getting out some of the dark and difficult things.”
When Morse shared a song from her playlist or dissected lyrics, it allowed others to see her pain when she didn’t have the words to explain it. The process also helped her relate to others within the group.
“I think music tends to be this thing that connects with some people when they feel incredibly alone,” she said. “It’s like somebody else out there is letting you know that you are not really alone.”
“We need connection as human beings, and life can feel particularly lonely for those struggling with mental illness,” Morse said. “Music allows us to make a connection with a complete stranger, the artist, and it helps put difficult feelings into words, letting us know that we are not alone.”
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