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Music is Medicine: Using Art Therapy to Repair Pathways in the Brain

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Music therapy to repair pathways in the brain
Photo: Courtesy of The Colburn School. 

In partnership with The Colburn School: Located in Downtown Los Angeles, the institute provides the highest quality performing arts education at all levels of development in an optimal learning environment.

Christine Blue was not expected to survive. After a car accident left the Cleveland area clarinetist in a coma, her doctors weren’t sure she’d even wake up, much less return to her new job as an elementary school band director. Finishing the graduate program in which she was enrolled at Case Western Reserve University seemed like an unattainable goal, and returning to her instrument seemed out of the question. 

When Robert McAllister heard about the accident, he presented a resolute dissenting opinion. “Your doctors are wrong,” he told Blue. "You’ll return to work. You’ll play again.”

McAllister joined Blue’s physical therapy team, which included Board Certified Music Therapists at Cleveland’s Music Settlement School, which he ran at the time, and, working on a hunch, started by “retracing the steps,” as he put it, of clarinet performance. Over 28 grueling weeks, McAllister and Blue worked to painstakingly build up her memory of playing the clarinet, note by note, scale by scale. 

The Colburn School community knows McAllister as dean of the Colburn Community School of Performing Arts, overseeing classes and instruction for nearly 2,000 students each year. “Teaching is a tremendous passion of mine,” he said, speaking from his Colburn School office on Grand Avenue in Downtown Los Angeles. “Passing on a love of music and a joy for playing is truly gratifying.”

Outside of Los Angeles, McAllister is known not only as a top performing arts education administrator -- last fall, the National Guild for Community Arts Education awarded him a 2014 Milestone Certificate of Appreciation in recognition of his 20 years of service to the field -- but also a pioneer in the field of music therapy for what he calls the reinstruction technique, the result of his painstaking work with Blue. His reinstruction technique relies on the idea of “neural plasticity,” which describes the way the brain changes how information is stored based on experience, education, or even injury. Music knowledge is not stored in a single area of the brain, McAllister said. Instead, the brain tucks away pockets of knowledge in various places. The music reinstruction approach helps stimulate the reconnection of disturbed brain cells and encourages the brain to create new pathways to the knowledge to replace more damaged pathways. 

McAllister’s approach to restoring musical competence creates moments of epiphany for patients. In Blue’s case, for example, relearning the scale created new brain paths that unlocked pockets of knowledge isolated by her accident. Now, she could regain free access to that previously learned information and use it readily as she played. “At one point in her lessons, I realized we could skip an entire lesson book because she’d suddenly regained so much information.”

Interestingly, while her knowledge of fingerings was lost, Blue retained her comprehension of rhythm and musical notation entirely. “Imagine how strange it is to have student who cannot play an E, but can describe for you the length of a dotted sixteenth note,” McAllister said. “You’re like a private investigator trying to find which information was lost. You have to be really patient.”

After seven months of lessons with McAllister, Blue regained 95 percent of her clarinet skills and played the first movement of Mozart’s clarinet concerto. Shortly thereafter, she returned to work.

McAllister knew this was an important discovery. With associate professor and Board Certified Music Therapist, Louise Steele’s participation, he created an overview of the reinstruction approach and process. Steele suggested sharing the preliminary document with Dr. Dale Taylor, a professor and music therapist she knew in Wisconsin who was an expert on brain function and plasticity. Taylor was enthusiastic about the process and the outcomes.

Robert McAllister receiving the Guild Milestone Award 2014
Robert McAllister receiving the 2014 Guild Milestone Award. |  Photo: Courtesy of The Colburn School. 

By this time, seven years had passed since McAllister first began work with Blue. He reached out to her to see how her continued recovery progressed. She was then teaching music education at one of the foremost public schools in the Cleveland area. McAllister asked if she would be interested in serving as a kind of spokesperson about this process, working with him, Steele, and Taylor on a more formal case study of her experience. She agreed.

McAllister’s reinstruction method has been presented at more than 15 schools and professional conferences since 2009. The core team continues to work with new patients, developing additional case studies for review, and identifying ways to expand their work to address a broader range of injuries and health problems. Following their July 2015 presentation in Madrid for the International Conference on Learning, they presented to the Music Teachers National Association conference in San Antonio in April. Pending future presentations include the UCLArts and Healing Conference at the University of California, Los Angeles in 2017.

Of this work, McAllister is deeply passionate. Along with his administrative duties and teaching, McAllister continues to build on his reinstruction work. “This is a quest for me,” he said, reflecting on the years of work he invested in the process. “I think it’s going to help a lot of people.”

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