When Music is the Medicine

By Catherine Gilbert

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Dr. Johanne Brodeur works with seven-year-old music therapy student Elias in a studio at the Victoria Conservatory of Music. Photo: Catherine Gilbert

When music is your métier but you love to help people, how do you combine the two to make a career? Dr. Johanne Brodeur found the answer when she began to study music therapy, which has evolved into her profession of 38 years.

Johanne was introduced to the idea of giving people with special needs a helping hand while growing up in Quebec. Her parents, who owned a hotel, hired people with special needs to work there and her own mother was disabled from an accident. She credits growing up in the hospitality business as part of the reason she is so outgoing and imbued with a strong work ethic.
Music was also a big part of her world during her formative years. Her parents exposed her to classical music at a young age and she had an aunt who was an opera singer. By the time she was three years old, she was already taking piano lessons.
Johanne pursued music formally and eventually graduated with a BA in music performance. At that point, she, like many others her age, asked herself, “What will I do with my life?” Performance wasn’t quite satisfying – she was also fascinated by science, and had considered teaching. The answer lay south of the border, and she left Quebec in the 1970s to study in San Rafael, California, where she first earned a Master’s degree in Holistic Health. She then went on to study music therapy under Dr. Arthur Flagler Fultz, a founding member of the National Association of Music Therapy, the organization responsible for creating the designation RMT (Registered Music Therapist).

Today, equipped with a PhD in Health Science, Music and Music Therapy, Johanne is head of both the Music Therapy and the Early Childhood Music Departments at the Victoria Conservatory of Music (VCM).

“I have the best job in the world,” she says.

The road to getting there had its challenges, and it is a credit to Johanne’s determined nature that she succeeded in establishing a music therapy program in Victoria. When she first arrived, she contacted the hospital to inquire if she could offer music therapy to patients. She was told that the idea was interesting, but she would need a sound-proof room as they didn’t want the hospital disrupted by the sound of drums or a piano.

Next, Johanne contacted the VCM, and was told “You are a health professional, you can’t work here; this is a music school.” The Director at that time, Denis Donnelly, however, thought it was a good idea to introduce music therapy to the VCM. Beginning with just one client in 1993, the program has grown to 1,900 participants.

Music therapy, according to the Conservatory website, is “the skillful use of music as a therapeutic tool to restore, maintain and improve mental, physical and emotional health.” Studios are equipped with hundreds of instruments including grand pianos, large percussion instruments, balls and electronic equipment including keyboards and computers, as well as a unique program called Soundbeams 5, which transforms movements into sounds, so that anyone, regardless of their physical challenges, can play instruments.

To determine treatment, Johanne points out there is no single approach or fixed formula that applies to every client.

“I don’t see a person with Down’s Syndrome,” she says. “I see an individual with various needs, then, I have to be creative to connect.”  She explains that the relationship with the participant grows on different levels; both personally and musically. Johanne strives to create a bond with those she is treating and to create an atmosphere of trust and respect.  

To date, she has been the recipient of the two most prestigious music therapy awards in Canada; the Franni Award and the Norma Sharpe Award.  Another marker of her success is that the music therapy program she developed in Victoria has now expanded to Nanaimo.  

At 57, Johanne is vibrant and energetic, and her passion for her profession and for life clearly shines through. To balance the hours and dedication she devotes to her professional life, she is an avid tennis player, hitting the courts three to four times a week, and she loves to hike.
She spends a good deal of her time raising awareness about music therapy, lecturing and connecting with organizations such as school boards and elder care facilities. The program relies in large part on donations, and to keep it going, Johanne fundraises relentlessly.

“I believe,” she says, “in the powerful nature of music and the crucial impact it has on our minds, emotions and souls.”  

To find out more about the music therapy program at the Victoria Conservatory of Music, visit their website at www.vcm.bc


may 2017 INSPIRED senior living


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