One of the early video images the world saw of Gabrielle Giffords after last Jan. 8 showed her singing.
Her therapist was trying to get her to speak, but words weren't coming.
When she sang, though, her voice was clear and the words rolled off her tongue in near-perfect enunciation.
"Music has special powers. It has charm, but more than that it has medicine," said jazz pianist Jeffrey Haskell, a longtime University of Arizona music professor. "It has ways to excite parts of people's brains that just come alive, and it's very helpful in treating people, both people who are well and people who are damaged."
Music has been practiced as therapy since wounded soldiers returned from World War I. Therapists in veterans hospitals quickly embraced the notion of using music to reignite damaged areas of the brain. Unlike speech, controlled by the left side of the brain, music engages both sides of the brain. And because both sides of the brain are involved, music is ideal for reigniting the brain's spark plugs, said longtime Tucson music therapist Barbara A. Else.
"While a person who has had a traumatic brain injury immediately may not be able to retrieve a word … when we tap into music … in an area of the brain that controls rhythm and tempo, (the person) is able to retrieve those words," said Else, a senior adviser for research and policy with the American Music Therapy Association.
There are about 5,000 board-certified music therapists practicing in the United States today, the association says, but until recently, they have worked below the mainstream radar.
It's sad that it took an event like the Jan. 8 shootings to raise the profile of music therapy, Else said.
"It's easy to believe when you see a congresswoman and everyone knows her now and she's recovering … in part because of music therapy. Other things can be activated because of music," added musician Ben Folds, who will headline the Second Annual Concert for Civility at Fox Tucson Theatre on Jan. 15.
"Music therapy is an important tool that we're learning more and more about. And it's good to have a high-profile person who can point out the benefits of it," he said during a phone interview in late December. "It was a small good thing to come out of something horrible."
Folds has taken classes in music therapy and has agreed to testify in Washington, D.C., this spring on its benefits. He and other advocates believe Giffords can be the poster child for advancing music therapy as a medical tool that would be covered by health insurance. Else said music therapy is covered in part in some cases, but only to a small degree.
Folds and Haskell also hope that the spotlight shining on music therapy also shines on public school music-education programs, whose funding has been decimated in recent years.
"Music and arts education … is atrophying and is finding a hard time elbowing its way into the political discourse," Folds said. "I think what's happening is that people are far quicker to be interested and believe in the benefits of music therapy. There's a lot of emotional energy that people put into music education going away that is finding footing in music therapy."
"I think anybody who's a musician who has had a student - and I'm no expert - and can see the light in their eyes as they put together lyric and music and are able to deal with it, they realize that they are really getting at something," added Haskell. "The synapses go off, and you can see it in their eyes."
If you go
Second Annual Concert for Civility
• Featuring: Ben Folds, Calexico, Mariachi Luz de Luna, Salvador Duran, the Silver Thread Trio and Mitzi Cowell and friends with Sabra Faulk.
• When: 6:30 p.m. Jan. 15.
• Where: Fox Tucson Theatre, 17 W. Congress St.
• Tickets: $30 to $75 through www.foxtucsontheatre.org
• Et cetera: Proceeds benefit the Fund for Civility, Respect and Understanding, created by the family of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords' district director Ron Barber. Barber and Giffords were among 13 survivors of the Jan. 8, 2011, mass shootings that killed six.
Contact reporter Cathalena E. Burch at firstname.lastname@example.org or 573-4642.