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Music Student to Music Therapist: An Interview with Hannah Oakes

Meet former Mason Music student, Hannah Oakes, MT-BC, NMT! Hannah is a certified neurologic music therapist who’s been combining music with healing. She’s also the founder of Rooted Music Therapy, a new practice bringing music therapy to patients’ homes all over the city of Birmingham, Alabama. In our interview, Hannah shared about her journey from music student to music therapist, what exactly music therapy is, her most memorable moment clinically, and advice for those considering a career in music therapy.

This is a photo of a Hannah: a friendly, smiling white woman with brown hair. Hannah is seated and playing an acoustic guitar. Hannah is also seen wearing a tee shirt, featuring her practice Rooted's logo.

For those who don’t know you, can you describe yourself and share about your relationship to Mason Music?

Hannah: I started off playing guitar with Mason Music in middle school after not making the soccer team. After a while my guitar teacher suggested I should learn how to sing and play at the same time. I had never considered singing… ever. I thought that sounded horrible, but I listened to her and I started taking voice lessons with Mason Music, too, and I finally started singing while I played guitar!

When I was in 9th or 10th grade, I started thinking about what I wanted to major in in college. I knew I wanted to help people, because I grew up volunteering at nursing homes and camps for adults with disabilities. There, I heard the term “music therapy” one day and I thought, “what is that? That sounds awesome!”. I started Googling it and realized you can actually major in music therapy. So, I knew as a sophomore in high school that I wanted to be a music therapist. I knew I needed to learn piano to be able to do that, so I worked with Mason Music taking piano, guitar, and voice. Knowing I’d need to learn music theory in college, my Mason Music teachers would add theory into our lessons. I was all in at Mason Music!

After I graduated from Mountain Brook, I went to Alabama and studied music therapy, then I did my internship at UAB hospital. There, I started specializing in neurologic music therapy, which is an extra certification that is based on how music changes the brain and body function. From there, I started working at an in-patient rehabilitation facility here in Birmingham.

You’re no longer working in-patient rehabilitation since starting your own practice. What inspired you to start Rooted Music Therapy?

Hannah: I started realizing that no one was offering this service in people’s homes in Birmingham and there’s so much benefit, especially for people with Parkinson’s who want to work on the way they walk or their speech intelligibility at home, and not wait until they have to go to the hospital. I never thought I’d start my own business – that sounded horrible to me – but people kept asking “how can I get this at home?” and “how can I get music therapy for my child who has a developmental disability?”. So, that’s how Rooted Music Therapy came about. I realized this is a need and this kind of scares me, yet sometimes doing things that scare you is good. It’s kind of cool, because Mason Music started by going to people’s homes, too!

Hannah can be seen crouching down to the ground, talking, and holding a small child's hands, as if to help the child up from a seat.

So, what exactly is music therapy? 

Hannah: This is more than me singing to people! I’m working on helping someone walk better, or learning to talk after a stroke, or working on memory if they have Alzheimer’s.

Music therapy is where we’re using music and instruments to accomplish non-musical goals. I’m not trying to make someone the next Mozart. You might see me on a piano with someone, but I might be working on fine motor skills or attention control. Music therapy is provided by a board certified music therapist. A lot of people don’t realize how much training and education we have. It’s a four year degree, then you have to do a six month internship, then you have to sit for a board exam. Then, you have to maintain your board certification to practice. Everything is research based. We have research articles that back all of the interventions that we do.

One thing that people are always interested in is what kind of music I use. A lot of people think that it’s just classical. Research shows that a patient’s preferred music is going to get the best outcome, so I do everything from rock to rap to hip hop to old country. I’ve done Lil Wayne and I’ve done Merle Haggard. Really anything that the patient likes, I adapt to work in their intervention. And it’s live – most of our interventions are live. Live music really resonates with people. I’ll have patients’ families say, “oh yeah, well, I played her favorite song on the radio and she didn’t really have much of a response”, but then I come in with a guitar, singing, and when it’s this live music intervention, there’s a completely different response.

Another cool thing – you don’t even have to be musical to benefit from music therapy! That’s another thing. People are like, “well, I don’t play an instrument” or “I can’t carry a tune in a bucket”. Well, your brain still processes music and loves it! You can still benefit from it.

Can you explain neurologic music therapy?

Hannah: Neurologic music therapy is a system of interventions that are based on the way music affects the brain and the body. Music stimulates neural growth in the brain. That’s really the number one thing. We can use music to help the brain rewire and build new connections after a brain injury, after a stroke. Maybe someone has Alzheimers and isn’t super interactive, but when you start playing their favorite type of music the lights “turn on”. That’s their brain engaging and soaking up the music!

I really work on anything that OT, PT, and speech do. For example, motor tasks, like helping someone walk better by using the beat of a song; cognitive tasks, such as using music interventions to help restore someone’s memory or working on attention control; and then speech. There are a lot of really cool videos showing someone singing after a stroke, but they can’t talk. Music is a full brain activity, so a lot of times, people are able to sing before they speak.

I’ll use singing interventions, like filling in lyrics of familiar songs, to help those neurons in the brain rewire. Eventually, we can start singing functional phrases, like “I need to use the bathroom”, then move to speaking it. I work with neurologic, but it’s not limited to that. I also have a big passion for helping people with pulmonary disease, too. I use a harmonica, because when you blow in a harmonica, it builds resistance for your diaphragm and lungs, slowly strengthening them.

This image shows Hannah focused and working with an elderly female patient who is a wheelchair user. Hannah and her patient are using bells to play the eye of the tiger.

Are there any particular success stories or memorable experiences as a music therapist you’d like to share?

Hannah: When I worked in the ICU, I’d see patients who had just had their stroke. You walk in and the family says the patient can’t talk. There was one man, probably in his 50s, and I started singing “sweet home…” and I left it blank, and he sang, “Alabama”. Seeing his family’s faces, their eyes filled with tears, and the patient’s too, realizing he had hope. He spoke, the words came out, and it made sense, versus not being able to say anything. I’ve had so many moments like that and that’s what is so special – helping people say their first word after a stroke.

What advice do you have for students interested in pursuing a career in music therapy?

Hannah: The biggest thing is if you are pursuing it, a music major is so hard, but so worth it when you get through. I remember being in theory III and being like, “Is this worth it? Theory is horrible!”. Looking back now, it totally was worth it. It totally is! I think the biggest thing is knowing that it’s a hard, hard journey and a lot of people don’t realize it, but it’s worth it in the end.

This image is Rooted Music Therapy's logo, which features a tree with an extensive collection of roots.

To learn more about Rooted Music Therapy, click here to visit their website. You can also connect with Hannah and Rooted Music Therapy on Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn.

If you’re ready to start your music journey at Mason Music, like Hannah, click here to sign up for lessons.