As an undergrad, Mandi Jo Miller met a music therapist in a bar: “I had no idea that job even existed.”
Mandi Jo Miller wasn’t looking for a new career when a chance meeting redirected her path in life on New Year’s Eve in 2008.
“I met a music therapist in a bar,” says Miller. “I was finishing up my undergrad in voice at the University of Northern Iowa. Before I met her, I had no idea that job even existed. I really wanted to get a master’s degree and I did some research and decided to go for it.”
She works with all kinds of clients.
Mandi Jo Miller
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“I’ve been practicing for almost four years, and the story is different with every population I work with — when it’s autistic children, there are very specific goals that you need to try and hit — it’s a very long-term process. I’ve also worked with babies in the neo-natal intensive care unit, where research shows you can help regulate their vital signs by manipulating tempo and volume. When that works, you can see it happening. And I love working with older adults, many of whom have dementia or Alzheimer’s. I use music from their era — a lot of ’30s and ’40s. I use stuff that is familiar to them. They smile. They don’t feel confused. That’s gratifying, but it’s important to remember that it doesn’t always work. People respond to music therapy in varying degrees.”
Sometimes the bonds she creates with clients make the inevitable goodbyes tough to weather.
“I am so sad right now because one of my contracts with a memory-care-center just ended and I really loved doing that work. Sometimes they would really be down — some of them would be crying. But when I would start singing songs from their youth, they would remember and join in. For a moment, they forget what was bothering them and there’s a transformation that you can see. When I can make that happen, it feels like I am making a difference.”
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Miller encounters a fair amount of skepticism in her line of work, though.
“Probably the worst part of it is trying to convince people that music therapy is a real thing — some people don’t believe it. But it’s really amazing what can happen — I’ve seen it first-hand.”
Miller also performs non-therapeutically on the fourth Friday of every month at Pardon My French in University Heights.