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Business Profile

Center for Music Therapy

Colorful and intriguing instruments line the walls of the large, calming room. Outside, it’s a brilliant fall day in East Spokane, full of shining color with a touch of cool settling into the air. Inside the music space, a smiling 9th grader named Breanna is getting to work. Or by the way she giggles with each accomplishment or flourish of movement, she’s getting to play. 

Very productive play. 

“Music Therapy is a relationship built through music in order to effect positive change in someone’s life,” explains Kim McMillan, after leading an intricate percussion game to the upbeat pop music her client clearly likes. 

It’s clear McMillan has delivered this definition hundreds of times over more than two decades studying and practicing in the field, but she says it with passion for one reason: she sees those positive changes up close with each client she serves. Like many (but not all) of of Kim’s clients, Breanna is growing up with a developmental disability. But through her weekly sessions, the Central Valley student is achieving physical, cognitive, and emotional benefits and milestones through music, one of humanity’s oldest therapeutic tools. 

Now holding tribal hand drums and soft mallets, Kim and Breanna walk across the room, facing one another: one pacing forward and one backward. One strikes the other’s drum, held out like a boxing coach’s pad, while taking a big, pronounced step. Then it’s the other’s turn. They continue to keep the beat in this way, making their way across the room, trying not to lose the beat. They make eye contact. They move all of their bodies, concentrating on their rhythmic task. They laugh when they succeed, and laugh harder when they fail. They are together, interacting in a way that is clearly different from all of Breanna’s other human interactions. 

Kim explains some of the science behind the 75-year-old field of music therapy in the US. The drum exercise is designed to help Breanna’s brain “cross the midline.” By moving her arms across her body to strike Kim’s drums on the opposite side, Breanna is helping her brain’s hemispheres develop better coordination. Kim also explains the rhythmic, musical quality of so many life skills: walking, talking, looking, communicating. When skills like speech aren’t coming in the traditional way, often music therapy unlocks another way to achieve them. Breanna speaks very quickly, but the deliberation of the beat is constant. She doesn’t have to explain the art of what she’s doing. That’s just something to behold and engage with and understand: there is clear relational value of being with Breanna in an entirely unique way, slowly coaxing her into growth and development, as a good therapist of any kind does. 

Soon it is time for the Goodbye Song. Breanna sits next to Kim on the piano bench, participating with improvisational additions to the sweet song Kim is singing, a song that communicates her appreciation for the time spent together, a song that lovingly values Breanna and each client who hears it. Hearing the song, it’s impossible for me not to think of Mr. Rogers.

Later in the day, Liam, a much younger client with Autism Spectrum Disorder, has had a fun and productive session, but now he wants to hide, sitting under the piano. When Kim plays the Goodbye Song’s opening chords, something in Liam is captivated. Slowly, he edges toward her, and crawls up from his hiding place. Soon, he’s sitting next to Kim, fully engaged and open to her, adding his little additions on the high keys each time she softly prompts, “Your turn.” 

He plays his part, and then he beams. Liam is communicating and connecting with Kim, and anyone watching can tell that the connection does him immeasurable good.