Rewire Your Brain to the Beat: How Music Therapy Can Benefit the Neurodiverse, with Martha Summa | EDB 38


In this episode, Harold Reitman, M.D. speaks with educator, pianist, and music therapist Martha Summa. Martha discusses music’s ability to aid in the rewiring of brains via neuroplasticity, as well as her own amazing successes as a therapist.

For more about Martha, visit: MarthaSumma.com

And visit her organization, Music Therapy Gateway in Communications
visit:
MTGIC.org

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HACKIE REITMAN, M.D. (HR):

Hi welcome to another episode of Exploring Different Brains I’m Dr. Hackie Reitman and today we have the music therapist, music person of all time, all the way from Chattanooga, Tennessee, Martha Summa. Martha welcome!

MARTHA SUMMA (MS):

Thank you very much, pleased to be here.

HR:

Why don’t you introduce yourself to our Different Brains audience?

MS:

Well I’m an educator and a musician, most of my degrees are straight in music but I got interested in working with neurodiversity several years ago when I started working with several of the population in the autistic group here.

HR:

Well what types of neurodiversity to you see? Is it mostly autism or you have all different kinds of — I’m not a big one for labels by the way. But I want to give our audience an understanding because I just watched your very entertaining TEDx Talk and I learned a lot from that. And we here at Different Brains think that all of us have different brains and it’s not just autism or Asperger’s or PTSD or ADHD or any of the initials you can think of, it’s kind of all of the above. What are your thoughts on that and tell me about the kind of people that YOU inspire and help with your music therapy?

MS:

Well you know all of the above is actually very, very accurate on that and the interesting thing with the music that I work with when I’m working with these populations, I work with some techniques that were developed out of Colorado State called biomedical music techniques and what we do with this is we’re actually influencing non-musical areas of the brain with music, so that could be a person with autism, it could be a person who had a stroke, it could be a person with Parkinson’s disease. For instance, anybody who might happen to have a gate problem, you could use a particular technique to be able to work with their gate to a beat. So for instance you know if somebody is having a real problem walking because they’ve just recovered from a stroke but suddenly they hear, you know — they’re going to start to say “oh a beat, I can walk to that!” Now I have worked with children with autism who have a gate problem, I’ve worked with people with Parkinson’s who have a gate problem. So it’s really what you’re doing is you’re taking the music and helping it influence in non-musical tasks because everything is multi-hemispheric here in the brain when it comes to dealing with music, you can actually bypass and help kind of do some neuroplasticity and re-develop new stuff with the music.

HR:

Fascinating! And you know music, I mean there’s a reason music has been “so big” throughout history, and you can go into any walk of life and you would think at this point it would be common sense that we can use music as a real tool as a real weapon as something in our arsenal for those of us whose brains might be a bit different and yet you’re running — it seems sometimes that you’re running but people watch it and go, “What an a-ha moment you mean music really can affect how your brain gets wired?”

MS:

It really does. And you know when you stop to think about it intrinsically, we have rhythm going on in our body all the time. We have a heart rate going and our gate usually simulates what is going on with our heart rate and so we have this internal beat going on all the time and then when music — external auditory music is added to that, the body can do just amazing things with it and it’s not only motor, it could be motor, it could be speech, it could be cognition it could be a number of any things.

HR:

Well you know, it’s something I have observed over many years during my pro heavyweight boxing career, many of the champions could only train to music you know, either when they’re jumping rope or when they’re hitting a speed bag, anything, and it is that connection and we forget the way God makes your brain: you got the computer up here, then you got this big cable called the spinal cord goes down and that gives off wires and everything is enriched with this whole wiring network and if we just would grasp that neuroplasticity exists and you can rewire things, then you open up a lot of doors.

MS:

Yes, and the thing is there is no rhythm or music center in the brain, there’s auditory components in the brain, but rhythm is a part of what you were just saying the whole central nervous system, so you know various parts of the brain could have a problem and you can still use the rhythm.

HR:

Now you said something earlier, you talked about the different parts of the brain, different from — let’s just call it for a layperson such as myself because I’m only an orthopedic surgeon so this is, I’m not a neurosurgeon, but anyway the music center of the brain, where does that exist and how does that interact with the other parts of the brain from your point-of-view and I know for our audience even though Martha is very humble and modest, she has about 18 degrees, she’s a concert pianist, she’s done a million different things, tell our audience a little bit about your background and then tell us from your point-of-view the different parts of the brain as it relates to music.

MS:

Okay, well I started off just really in piano when I was starting my undergraduate education and the reason for that honestly, this will indulge how old I am was at the time that I was undergrad in the late 70s early 80s, music therapy was a social science, it wasn’t something that I was very interested in, it was kind of like, “I knew some music therapists that were, let’s play the guitar” you know kind of thing and there nothing specific about it and so then as I went through my career, and I had dual careers in computer design and processing also for a while, in the late 90s suddenly we had this wonderful thing called functional MRI that comes along and so the research can start being done to talk about, “oh now we can see exactly how the brain is reacting and responding to music and so with neuroscience entering the picture, I’m not a neuroscientist either, I’ve had to learn a lot of neuroscience terms to keep up with a lot of these things when I’m talking to people but neuroscience really made a big difference with being able to prove the evidence based and research based processes. So what they really found, the brain actually, and again it’s really there’s not a musical center in the brain, it’s all over the brain, music responds in many areas and so you can basically take a part of the brain like speech and when you’re dealing with a person who has lost the ability to speak and yet they can still sing. An example of that would be Gabby Giffords who was you know, the Congresswoman who was shot and that was horrible, but she learned to regain her speech through singing because it is multi-hemispheric. She was able to sing around the damaged part of the brain and re-direct the neural networks. So there’s really — most of the neuroplasticity in the brain, I think you can work with, with stroke, with autism, there are certain things such as Parkinson’s disease that are just degenerative enough that you cannot do neuroplasticity with, there’s a breakdown of a part of the brain called the basal ganglia and you can’t fix it, but you can make quality of life better — yeah give them an iPod that has a beat going to it and suddenly instead of having the stutter to the gate, they’ll just keep walking, they won’t get to a corner and not know what to do and just kind of freeze, they’ll keep walking. So there’s just so much that music can do.

HR:

Speaking of Parkinsonism, we’re going to be interviewing my friend Rasheda Ali who’s devoted a lot of her life to Parkinsonism, Muhammad Ali’s daughter, but there some boxing training programs now such as the Rock Steady at Gleason’s Gym in New York for Parkinsonians where it’s again, it’s incorporating rhythms but it’s incorporating the movement selectively to get the patters going and to overcome. Now singing also has been known for stuttering?

MS:

Yes, yes

HR:

And Tourette’s so it overlaps. Now what is the name of your not-for-profit organization?

MS:

My non-profit is called Music Therapy Gateway in Communications, MTGIC for short and it’s mtgic.org that my website is and my personal website is marthasumma.com.

HR:

And what other ways can people get ahold of you besides the not-for-profit website and the marthasumma.com?

MS:

Well I’ve got contact pages actually on all of those websites so they can get a hold of me there. The other thing they can do is send me an email and that is summa@marthasumma.com. That’s the best way to get ahold of me. I’m not a big phone person so I tend not to answer my phone.

HR:

And you’ve probably are smart enough to have graduated Summa Cum Laude whereas I graduated Johnny-come-lately. How do you like living in Tennessee?

MS:

You know I really enjoy it. I’m a native from Massachusetts and so I’ve been down in Tennessee now since 1992 and I will confess every once in a while I still have a little bit of “oh that’s right I’m not in Massachusetts here,” but it’s a beautiful, beautiful state, wonderful people, very loving people and it’s a really nice place to be.

HR:

Where were you from in Massachusetts?

MS:

A little town outside Worcester; Paxton Massachusetts.

HR:

Oh, okay. One of the best years of my life I spent living with the children that was then called The Shriner’s Hospital for Crippled Children in Springfield, Mass.

MS:

Oh, okay.

HR:

Yeah nice part of the world there. And Tennessee the people are wonderful there, very nice and I once had a fight at the Bristol Speedway where the three states meet, but I can’t tell you which three states. Now what are the biggest roadblocks you run into when you’re teaching people, like I watched your TEDx talk which was great by the way and what are some of the roadblocks you run into when you’re trying to communicate your message of music and the brain?

MS:

Well from a standpoint of actually working with the kids involved with it as far as the one on one, some of the roadblocks involve behavioral elements, so for instance if you get a kid just saying “no, I’m not going to do it,” well you know clearly there’s a problem there. And so I’ve actually had to do some work with behavioral elements of working, finding out how all of that works. From a corporate standpoint of the problems, honestly a lot of it has been that I think the background of a lot of this in the 90s and going into 2000s is that everyone was saying, “I’m doing my own thing, I’m doing my own thing, you can’t do what I’m doing,” and I’ve come to the point now of realizing that you know what I don’t care how much I know, a neuroscience person is going to know more about the brain than I do, and an educator is going to know more about behavioralism than I do and you know all of this the music therapists are going to know more specifics on the techniques than I do and it takes all of us working together. I’ve gotten to the point of realizing, and I think we’re just getting there. I think you know people are realizing “oh, okay you know just because such and such isn’t a therapist, well we can incorporate that into a physical therapy session, and breaking down the walls of domains and really having people work together, I think is the big thing right now.

HR:

I think what you just said, so eloquently is a big takeaway from me, and it really goes through the whole neurodiversity community, why can’t we all just get along and work together and use what the others, who are tilling in their field can bring to us all together and share that, and that is actually what we’re trying to do at differentbrains.com and we would welcome any blogs on music therapy you’d like to write because you’ve cleary devoted your whole life to this and it’s amazing from everything about music, it makes so much sense to you and you are able to articulate it, how it is in the brain and how all of our brains can benefit.

MS:

Yes, yes, and even neurotypical people can benefit from music, I mean the growth that music has in the brain of neurotypical people is astounding also, because you see they’ve done a lot of experimentation on musicians to see what’s going on in the musicians brain in order to get all of this research done and found things like the auditory and the motor components of the brain tend to hardwire in musicians. You know I can be looking at a piece of music, not hear a thing, but I’m hearing the music in my head. I’m hearing it internally. So you have all of these changes that go on just by the simple act of working with music, you know with all different populations.

HR:

Can you give our audience just an example of two of some of your most memorable cases?

MS:

One of my real memorable cases, I actually talked about it in the TED Talk, and it was a little girl who was born with, oh just all kinds of problems. Her mother was a drug addict and she had hydrocephalus, and she was considered legally blind and deaf and she just had a host of problems but her physical therapist when she was three years old called me up and said, “Hey Martha can you come down here and look at this?” and I went down and this little girl, they had found an old piano there, and this little girl who couldn’t see and couldn’t here and started just finding all of the F’s on the piano which you know there’s a lot of different notes on the piano and to be able to just pick those up and it was astounding. She’s very medically fragile but I was able to start working with her a couple of years later and she did amazingly, amazingly, but it was like her cognition growth spurt was so wonderful that all of a sudden she had a seizure, it was awful for all of us and they put her in hospice and she was six or seven years old at this point and it was just devastating and her doctors said, “well there’s nothing more we can do” well you know what caused the seizure, what really happened?

Well they found out her oxygen levels weren’t really doing well and so is that another missing piece or is it because she sits like this all the time and she’s not getting all the air she needs to get? And so the doctors gave us permission to work with her and we had her playing drums so she had to reach out and open up, expand the chest, all of this, we had her playing the harp, she had to reach out and do that, we had her starting to sing, and the singing was astounding. The singing seemed to open everything up, and the more she sang, the more her oxygen levels came up. Her oxygen levels came finally about 90%, then they came up above 95%, the girl was out of hospice. She’s still medically fragile, but because she was singing, and she was doing all of this and getting all of this wonderful capacity going; it saved her life. The music literally saved her life, so you know it can really do some amazing things, it really can.

HR:

Well that is a great and heartwarming story and on that note, I think we’re going to finish up here. This has been a great and educational experience for me here and I want to thank you for coming on Exploring Different Brains. We’ve been talking with Martha Summa and you can get in touch with Martha at marthasumma.com and also through her organization, want to repeat the name of the organization Martha?

MS:

Sure it’s Music Therapy Gateway in Communications and the website mtgic.org.

HR:

Okay, that’s great. Thank you so much for taking the time to be with us Martha, keep up the great work you’re doing there in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

MS:

Thank you very much, thanks for having me on!

 

 

This video is owned by Different Brains Inc, kindly donated by it’s original producer PCE Media LLC.

Author Image
Dr. Harold “Hackie” Reitman is the founder of DifferentBrains.com. He is an entrepreneur, philanthropist, children’s activist, retired orthopaedic surgeon, and a former professional heavyweight boxer. He who currently serves as the CEO of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based PCE Media, LLC, the multi-platform production company he founded in 2004. Dr. Reitman wrote, executive produced and co-directed the full-length independent film, “The Square Root of 2” (starring Darby Stanchfield of ABC’s “Scandal”), and is the author of the book “Aspertools: A Practical Guide for Understanding and Embracing Asperger’s, Autism Spectrum Disorders and Neurodiversity” from HCI Publishing. He also hosts the DifferentBrains.com interview show “Exploring Different Brains.”
Author Image

Harold Reitman, M.D.

Dr. Harold “Hackie” Reitman is the founder of DifferentBrains.com. He is an entrepreneur, philanthropist, children’s activist, retired orthopaedic surgeon, and a former professional heavyweight boxer. He who currently serves as the CEO of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based PCE Media, LLC, the multi-platform production company he founded in 2004. Dr. Reitman wrote, executive produced and co-directed the full-length independent film, "The Square Root of 2" (starring Darby Stanchfield of ABC's "Scandal"), and is the author of the book "Aspertools: A Practical Guide for Understanding and Embracing Asperger’s, Autism Spectrum Disorders and Neurodiversity" from HCI Publishing. He also hosts the DifferentBrains.com interview show “Exploring Different Brains.”

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