Using Music Therapy to Create Human Connection during COVID-19

October 9, 2020

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Grafton has worked hard to make the adjustments necessary to keep clients and staff safe while continuing to provide critical services.  We are lucky to have wonderful partners on whom we can rely during this challenging time – partners like music therapy provider, A Place to Be.

A Place to Be and Grafton

Founded in 2011 by Tom Sweitzer and Kim Tapper, A Place to Be creates innovative music therapy projects in response to community needs. Its programs range from summer camps and social groups to a stroke choir and music therapy in Inova hospitals. It also produces musicals, including one about teen suicide prevention in schools.


“Music therapy helps (the youth) in different ways that they couldn’t express without feeling judgment. Music is the language that everyone understands.” – Marcy Blandon, Grafton Clinical Case Manager


Since 2017, A Place to Be (APTB) has provided music intervention at the Loudoun County Youth Shelter. The APTB team works both in groups and with individuals on songwriting and recording, live music production, improvisation, and lyric analysis. And we’ve seen first-hand, through our clients, what a  therapeutic tool music can be!

One young man with Autism Spectrum Disorder worked with APTB to analyze lyrics for some of his favorite songs. Through this process, he discovered how the artists were able to express strong emotions using both words and intonations. He was able to apply this realization to his own interactions in a very powerful way. Previously, he could be very reactive based on misperceiving what someone was saying to him. Through his experience with APTB, he learned to better interpret someone’s communication based on not just their words, but also their tone of voice.

What is Music Therapy?

Music therapy is different from just listening to, or playing music. A trained and licensed music therapist uses evidence-based practices to support clients who may have any of a long list of types of challenges.

(Editor’s note, if you want to see a music therapist in action, you might want to watch this video of Grafton’s own Frederika Dooley-Brown. Just like the team from APTB, she’s pretty special!)

The evidence base for music therapy is large and growing. As science continues to work to understand the complexities of mental illness, an overview of the research on music therapy consistently shows its effectiveness.


“Music is an ideal way to help children self-regulate and soothe as it creates a middle ground between over-arousal and numbness and helps the child to experience a state of stability” (Montello 1990).


In addition, music therapy is a nonthreatening treatment. This is especially relevant to individuals served by Grafton, many of whom experience complex disabilities that may include Autism, developmental disabilities, trauma, and psychiatric illness.


“Music therapy is ideally suited to help fill (the) gap” in addressing trauma responses for individuals with developmental disabilities (Hussey, 2003).


Throughout the pandemic, APTB has been incredibly creative in helping people maintain human connection and reduce loneliness. Beginning in mid-March, music therapists rapidly pivoted from providing therapy in person to supporting its 190 clients and families through teletherapy. At the Loudoun County Youth Shelter, music therapists used physical materials to assist focus. For example, Music Bingo was used as a warm up activity to ease clients into the session. In addition, the APTB team was very responsive to the different ways that the youth processed their feelings about the abrupt shut-down of school and the stay-at-home restrictions. One way they did that was by having clients create art while listening to music as a way to help them express complex emotions.

APTB also developed “The Land of Music,” an original live action and animated program, available on its YouTube channel. These short videos are aimed to help “young children (ages pre K-fifth grade) understand the world we live in today” with COVID-19.

You can learn more about this truly inspiring organization when the documentary, Music Got Me Here, is released later this fall. The film is the story of co-founder Tom Sweitzer, and his work with Forest, a young man who suffered a traumatic brain injury and gradually regained speech through singing patterns. I will definitely be watching this one!

With so many difficulties facing our community during the pandemic, it’s heartening to see APTB create innovative ways to support Grafton clients. I am so grateful for APTB’s partnership and I look forward to the next creative solution from this outstanding local provider.