WVU Partnership Aims To Fill Gap in W.Va. Music Therapy Education


There has been a surge in the practice of using music as a medical treatment during the past 10 years. In fact, Pennsylvania has the highest number of music therapists in the country, at around 400. But there are only eight in West Virginia. A new program at West Virginia University is trying to change that.

Dena Register is the new professor of music therapy at WVU. She says she has worked with a variety of patients, from helping children with Autism Spectrum Disorder communicate better to helping hospice patients manage pain.

One of the examples Register uses with her students is a patient she treated in Thailand with cerebral palsy. Although compliant with his physical therapist, he showed little motivation during his treatments. With this in mind, Register brought music into his regular physical therapy session.

“He was almost five but he couldn’t sit up by himself, he needed a lot of physical support. And so she was doing his exercises with him and he was laying there but he also wasn’t initiating a lot of the movements. So we added music to what the physical therapist was directing,” Register said. “She was stretching his leg up and then stretching it out. So what we did was put a drum at the bottom of it so that when his leg came down, it hit the drum. And he was very motivated by that! So we went from her really guiding him to him initiating hitting that drum with his foot.”

Register says that on that particular day, his therapy session went much longer than normal and instead of thinking about how exhausted he was from standing, he engaged in making music.

Music therapists can work in a variety of locations, such as hospitals, rehab facilities, schools, prisons and assisted-living facilities.

Shortage of W.Va. Therapists

Amy Rodgers Smith is a music therapist who works with clients in northern West Virginia from Morgantown to Parkersburg in her private practice, called On A Better Note. She says she’s not exactly sure why the number of music therapists in West Virginia is so low, but she thinks part of the problem is that there is no formal music therapy education in the state.

“West Virginia is in a different stage of growth with music therapy so all of these other places, all of these other states have started where we’re starting and that’s okay, we have to start somewhere,” Smith said.

For the past two years, Smith has been working closely with the WVU School of Music to create the state’s first music therapy degree. The degree is still in the approval process, but the music school’s director, Keith Jackson, says he’s hopeful that the degree program will launch this spring.

“And I think because the university has a mission as part of its land grant status, we’re the right institution to help make sure this gets out there and is available for the rest of the state,” Jackson said.

The lack of a dedicated music therapy degree program in West Virginia has forced residents who are interested in the field to go elsewhere. Smith, a native of Parkersburg, was one of those people.

“I was a student who had to leave West Virginia to get my music therapy degree,” she said. “And so it really means a lot for me that high school students and people who have grown up in West Virginia can stay here and get this music therapy degree and then continue to contribute to the growth of music therapy across the state of West Virginia.”

Both Keith Jackson and Dena Register say they are excited to work more closely with WVU Health Sciences and Smith’s private practice to expand music therapy education in West Virginia.