Music Therapy Student Heals Patients One Note at a Time

Music therapy major Seneca Block found his calling after a chance encounter with a piano during his mother's chemotherapy. 

September 10, 2013

Seneca Block remembers the exceptionally cold winter day in 2006 when he accompanied his mother to Cleveland Clinic for what he said doctors there call "atomic bomb chemo." As Block's mother underwent treatment for lymphoma, he waited in an adjacent room, sitting among people with "really sad faces." 

Block, then 19, noticed a half-covered piano in the room. He went over, pulled off the cover, and started playing an improvised melody. "And then I looked up and I saw that they weren't sad. They were smiling and rocking with the music." It was a lightbulb moment, Block says. "It was like life telling me to do something." The nurse thanked him; the doctor, who heard the music from the treatment room, also thanked him. 

At home that night, he relayed the experience to a friend, who asked him if he had heard about the music therapy program at Berklee College of Music. It was a natural fit for Block, who had already spent a year in nursing school and many years gigging with his dad, a professional musician.

The idea stuck and in 2007 Block decided that one day he'd go to Berklee. His mother’s cancer went into remission, and he began taking lessons at Cuyahoga Community College expressly to prepare for his application to Berklee. He was accepted into the fall 2009 class and the following semester began his studies in the music therapy program.

Today, Block is back in Cleveland, working at University Hospitals on a music therapy internship and looking forward to his January graduation from Berklee. He says the combination of his experiences at Berklee—the music therapy program education, the Bass Department classes, and his work study job on a crew that engineered sound for stage productions—prepared him for success at his internship.

“All these tiny things that you get from Berklee, that you only get from Berklee, I brought into my career,” Block says.

Indeed, his work requires that he be resourceful both as a musician and a healer. Music therapy is the use of music to address a nonmusical goal, such as helping a child build impulse control, or helping an adult feel connected to the world around him.

Block tells the story of a 24-year-old patient who had recently lost the use of his limbs as a result of a car accident. As Block chatted with him, the young man said he was a Pink Floyd fan and used to play the harmonica. Block happened to have a harmonica neck holder, which allows musicians to play hands-free. The two jammed, playing “Wish You Were Here.” That simple moment, Block said, helped the young man see that not all was lost in the accident.

“It was such a cool moment,” Block says. “He became very hopeful. His affect changed. His face changed. It fills you with a sense of normalcy, that you can go back to something you used to do.” The harmonica playing also helped exercise the man’s lungs and rebuild his breath support, which was one of his therapeutic goals.

For adults, music therapy can play a major role in empowering people in situations in which they often feel helpless. Block will help patients create music in which “they’re the boss—they get to call the shots.” Music can also be used as an aid, such as a cue synched with body movements in physical therapy.

For children, music helps them learn how to read by singing a song about a letter, or it can help them learn to wait their turn as everyone gets a chance to play a xylophone, for example.

“I’ve had a really great time here,” Block ays of the many opportunities he’s had to work in various clinical environments in Cleveland.

After Block graduates from Berklee, he plans to pursue an online master’s degree in music therapy from Colorado State University. He sees his future opportunties as a music therapist as very promising. "Not only is the field innovative, but it is also adaptable to allow me to work across a wide range of clients. I have the tools and abilities so I may choose what I want to do and go out and do it. It sounds cliche, but I honestly see a broad horizon with endless possibilities," he says.