Music of all genres is an integral part of life on the Midcoast, but it is only in the last six months that the area has had access to clinical music therapy. Trish Jonason, a board-certified music therapist, lives in Warren but her practice, Coastal Music Therapy, is site-based. This means Jonason and her guitar, song sheets and bags of other instruments are on the road.

“I go where people are, within about 35 miles of home,” she said over coffee at Rockland’s Rock City Café.

Given her equipment, gig-like schedule and the fact she sings and plays during sessions, Jonason might be mistaken for a singer/songwriter as she makes her rounds, but that is the last thing she would call herself. She grew up loving music, playing guitar and piano and singing — but never for an audience.

“I had terrible stage fright! And I knew didn’t want to teach,” she said.

This left her with a dilemma when, as a high school student in Bangor, she began to think about her future. She was passionate about music but thought she would have to leave it behind as far as a career goes. Everything changed when her mother attended a workshop with Alan Wittenberg, who runs the Surry International Music Therapy Center.

“She came back so excited and said I had to check it out. So I met with him and with Susan Wesley in Bangor, who works at Acadia. I’ve known since I was 15 I wanted to do this … music took on another purpose,” she said.

Jonason also knew she wanted to go to college in New England, and there were only three that offered music therapy. She attended Anna Maria College in Worcester, Mass.

“It’s a four-and-a-half year program and then you have to do a 1,200-hours internship with a board-certified music therapist. You can do that anywhere; I chose a large city hospital, Chicago’s Lutheran General,” she said.

After the six-month internship, Jonason could have begun work as an MT but she wanted to take the next step and become board certified. That meant studying and taking the boards for a certification that has to be kept current by either a certain number of clinical hours in the field or by re-taking the test every three years. She ended up working as an MT-BC for several years at the hospital where she had interned.

Her stage fright soon disappeared as she worked with a range of patients. Music therapists work with children at all stages of development; with children and adults along the autism; with stroke patients and more. Each client and setting requires a specific approach, depending on set goals.

“Although I use music, the goals are non-musical. In children’s groups, for example, we work on paying attention, social skills, taking turns and expressive language. Working with autistic clients, I’m looking for any expressive language and other responses like eye contact,” she said.

As far as children’s groups go, Jonason works with Head Start, daycares and her own Songbirds parent-child classes, which meet at The Playroom in Warren. She also has a weekly group for autistic children age 7 and 8. For individual work, she gets referrals from speech and occupational therapists and case managers. Although music therapy is a well established, evidence-based allied health profession, Jonason said she has found it more difficult in Maine than Illinois to have it paid for via insurance and other non-private funding.

“I don’t know if that will change. But DHS has been so supportive and has been able to get sessions funded as a related service under a child’s Individualized Education Program. There’s also an early intervention piece as part of the IDEA [Individuals with Disabilities Education Act],” she said.

Jonason’s work with adults is primarily with people who have brain injury, particularly stroke rehabilitation. The day after the recent snow storm, she spent an hour with former Spruce Head resident Jane Bruce Ward at Windward Gardens in Camden. Ward, a longtime community theater performer, is coming up on the first anniversary of the stroke that changed her life dramatically.

“Who’d ever have thought it, of all the salty broads? I was healthy as a horse for years,” she said, still looking a decade younger than her 75 years.

Ward, who used to shimmy with abandon on stage, uses a wheelchair, which she propels with one foot at a good clip, and has one hand and arm in a brace. When she started working with Jonason, a primary goal was to restore her voice. Always low — “I’m not a singer, I’m an actor who sings” — her voice had acquired a growly effect. The two found that by singing familiar songs in keys higher that Ward usually does has helped her develop vocal flexibility.

“I think it’s amazingly better and I’m thrilled … it was so terrifying,” said Ward after a rendition of “This Land is Your Land.”

They sang the Woody Guthrie standard together, Jonason strumming guitar and occasionally adding harmonies while Ward handled the melody — including changing “The New York Island” to “Monhegan Island.” They have a collection of tunes they sing this way, an eclectic mix that ranges from Simon & Garfunkle to an English drinking song.

“She really pushes my envelope when we do Cole Porter,” said Jonason, saying those numbers use, and challenge, her piano skills.

Another thing the two women have been working on is making songs out of Ward’s poems, a selection of which she published in 2001 in a volume titled “Things You Should Know …” Ward played along on a set of bongos as Jonason sang a cautionary tale of debutante society, “Girls Who Come Out.”

There was a lot of enjoyment evident for both participants of this session and that is in fact a therapeutic goal, especially for stroke patients. On Jonason’s website, she defines music therapy as the application of music interventions by a trained professional within the context of a therapeutic relationship in order to restore, maintain or improve functioning and quality of life.

“The emotional piece is important — we all need joy in our lives. The risk of depression and isolation is so great,” Jonason said.

Isolation is something she knows a bit about. Even at the hospital in Chicago, which had three MTs on staff, Jonason said she was always explaining what music therapy is after her bag of instruments provoked an inquiry. Here in Maine, she, Wittenberg and Wesley are the only MTs she knows of north of Portland. When Jonason and her husband decided to move back to Maine and start a family here a few years ago, she said she knew she would not be able to work full-time in her field right away. She worked instead as a case manager for Mid-Coast Mental Health, a job that enabled her to connect with many of the agencies she works with now.

Still, what makes a young working mother launch a business of her own in the midst of an economic downturn?

“Ballsy? Brave? I got to the point where I had all these ideas and saw all these needs that I knew I could meet. It was a huge risk, but I’m so grateful I took the leap,” she said.

Getting back to her field meant studying for and retaking the boards, as she had not done clinical music therapy in four years. Nonetheless, Jonason scored better than she had the first time, thanks to her years at the Chicago hospital. She said she is not really interested in working in a hospital setting again, preferring instead to build a varied practice. This far in, she is surprised to be about half-way to where she would like to see her business be.

“I don’t plan to grow the children’s groups, add any more. I get a lot of referrals by word of mouth and the Coastal Music Therapy Facebook Fan Page. I’m grateful, really, it’s a good place to be for only six months,” she said.

Jonason said popular culture is helping people learn about music therapy, referring to a recent Ronna Kaplan column in the Huffington Post and the ongoing coverage of Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords’ rehabilitation after severe brain trauma a year ago.

“She’s helping put a face on this work, which makes it less alarming to people. Of course, she’s working with a neurologic music therapist, but the essence of what she’s doing is something we can all relate to,” Jonason said.

Music itself is clearly something all can relate to. During Jonason’s hour with Ward at Windward Gardens, both staff and patients passing by ended up partaking in a little music therapy, from a woman in a walker bopping along to the beat to a staff worker whistling “This Land is Your Land” under his breath.

“When you sing harmony, you really listen to the other people. There’s a cognitive piece about fitting in the notes, but the connection that happens, that’s really powerful,” Jonason said.

For more information about Jonason’s work or to enroll in Songbirds classes, call 691-7900 or visit

VillageSoup Art/Entertainment Editor Dagney Ernest can be reached at 207-594-4401 or by email to