In a recent music therapy trip to Panama, undergraduate students aim to empower the community to build sustainable music therapy programs at cancer centers, children’s hospitals, and nursing homes. Some of the students from the group, who go by the name “Panamaniacs,” kept travel journals of their experience. Below is a selection from Meera Sinha’s entries. Read journal entries from Denise Oliveras and Megan Griffith.

meera-sinhaBy Meera Sinha

August 15, 2016
Today was our first day working with clients in Panama. The first half of our day was spent at an orphanage called Hogar Malambo. We had two groups here: 1-2 year olds, and a mix of older children/adults with intellectual disabilities and 2-3 year olds. These were populations I hadn’t ever worked with before today, but it was an incredible experience.

One of the most memorable moments of today happened during the second group at Malambo. One group participant was singing a four-note melody and the music therapy team was able to identify the song she was singing from these four notes. The whole group sang, played, and danced to this song together. This moment of the session was incredibly powerful because it was a way for all of us to connect with each other.

The second half of our day was spent in La Chorrera at Ciudad del Niño, an all-boys orphanage. We split the group into two in order to reach as many of the boys as we could. Our group took an improvisational approach, so we did a bit of singing, dancing, and drumming. We even had a rapping activity that started because a group participant started beat boxing during a song about alien noises. Sounds a little bit crazy, right? But it was so incredible to watch and be part of. Music is such a beautiful tool and has the power to change people’s lives. Our first day of working with clients was incredible and confirmed my aspirations to become a music therapist.

August 18
Today was the most difficult and rewarding day of the whole trip. One of the most important lessons that a therapist learns is that we cannot pour from an empty glass, meaning that we must help ourselves and make sure we are healthy before trying to help others. Today challenged that. I’ve been dealing with depression for the past few years; I’m usually able to keep it away from my role as a therapist, but it was incredibly difficult today. We went to Hogar Bolivar and Hogar San Pedro Nolasco today, which are two nursing homes for the elderly. I’ve found that elders, with Alzheimer’s and dementia specifically, are incredibly sensitive to the emotions of those around them. I tried as hard as I could to keep my feelings of anxiety and depression inside so they wouldn’t pick up on it, and it seemed to work for the most part.

Our first session was with abuelitas (grandmas) with Alzheimer’s and dementia, among presumably other diagnoses. Many nursing homes in the States are well lit with big open spaces. They’re air-conditioned and usually have art hanging on the walls. Hogar Bolivar was very different. The abuelitas were all sitting in a room/terrace, without air-conditioning and additional light. The walls were a mucky grey-brown and many of them sat there looking lifeless.

There were two women in particular that I extensively interacted with. When I met them and gave them egg shakers to play, they both had the same reaction, thinking that the eggs were for eating instead of making music. I explained that they were instruments to play with the music, but they continued putting the shakers in their mouths. They were both very confused when the session started, but as the music continued, they began to come to life. While I was kneeling beside one of the women, she noticed the guitar and asked to play it. After having the opportunity to strum the guitar, she seemed so energized and wanted to get up. She danced with the nurses for the rest of the session. All of the nurses were saying to take pictures of every abuelita who was dancing and singing, because they’re never that lively. That just goes to show the power of music.

There were so many memorable moments from the sessions today at Hogar Bolivar and Hogar San Pedro Nolasco and I wish I could share all of them. I was incredibly emotional today. Not only because my symptoms of depression were harder to bear than usual, but also because music is so powerful and beautiful. I am reminded every day of the power and beauty of music and I am so thankful to be studying music therapy.

August 20
The day started with a drum circle at the percussion festival in the Fundación Danilo Perez, led by a Berklee music therapy student. It was a wonderful day of drumming and learning. We had a chance to explore Casco Viejo a bit after the clinics ended. Today was an absolutely beautiful day and the perfect end to a wonderful trip. I still can’t believe I was lucky enough to go on this trip. We gained experience that only a few of my peers have also had the opportunity to gain. This trip opened my eyes to the need for music therapy programs around the world, and I hope to play a part in creating a few of them. After this week I’ve realized that music is an incredibly powerful tool that can be used to make a change in an individual, a community, and in the world.

Meera Sinha is a singer-songwriter and future music therapist from Hershey, Pennsylvania. She hopes to use music therapy as a tool to build communities and foster a sense of belonging in young adults. She believes in the power of music and dreams to combine human rights activism with choral singing and songwriting in order to influence positive change throughout the world.