FRANKLIN — Kathryn Gates, 21, of Franklin, brought music with her in a whirlwind adventure in East Africa this summer.
Gates, an aspiring music therapist, spent almost the entirety of July making melodies with children in schools, orphanages and hospitals in Kenya and Uganda.
She traveled with Global Youth Groove, a non-profit based in Boston, which aims to transform the lives of underprivileged youth in Africa by sending musicians and students who study music therapy over to share their knowledge and help the kids develop their musical abilities.
Gates, who is heading into her senior year at Temple University in Philadelphia, Penn., studies music therapy.
“Music was always a very big part of my life,” she said, singing for as long as she could remember. Gates participated in choir all through school, calling the Vermont Youth Orchestra Chorus “one of the most amazing experiences ever.”
By the time Gates was a middle schooler, she knew she wanted to do something with music for a career but wasn’t sure if she had the motivation or the determination to be a performer. By senior year of high school, the cloud of confusion hadn’t lifted until her mother’s suggestion to research music therapy.
Googling the profession, Gates said she spent hours reading, “amazed at this other world that [she] had never been aware of.” The profession combined two of her favorite things: music and people.
“Pretty much what the profession comes down to [is] using music to help others,” Gates said. “We recognize that music is very powerful and has been used for ages all around the world to heal and to evoke different emotions. People use it to calm themselves down or to amp themselves up, to identify with certain sad emotions or happy emotions.”
Gates said music therapy can be used to help people improve in five different areas: physical, such as to increase motor coordination; social, including interpersonal skills; cognitive, perhaps working on attention span; emotional, developing on self expression; and spiritual, which is defined by the client but could include an increased connection to something bigger.
“It’s very much connected to our experience as humans,” she said. “The fact that you can use that to make meaningful relationships with other people and help them work on different things… it’s just a very unique way of connecting with a person that I didn’t really value as much as I do now.”
So when her friend Sharyn from Berklee College of Music suggested she sign up for the trip, Gates jumped at the opportunity. She and six others flew out to Kenya at the beginning of July, touching down in Nairobi and finishing the journey three and a half weeks later in Kampala, Uganda.
During her travels, Gates brought music and her voice to children in the pediatric oncology ward at the Kenyatta National Hospital in Nairobi. She also visited several orphanages and schools, getting the students engaged with music therapy activities.
The highlight of the entire trip for Gates was visiting the Little Prinz Academy in Kakamega, Kenya. When the group of aspiring music therapists entered the school, they were greeted with a welcome song. Gates said at first, the students seemed reserved. But after they sang a song about a penguin, with the finale involving everyone waddling around, flapping their wings and looking ridiculous, the kids were cracking up, she said.
“Seeing them open up and turn into these kids just happy to laugh and make fools of themselves with us” was amazing, according to Gates.
“The entire experience was heartwarming,” she said, “especially to have the head teacher afterwards say, ‘Thank you so much for coming in. You have no idea how much these kids appreciate what you’ve brought. You’ve added years onto their lives. They’re just so happy when you’re here.”
The group received an invite to come back next year not only from Little Prinz, but also the Technical University of Kenya, which expressed interest in starting their own music therapy program by the end of next year.
Gates had the chance to be a tourist as well, traveling by bus far out into the safari to visit the last tribe in Kenya to still live traditionally.
Gates said she sat down with the women of the Masai tribe in their huts and shared life experiences. She also participated in a traditional competition dance where whoever jumps the highest is the most revered member of the tribe. It used to be the person who speared a lion first was guaranteed the most women and possibly the role of future leader of the tribe, she said.
Back on U.S. soil, Gates is gearing up for her senior year at Temple. She hopes in a year and a half to be an accredited music therapist, working with either psychiatric patients or college students.
Gates said she prefers serving the adult population because they can work on deeper issues. One of her favorite classes in college thus far was Psychiatric Music Therapy.
In the class, Gates spent each week learning about different disorders, such as schizophrenia, and then developing a music therapy session around the issue.
As an example, Gates said with a patient who suffers with social anxiety, she might have them play a song with her one-on-one. The goal of the session would be to lower the patient’s heart rate by having them tap out a beat that is slower than their heart rate.
Research shows that playing music stimulates different parts of one’s brain than just listening to music, she said.
In a group session, Gates would invite all of her patients to join in with her playing a song whenever they felt comfortable. Gates said it would allow her patients to step out of their comfort zone in a safe setting and improve their interpersonal skills. After the song ended, Gates and her patients would debrief, sharing their thoughts about the whole experience.
“Oftentimes, the goal is to create group cohesion,” she said, “finding that community feel within the group, finding support from other people.”
Gate’s definition of music, “the organization of sound and silence,” mirrors the two important aspects of music therapy. The therapist and the patient share a bond and a connection by playing a song together, but afterwards, silence is important as well in order to provide time for reflection.