Music therapist changes the world

As a kid playing the clarinet and singing in the choir, Shannon de l’Etoile knew what she wanted to study in college. “I knew I definitely wanted to do something with music,” said de l’Etoile, now an associate professor and music therapy program director at the Frost School of Music at the University of Miami.

Originally from Colorado, de l’Etoile got her bachelors and masters degrees from Colorado State University. She went on to get a doctorate in music education with an emphasis on music therapy from the University of Kansas.

De l’Etoile is a “very accomplished music therapist,” said Patricia Chaviano, a senior majoring in music therapy and psychology and one of her students.

Because of de l’Etoile’s varied experiences throughout the years, including research and clinical studies, she decided to conduct a study titled “Infants of Depressed and Non-Depressed Mothers: Responses to Infant-Directed Singing.”

In this study, she takes a look at how infants respond to their mother singing to them, how those responses vary if the mother has depression or does not have depression, and what the mother’s voice (depressed or not) sounds like when singing.

Before conducting her own original research project, de l’Etoile studied, researched, and helped many other people. One such person was a woman, about 80 years old, with Guillain-Barre Syndrome, a disease in which a patient experiences extreme weakness and amongst other things, can no longer walk. Her husband, a healthy man, went through rehab with her everyday.

One day, recalled de l’Etoile, something profoundly changed.

“I’m playing the autoharp and signing this nice waltz… so she’s standing and she’s just kind of shifting her weight from side to side and her husband was there and he was standing with her so they’re essentially dancing together and then they start crying, and I’m crying because she’s been so sick for so long that they haven’t been able to do anything like that,” said de l’Etoile.

Another case that affected de l’Etoile was that of 18-year-old Eliana.

Eliana had an arteriovenus malformation, a spinal cord injury, at the age of 12. When de l’Etoile met Eliana, she was going to rehabilitation four times a week.

“[Eliana] was getting ready to graduate from high school and she wanted to walk across the stage to get her diploma.” She was able to do that thanks to rhythmic auditory stimulation, said de l’Etoile.

De l’Etoile went on to do clinical work about mothers with mental illnesses and their children that lead to her current study. One of the mothers was a 21-year-old with five children. “She basically had five children under the age of five,” said de l’Etoile.

While she was helping this mother get some services, one of her daughters looked at de l’Etoile and asked her what was wrong with her face. De l’Etoile said she thought, “oh wow… she looks at me and I look abnormal because she’s not used to seeing typical [facial] expressions.”

That’s when she wondered what the connection between a mother’s mental illness and her infant was.

Perhaps experiences like these are why her students admire her.

“Dr. de l’Etoile, was one of the deciding factors for me coming here [to UM],” said Natasha Babwah, a junior music therapy major.  “[De l’Etoile] has a very bubbly and bright personality… I had her for one class… and I always say that if I did not have her I may not have worked as hard at the class because she has the ability to make you work.”

Babwah said, “she’s always there for us if we need somebody to speak to about any problems that we are having or any advice or any help we need.”

Chaviano agrees. She too attributes one of the reasons of coming to UM to de l’Etoile.

“Because [de l’Etoile] is very passionate and loves what she does, it makes us [as students] want to be better musicians and music therapists,” said Chaviano.

“I’m not saving the world, but I’m definitely trying to answer some questions,” de l’Etoile said.