Standing behind her piano, music therapist Cheryl Jones flips through her folder of vocal exercises and slowly plays a five-note musical scale as her client sings “mah” and “wah” sounds in time to the beat from his wheelchair seated beside her.

It has been a year since Jones, owner of Con Brio Music Therapy in Kanata, began weekly music therapy sessions with Derek at his residence. Although he has progressed from enunciating phonic sounds used in a simple rhythm to singing some of Louis Armstrong’s When You’re Smiling, the task of forming words is still a challenge he faces everyday.

After suffering a stroke a week after a surgery to remove a brain tumour in June 2011, Derek was left with little oral control and is paralyzed on his left side, confining him to a wheelchair. The loss of mobility and his struggle with speech articulation has left Derek feeling helpless.

In April 2012, he began working with Jones for one-hour sessions once a week, beginning slowly with a focus on breath support and singing a variety of phonics sounds to improve articulation.

“My goal as a music therapist is to bring them along the continuum to be farther along from where they are today,” says 50-year-old Jones, who also teaches private piano lessons part-time from her home studio.

By using the language of music, she helps those who suffer from brain injury or neurodegenerative disorders improve their cognition, motor skills, speech, self-esteem, and most importantly how to use music as a tool of self-­expression.

“It’s hard work,” says Derek slowly as he tries to repeat the sentence, ‘Bob parked beside my place,’ in time to the piano. “It’s helping me, but I want to be back to where I was before.”

Following a brain injury, it can become difficult to track conversation or use the part of the brain that is associated with word access and language. However, when a melody or pattern is involved, the brain can anticipate what is coming next. This helps improve attention and focus.

“The reason that music therapy is effective with those goals is because although speaking and singing are very similar — they both access words, they both have a tempo, there’s a melodic shape in speech and in music — neurologically they’re processed in different areas,” says the mother of three.

Music is a multi-site stimulus, meaning that the elements that make up music such as rhythm, tempo, melody and harmony are all processed in different areas of the brain. This differs from language and speech as they are predominantly controlled by the brain’s left hemisphere.

“If somebody has experienced an injury and their speech is impaired, a neurological music therapist will strive to activate the singing areas of the brain to access speech, words or to stimulate an oral response,” says Jones. “It’s like sneaking in through the back door.”

Before becoming a music therapist, Jones taught private piano lessons full time for 20 years in New Brunswick and another three after she moved to Ottawa in 2003.

“I had two students develop cancer and I saw how music was becoming very meaningful for them in a new way,” says Jones, who worked with both, a high school student and adult, in 2003. “It was becoming a chance to express their heart and let feelings out that they didn’t necessarily want to put into words.” Although her high school student recovered from cancer, the adult passed away a little while after.

After this experience, Jones decided to take her passion for teaching music a step further and become a qualified music therapist. She received her master’s at Wilfrid Laurier University in 2007.

In the same year, Jones held an internship at the Stratford General Hospital as a music therapist in the palliative care department. She helped patients address pain and anxiety, and say goodbye to their loved ones through song.

One of her most memorable experiences was working with a young male who was close to death. He had never told his girlfriend he loved her and decided to do so through a song. Knowing he didn’t have long to live, Cheryl took the lyrics he wrote and sprinted down the street in her heels to a nearby church where she recorded his song on the piano that night. He died the next morning after giving his girlfriend the recording.

“During that time I became really interested in why music was making such a difference,” said Jones. “I wanted to understand not just from a psychotherapist perspective, but I wanted to understand neurologically what was going on in the brain that people are responding to.”

In 2008 she took a one-week intensive course in neurologic music therapy at Colorado State University and is now planning to begin her PhD in September at the University of Toronto to continue her studies of music and neuroscience.

Jones is looking to branch out from her focus on brain injuries and begin offering services to stroke survivors and those with dementia and Parkinson’s.

For more information on Cheryl Jones and music therapy visit

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