Vivacious and funny, 23-year-old music performance major Brooke Nielsen has placed herself on a unique career path where her musical talents will shine in an unexpected way.
Nielsen grew up in St. George with her parents and four siblings. On her fourth birthday, the Nielsen family was involved in a terrible car accident where Brooke was thrown from the vehicle and sustained serious injuries.
She spent months in Primary Children’s Hospital and underwent numerous surgeries before finally returning home. Her injuries left permanent damage and scars on one of her legs, forcing her to walk with a limp.
During those months in the hospital, Nielsen was visited by family members and local care workers who helped keep her spirits up. Today she would consider this experience as a catalyst for her future career, even though it would be quite a few years before she made the decision to become a music therapist.
Music therapy is a quickly growing clinical field of treatment and has been proved to be effective in deep healing in many ways. The idea of “music interventions” is not that a music therapist simply plays music to distract patients from other issues. While playing music has been shown to help people cope with stress, pain and anxiety, that is only one small piece of what this field encompasses. Music therapy can include writing songs, directed music listening, relaxation exercises, lyric discussion, singing/toning, moving and expressing emotion to music, creating recordings and videos, specialized instrument lessons and more.
Creative therapies have long been in use to help individuals cope with their struggles and illnesses from programs like Paws for Healing, Dance Movement Therapy or volunteer Candy Stripers. The training a music therapist undergoes teaches them how to recognize which strategy will be most effective in assisting the client to meet their goals or simply help them feel less alone. Nielsen remembers a time when just having someone who wasn’t family or a doctor that was poking and prodding really made a difference for her.
Nielsen says her parents, while not exactly musical themselves, always supported her goals as she participated in many choirs throughout her life. She has always had an aptitude for music but it was her high-school choir teacher who gave her the confidence to pursue studying music.
“My choir teacher was the first one [to] help me recognize my talent for music and that it wasn’t just something that I liked to do,” Nielsen said. “So that was a real confidence boost, because it’s one thing for your parents to tell you you’re talented, but it’s different when it comes from someone else.”
After graduating high school, she did not immediately enroll in a university music program but instead chose to serve a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints for 18 months in New Jersey. It was on her mission that Nielsen committed to the idea of studying music, and after returning from her mission, she moved to Cedar City with one of her previous companions to begin studying at SUU.
“If I hadn’t gone on my mission I don’t know if I ever would have ended up here or chosen the music therapy route,” Nielsen said, “because originally I wanted to do research on how music affects the brain, but I didn’t really know that that’s what I wanted to do until I was on my mission. I guess I’d always thought I’d grow up to be a choir teacher or something. I think if I hadn’t gone, I would have kind of just floated and done whatever came along, which isn’t bad, but it wouldn’t have brought me here.”
Nielsen is currently pursuing a degree in music performance but plans to transfer schools to Utah State University since SUU does not have a degree course available for music therapy.
As a music therapist, there are many different areas she can specialize in, such as working with elderly people suffering from dementia or veterans with PTSD. Nielsen wants to work with children, whether that means she is working in a hospital setting or with special needs students in a school. Having been in their place, she feels that she can be very sympathetic to their fears and struggles of being alone in a strange place and dealing with illnesses and tragedies that they are often too young to understand.
“I want to be a music therapist because, when I was in the hospital when I was really young there was a lady who came in… She was blind and she helped me bead things and make jewelry and stuff. It was really cool. But as I thought back on that, I would love to do that sort of thing, and music is something that I’m really good at and so that is something that I can do to help others go through things that I’ve gone through too.”
By: Alexis J. Taylor
Photos by: Brooke Nielsen and Jelynn S. Nielsen