Clarksville, TN – When Jennifer Denk takes out her guitar and strums a soothing melody – anything from “Amazing Grace” to “Margaritaville” – her listeners sometimes drift off to sleep. As a board-certified music therapist, that’s exactly the type of reaction she wants.
Denk isn’t a performer; her music, played in schools, hospitals and for hospice patients, is meant to ease suffering and help listeners overcome challenges.
“I’ve done this for 10 years, and I’m still blown away by the power of music,” she said. “Our purpose is not to teach our clients to learn an instrument or sing. We’re using music to address their needs. So, we’re working with motor skills, communication skills, cognitive skills, social skills and emotional skills. That’s why there are so many applications of music therapy in the community.”
Last August, Denk joined Austin Peay State University (APSU) as an assistant professor of music. Throughout the year, she’s piloted a music therapy degree program at the University, and this fall, the APSU Department of Music will welcome the first students into its new Bachelor of Music with a concentration in music therapy degree program. In August 2021, Austin Peay State University will become one of only two public schools in Tennessee to offer a music therapy degree accredited by the American Music Therapy Association.
“As a music therapist, I’ve worked with clients across the lifespan,” Denk said. “With all the populations we work with, that means there are a lot of job opportunities. We designed our curriculum in such a way that all the information they get here can directly be applied to the field.”
Music has long been a source of healing and inspiration – its therapeutic roots date back to antiquity – but according to the American Music Therapy Association, the modern profession “began after World War I and World War II when community musicians of all types, both amateur and professional, went to veterans’ hospitals around the country to play for the thousands of veterans suffering both physical and emotional trauma from the wars.”
This ability to serve soldiers and veterans, along with people ranging in age from preschoolers to senior citizens, is one of the reasons why the Department of Music developed this new program.
“As we’ve seen Clarksville grow and expand, we’ve seen newer healthcare centers and senior living facilities crop up,” Dr. Eric Branscome, chair of the APSU Department of Music, said. “And in addition, we’ve seen the benefits this could provide at Fort Campbell. There’s a growing need in the community.”
Students enrolled in the program will spend their first two years following the curriculum of a traditional music major, taking classes in music theory and music history. As they transition into the program later, they’ll begin incorporating courses like biology and psychology into their schedule, while also learning how music can influence physical and psychological responses.
Denk sees this as part of the program’s appeal, attracting people like her, with deep, competing interests.
“I was always involved in music, but I was also interested in psychology and human behavior and this was the combination of both of those,” she said. “By becoming a music therapist, I was able to combine my two passions.”
The program also includes practicum opportunities in the Clarksville community, giving students the chance to apply their classroom learning and musical skills with a variety of clinical populations. These field experiences, along with the program curriculum, were designed to prepare graduates for the Certification Board for Music Therapists national board certification exam. Once they’re board-certified music therapists, they’ll be able to pursue careers that use music as a form of healing.
“Throughout my career, being a music therapist has been my greatest privilege,” Denk said. “For (hospice patients) to allow me into this sacred space, and more often welcome me into that space, that is really powerful.”