by Kathy Moser – Founder and Director of Music for Recovery

In this blog post you’ll find ideas for simple, fun, evidence—based activities to engage clients in their recovery process using music. Links to the underlying studies, benefits for clients and facility and tips for getting started are also included.

Musical activities are proven to create group cohesion, increase brain connectivity and even boost the immune system. Plus, they are fun!

This is not music therapy. It is effective, proven, fun and doable.

All of these activities provide experiential opportunities for learning recovery skills including:

  • letting a process unfold
  • slowing down
  • having sober fun
  • repetition
  • being relaxed about making mistakes
  • working as a group
  • taking appropriate risks
  • completing projects

The benefits to clients include:

  • experiential learning of recovery skills
  • sober fun/hobby
  • enhanced therapeutic alliance
  • better relations with peers
  • aftercare/alumni engagement

Benefits to facilities include

  • enhanced therapeutic alliance
  • staff retention
  • aftercare/alumni engagement
  • marketing,
  • fundraising

Before we get to the specifics, a brief introduction.

Music for Recovery was founded in 2009 by Kathy Moser, an award-winning songwriter, teaching artist and person in long-term recovery. Recognizing how the songwriting process mirrors and reinforces the recovery process she began doing recovery songwriting workshops at Alina Lodge in Blairstown, NJ. The clients were very engaged and the songs became part of Alina Lodge’s ongoing culture, used at celebrations and alumni events.

Over the past ten years Music for Recovery built a creative team and expanded to provide recovery concerts, clinician trainings and consulting on installing clinically useful music programmeming for treatment centers. They have worked at The Meadows, Milestones at Onsite, Alina Lodge, The Refuge, and many more. They have presented at Rutgers Summer School, NEIAS, Moments of Change and more. They have facilitated over 300 workshops and concerts. Music for Recovery workshop songs have been streamed on SoundCloud over 25,000 times.

Additionally, they have collaborated with clients and clinicians to write dozens of songs about issues that were not being accessed through talk therapy alone. The process of writing these songs has made difficult topics more accessible for therapy.

In 2016 The Research Recovery Institute at Harvard and Mass General, led by John Kelly, Ph.D., did a study on Music for Recovery that found:

“Music for Recovery participation is shown to enhance the therapeutic factors of installation of hope, catharsis, universality, and interpersonal connections in patients undergoing residential treatment for substance use disorders as measured by the TCS.”

“Music for Recovery is a promising programmematic element that could enhance engagement and retention in treatment by mobilizing common therapeutic mechanisms that ultimately enhance the likelihood of long-term recovery.”

“Using the creative process of generating words and music for a song can be used therapeutically to provide individuals with a deeper emotional processing of experience that bypasses our normal cognitive defenses and filters.”

Ok, enough about us… let’s get you going on bringing the power of music to your clients.

This one is easy….

Create a singing group. Group singing has been shown to increase empathy and cohesion in groups. Singing is fun, offers appropriate risk taking and inexpensive to facilitate.

How to:

Build a repertoire of songs that are recovery positive from client and staff suggestions, assemble lyrics in 3 ring binders with sheet protectors and create a playlist.

Rehearsals should be no more than an hour. Provide pencils so clients can take notes on what parts they are singing. Have a designated leader who makes sure everyone is heard in terms of song choices.

Added benefits:

An in-house choir can perform at local recovery events, (with proper waivers) giving clients a goal to work towards, a sense of accomplishment and the opportunity to connect with the larger recovery community while providing visibility in the community for the treatment facility. This also creates a natural alumni activity when some of the songs remain the same.

Host a recovery open mic: Providing a safe space for people to share poems, songs etc. can be a great way to build the recovery community in your area and give clients a goal to work towards. This can be an in-house only activity or open to public.

How to:

Choose a space, it doesn’t have to be fancy or large.

Promote the event.

Provide a microphone and sound system. (There are portable Bluetooth compatible speakers with microphones and instrument inputs for under $200 US.)

Have an MC, set a clear time limit, (10 minutes is common) and create a supportive atmosphere.

Coffee and snacks are crucial, simple decorations make a difference.

Invite staff, clients, alumni and allies to perform.

Added benefits:

Creates a hub that can attract alumni, gives visibility to the facility and can increase staff satisfaction by providing fun way to bond with clients.

Preparing for performance offers many recovery lessons including working through anxiety and creating confidence through preparation. To reduce anxiety and increase success, run a practice night a week or two in advance to help people to prepare.

Writing to a Beat: Hip hop is a powerful and simple way to help people engage and express themselves. It also fosters the therapeutic alliance by providing an outlet that is familiar to clients under 35.

How to:

1) Download or stream free instrumentals from Youtube or use this dropbox playlist of free legal beats.

2) Provide open ended sentence stems on the topic. For example – Problem - “It’s hard to trust because…….” Vision - “If I could trust then…” Action - “One thing that builds trust for me is…..”

3) Let clients write for 3-5 minutes and then share one at a time and write their sentences on a board or type them on laptop and rap them over the beat. (note – not everyone will want to perform but going one at a time just sharing what was written gives the introverts a safe way to share and introverts will amaze you with their creativity.)

4) Record finished lyrics and beat on a phone or tablet.

Optional: Get some rhyming dictionaries to help get the rhyme flow going.

More advanced:

1) Provide tablets with beat making programmes.

Musical Instruments: Playing a musical instrument is the number one way to increase brain connectivity. Many instruments including keyboards, drums and electric guitars can be played in headphones. Ukulele’s are small, fun and easy to learn. Just having a keyboard or guitar in the facility can make a real difference for clients. Getting the music for the songs the choir sings offers another way to participate.

Recovery songwriting: This is a powerful way to create group cohesion, practice recovery skills and provide a song can that can be played over and over after treatment. We can provide more information on this on request.

This may seem overwhelming, start small and over time this can become a valuable and fun part of the recovery process for your facility and your clients. Please reach out to us if you want more information on any of these options. We have extensive experience with doing all of the above within treatment guidelines.

Kathy Moser from Music for Recovery will be attending iCAAD in London.

For more information please contact