Music therapy students build connections across cultures

5 – minute read

Inside the palliative care unit at Siriraj Hospital in downtown Bangkok, a couple of FGCU students are singing Elvis. Thai students from the College of Music at Mahidol University join with guitars and a piano. The patient sings along while family members and music therapy students jiggle egg shakers and beat drums. The room fills with the words to “I Can’t Help Falling in Love,” and the rich, vibrant feeling of connection is everywhere.


“I saw this happen over and over again, this connection between these two groups of students — one from the States and one from Thailand — who share music and a desire to help people,” said Kimberly Sena Moore, associate director of the Bower School of Music & the Arts and one of the music therapy faculty leaders on the trip. “They would get together and jam, working together in such a beautiful way.”

The FGCU students were all from the Bower School of Music, majoring in music therapy or music education. They were in Bangkok for six weeks as part of a clinical and cross-cultural summer study abroad program. The group — 11 students and two faculty leaders — worked alongside Thai music therapy students and faculty. They rotated between clinical work at various health sites around Bangkok, including the hospital, a neurorehabilitation center and a center for people with disabilities. It was an experience that helped many Thai people and also served to transform and grow the FGCU students.

FGCU students
Music therapy students lead a moving to music experience for a group of older adults as part of a wellness and healthy aging group.

“Some of our students had never left Florida before,” Sena Moore said. “Some had never been on an airplane. To see their growth over the six weeks as they opened up and took risks and let themselves be vulnerable — it was a really special thing.”


For Kailah Burbach, a junior music therapy major, this was her first time visiting Asia.

“Everything was really exciting and new,” Burbach said.


“It really pushed me out of my comfort zone and promoted my personal growth. I had to learn how to be super independent in an environment that was completely unfamiliar. I learned how to be flexible, especially in the work that I was doing. There were a lot of instances where things wouldn’t go according to plan, and I had to improvise.”

FGCU students
FGCU and Mahidol music therapy students participate in a small group breakout discussion as part of post-session group supervision.
FGCU faculty
Kimberly Sena Moore demonstrates a music therapy technique during a workshop presented to music therapy students in the College of Music at Mahidol University.

During her six weeks, Burbach forged a special relationship with one of her clients, a 12-year-old with cerebral palsy. “I was able to see her show so much improvement in her fine and gross motor movements, in her coordination and spatial awareness, and in her socialization,” Burbach said. “It was such an inspiring thing to see.” By their last session together, her client was hitting a drum with a steady beat — and she didn’t want Burbach to leave. “We really bonded,” Burbach said.


For FGCU senior Rebekah Raffalski, a music therapy major, her most memorable moment from the trip was in the tongue-tie clinic for infants at Siriraj Hospital. Raffalski joined a small group of American and Thai music therapists in a room with up to 10 babies who had just completed a procedure to clip their tongues to correct a condition that restricts range of motion.


The music therapists performed a touch sequence on each baby, pressing the tiny hands and feet, massaging their foreheads, holding them and patting them on the back using a specific protocol designed to calm and soothe the infants. While the therapists performed the sequence, they hummed lullabies — “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,” “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” and “Chang,” a Thai lullaby (“chang” means “elephant” in Thai).


“It was such a cool, once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Raffalski said. “I got to really see the effects of using music therapy in that moment. It was my first time doing something clinical in Thailand, and it really excited me for the rest of my time there.”


In addition to their clinical work, the students also spent time exploring the country. Every weekend, they visited a different part of the country, from the beach town of Krabi to the tea plantations of Chiang Mai. On their day trips, they tasted a banquet of new foods — whole fish, prawns, shrimp cakes, rice and noodles, curries and unfamiliar vegetables. Plus, lots of delicious mango sticky rice.


For Raffalski, the trip left her with a special connection to the people she met in Thailand. “They were so inviting and welcoming, and I felt at home,” she said. “We created such special relationships with the students at the Thai university, and we’re still in contact with them.”

FGCU students
FGCU students and faculty at Siriraj Hospital in downtown Bangkok.
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