Changing Lives with Music


Changing Lives with Music

Board certified Music Therapist Marisa de Leon, who plays a wide range of instruments, helps patients regain their ability to walk, move, remember and talk. (VBR)
Board certified music therapist Marisa de Leon, who plays a wide range of instruments, helps patients regain their ability to walk, move, remember and talk. (VBR)

Talk about a huge learning curve. Before board certified music therapist Marisa de Leon opened her business RGV Music Therapy and Wellness Center in May 2017, she had never held a full-time job other than a professional internship.

One year later, de Leon is so busy seeing clients across the Valley that she recently contracted the services of another music therapist and transitioned to an LLC from a sole proprietorship.  

“I’ve played music my whole life and wanted to be in health care,” de Leon recalled. Then de Leon viewed a “60 Minutes” segment on Congresswoman Gabby Gifford’s rehabilitation after she was shot in 2011. Neurologic music therapy played a crucial role. Since then, de Leon’s goal has been to bring music therapy to the Valley. “It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do.”   

The Mercedes native’s success was built on strong foundations. De Leon’s mother worked in healthcare administration for 39 years. “She had a lot of great advice for me,” de Leon said. And her father, Tomas de Leon, who has run Expressions In Glass in the Mercedes Industrial Park for many years, offered her office and therapy session space in his building, along with coaching on invoicing, etc.

“The biggest part of getting the contracts to provide music therapy is explaining what it is,” she said, and what it is not. Music therapy, far from being musicians singing to patients, is in the same category as occupational or physical therapy.

“Music therapy includes a formal assessment of the patient, treatment plans and evaluations. We use music as a tool.”  Music therapy assists physical, cognitive, emotional and social development along with spiritual support. Music aids in gait training; it uses rhythm to focus movements like brushing teeth or raising limbs. It has proved useful for cognition and memory recovery, for pain management, and for articulation and coping.

“Music therapy is so appealing because it produces results. It’s easy for agencies to want this service,” she said. Her clients include home health agencies, hospices, behavioral and mental health organizations, memory care units and veterans services. She works with patients who have Parkinson’s disease, autism, cerebral palsy, PTSD, dementia and patients in hospice programs. “We are constantly adapting to whatever they need.”

De Leon graduated from Texas Women’s University with a music degree and a music therapy major. It required 1,200 hours of clinical training followed by a seven-month internship. She plays numerous instruments and recently attained the neurologic MT designation. Her invaluable iPad holds a large music library (InSong) where she taps into a patient’s preference, from 40s tunes to hip-hop. A program called Music from the Heart records the patient’s heartbeat, which becomes the rhythm track of their favorite song. “It’s very immediate and personal. We can have them sing or sing with them.”

While de Leon has been traveling between Roma and Brownsville weekly to see patients, she expects to eventually see about half her patients in her Mercedes office. The rooms are furnished with a variety of instruments: keyboards, drums, rhythm sticks, guitars and more. “Rhythm strengthens the connection between brain and muscle. Research shows having a steady beat primes the brain: I have from this beat to next to do the motion.”   

De Leon talked about how music therapy has helped patients regain movement control. A cerebral palsy patient has become a hip hop songwriter and along the way improved his speech patterns and gained confidence and coping skills.  “I see a huge difference.”

De Leon hopes to start a Parkinson’s wellness group to help those patients maintain flexibility.  On the wellness side, the center hosts a free drum circle monthly on the second Saturday. Outside of work, she plays with the band Missing Peace “just for fun.”

Freelance writer Eileen Mattei was the editor of Valley Business Report for over 6 years. Her articles have appeared in Texas Highways, Texas Wildlife Association, Texas Parks & Wildlife and Texas Coop Power magazines as well as On Point: The Journal of Army History. The Harlingen resident is the author of five books: Valley Places, Valley Faces; At the Crossroads: Harlingen’s First 100 Years; and Leading the Way: McAllen’s First 100 Years, For the Good of My Patients: The History of Medicine in the Rio Grande Valley, and Quinta Mazatlán: A Visual Journey.