Jonathan Poenn

Unique career choice draws Island man home to Manitoulin

LITTLE CURRENT—Composer William Congreve first penned the oft quoted words “music soothes the savage breast” in the late 1600s, but it has long been recognized that music’s powers stretch far beyond the rest of that phrase (“to soften rocks or bend a knotted oak”). Music therapist Jonathan Poenn of Little Current has harnessed music’s many powers through his music therapy classes to vastly improve the quality of life of residents in Manitoulin’s nursing homes.

“It has made a huge difference with a lot of our residents with behavioural issues,” said Wikwemikong Nursing Home Administrator Cheryl Osawabine-Peltier, “and we get to listen to him too.”

“It’s been extremely beneficial to some of our residents,” agreed Manitoulin Centennial Manor Activities Coordinator Julie Omnet. “It helps on so many levels, cognitive development, emotional skills, it just provides such an overall improvement to the quality of life.” Ms. Omnet also noted that the staff also find the music has a very positive impact on their workday. “The staff really enjoy it too.”

Mr. Poenn, an accomplished musician himself, practically fell into the musical therapy field by a fortuitous set of circumstances that melded his two main fields of interest, musical and medical, as fate literally brought them together.

“I did my undergraduate degree at the University of Ottawa, where I had the goal of getting really good at the cello,” he said. (Those who had the opportunity to listen to his playing prior to leaving for school would readily testify that he was already “really good.”) “When I finished that, like most people who study music at the undergraduate level, I was looking around for what to do next and settled on ‘more education’.”

He had his eye on the Glenn Gould masters program at the conservatory in Toronto. “I just sort of assumed I would get in,” he said. “I didn’t get chosen.” It was his first real academic setback. “It was a shock,” he admitted. “It was a very humbling experience.”

Undaunted, Mr. Poenn then set his sights on a one-year program at Sir Wilfred Laurier and focussed on playing in groups, orchestras and string quartets, even a rock band. “The rock band wasn’t part of my course of studies,” he laughed. Taking on the Sir Wilfred Laurier program was to prove a very fortuitous decision.

“As I was looking at my elective choices I saw one called ‘Introduction to Music Therapy,” he recalled. “I thought to myself ‘that sounds interesting,’ and it turned out to be really fascinating.” The same university offered a master’s program in music therapy. “I applied and got in,” said Mr. Poenn. “I found it synthesized two opposing interests, health care and music.”

After a number of placements and working for a while in southern Ontario, Mr. Poenn found himself drawn back to the Island where he hoped to be able to employ his newfound dual skillset.

Soon he was working at two of the Island nursing homes, as well as taking on individual clients and the odd private gig.

The cognitive function impact of music therapy can be immense. “There are so many domains that music plays an important role in,” he said. “Emotional, physical, social, spiritual—especially spiritual.”

Ms. Osawabine-Peltier said that the impact of Mr. Poenn’s work with the residents of the Wikwemikong Nursing Home has a wide reach. “We have residents who really don’t take part in the normal activities here,” she said. “They don’t do bingo or anything that the other residents take part in. But those residents that don’t take part in other activities will sit there and listen to Jonathan play for hours, some of them even follow him around when he goes to visit other residents.”

While Mr. Poenn plays the guitar and the piano, his favourite remains the cello for a variety of reasons. “The great thing about the cello is that it is very loud,” he explains. That allows the instrument to dominate the space and to help listeners focus on the sound. “When you are playing in an enclosed space, you can feel the vibrations from the cello in your body.” Those who may begin listening in an agitated state are soon calmed by the music.

“Music helps to trigger memories of old friends and acquaintances,” he explains, and when the music brings back those memories people often find themselves calmed and lost deep in thought.

“Long term memory is one of the last things to go,” said Ms. Omnet. “Short term memory goes pretty fast, but long term memory stays around.” Music is inextricably linked to events and people in a person’s past and when an old favourite is played, it can bring those memories flooding back.

In addition to the group and individual sessions that Mr. Poenn conducts in the long-term nursing homes, he also is available for private therapy sessions. With the growth of palliative care options on Manitoulin, Mr. Poenn also hopes to see his schedule expand there as well.

And then there are the opportunities to play to audiences in a “non-medicinal” setting, which he still enjoys.

“I still play at various functions,” he said. “In fact, this weekend and next I am playing down south at functions. It’s going to be a pretty busy couple of weeks.”

Mr. Poenn can be contacted at 705-368-3588.

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