"Music Therapy Helped Me Before I Even Knew What It Was"
When Cody Mills ‘20 received his honorable discharge from the United States Army in 2009, one of the first things he did was buy a drum set.
Mills had played drums while growing up in Colby, Kansas, but he had never bought his own kit. That purchase proved to be the first step toward his decision, six years later, to pursue a degree in music therapy that ultimately led him to Pacific University.
What Mills didn’t know then, however, is that he was unknowingly practicing music therapy on himself as he transitioned from the regimented military life, where he crewed on and maintained Blackhawk helicopters, to a less structured civilian life.
“(The drum set) gave me something to latch on to and helped me connect with others, connect with myself, and helped me have a sort of meditative ritual,” Mills said.
“Part of the transition to music therapy was that it helped me before I even knew what it was.”
A growing field of therapy in the United States, music therapy provides an avenue of treatment for mental, emotional, physical, social and cognitive issues through the use of music. While Mills’ work focuses on mental and behavioral health, music therapy has also been shown to be effective in helping treat victims of abuse, those struggling with substance abuse, memory issues and hospice care.
Mills enrolled at Portland’s Marylhurst University in 2016 and transferred to Pacific when Marylhurst closed in 2018, using the GI Bill to further his education. Upon arriving in Forest Grove, Mills found more doors opened to him through the university’s comprehensive music program, particularly through performance groups, which he believes prepared him to be more effective as a music therapist.
“Pacific is alive,” Mills said. “They have big, robust programs and I immediately wanted to be part of that. I signed up for choir. I was in the orchestra. I was in band. I took advantage of as many things as I could.”
That included hours in McCready Hall’s drum practice room, which proved an oasis for Mills while waiting for traffic to clear before his commute home to Portland’s Sellwood neighborhood.
“I was one of the only people in the drum practice room, night after night after night, taking advantage of all that there was,” Mills said. “There was a beautiful marimba, a xylophone, a tympani. So I went to school in the morning and spent all day at Pacific. I had such a great experience there.”
The people of Pacific not only made the transition from Marylhurst easier but have continued to play an influential role in Mills’ career following graduation. He not only keeps in touch with the music therapy faculty and staff through professional conferences and experiences but he also helps supervise music therapy students in clinical settings.
That includes students placed at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Portland, where his experience as a veteran builds rapport with patients.
“At the VA, I have a little tag that says ‘veteran,’ so they see that and recognize that,” said Mills, who also did a one-year tour in Afghanistan while in the Army. “It lends credibility, it lends trust. It says that I know a little bit about what they have been going through. It helps break those walls down earlier.”
Mills also practices music therapy at Cedar Hills Hospital, a mental health facility near Portland, and for a number of community groups in the Portland area. It is in those community settings, particularly in drum circles, where Mills truly sees how music therapy can have an incredible impact.
“Drumming is a huge grounding-like intervention. You can all get set on the same wavelength,” he said. “Before you know it, you’re making music together. And then you stop playing and you are in a different head space. It can really open people up. It’s just magic.”
And it is those drums that brought Mills full circle, from childhood to the military to using music to make others’ lives (and his own) better.
“If you really believe that music has healing properties and you want to share that, then this is right for you,” Mills said. “I would never have thought this is what I would be doing with my life, but it’s amazing.”