From the time she was a teenager, Barbara Reuer knew she wanted to help people through music. Her younger brother Ronnie suffered from muscular dystrophy and found comfort in music. Ronnie died when Reuer was 18, and she dedicated her life to using music to heal others.
“Throughout his short eight years of life, he loved music,” she says. “When I started college, I really couldn’t decide what to major in. That same year, my brother passed away and I thought, someday I’m going to do something to honor him.”
A guest lecturer at her college in her native South Dakota opened her eyes to music therapy and that’s been her focus ever since. She completed an equivalency program in music therapy and earned both a master’s degree and PhD. She worked in mental health and education before trading the Midwest for the West Coast and starting her first business, MusicWorx, in San Diego.
“I decided to move to San Diego—didn’t know anybody, didn’t have a job, didn’t have a place to live—but I packed up, sold everything. My roommate at the time drove out with me, a hundred dollars to my name,” she says. “It was serendipity how an extended friends network helped me make connections. Then the first week I was in San Diego, I registered MusicWorx.”
At the time, San Diego had only four music therapists, all of whom worked for the community college district, Reuer explains. She launched an internship program to bring more to the area, which, in a private practice, was relatively rare at the time. It was a success and, to date, the program has seen more than 200 interns.
Reuer sought to further expand her music therapy services by launching the nonprofit Resounding Joy in 2004.
“I was sitting in church and the pastor was praying for someone who had hip surgery. I knew this woman loved music, and I thought, who’s going to visit her? There’s not a music therapist to visit everybody who’s home bound. So, I got this idea about training people on how to be with other people and being good listeners and using music as a tool,” she says.
Resounding Joy has grown over the years and now features music therapy programs for members of the military and veterans, called Sounds of Service; a program for children in the hospital or in hospice care, called Sounds of Healing; and Shine and Sing, a program for children with special needs. The common theme is using music, whether it’s drumming, playing an instrument, or writing a song, to process feelings and let go. Resounding Joy also recently opened a satellite branch in Indiana.
“Therapists are trained to facilitate groups and work with individuals in finding the right medium. What’s nice about music therapy, unlike the other creative arts therapies, is that it’s universal,” Reuer says. “Music seems non-threatening to people, but it’s really emotive and helps the clients express themselves.”
Reflecting on her accomplishments, Reuer also looks to the future. On December 2, Resounding Joy will celebrate its 20th anniversary. Reuer will also officially announce her retirement and name her successor.
“You know that you change lives every day, but you don’t really think about the big picture,” she says. “In getting ready for this 20th anniversary, we remember the most important thing is making sure we do the very best for the clients, and then making sure that we take care of our therapists—it looks like it’s fun, but it’s really hard when you’re dealing with emotions. It’s overwhelming. It’s humbling. It’s exciting to know that a vision that you had has come into fruition.”