Meet #DifferenceMaker Danielle Steffes, Music Therapist

Danielle Steffes is a licensed music therapist at Eventide Fargo and Sheyenne campuses. Here, Danielle poses for a photo of the first sunflowers she’d ever planted. A self-described “plant lady,” Danielle and her husband Cooper love gardening and working on the family farm. “Sunflowers were my grandma’s favorite flower. She was an amazing gardener and even won, ‘Yard of the Month’ one year. I grow sunflowers in my garden every year to feel closer to her,” Danielle said.

Since Danielle Steffes began working at Eventide as a Music Therapist in 2018, she’s enhanced the lives of hundreds of residents and their families with group and individual therapeutic sessions that make life even better. 

For Danielle, music therapy does many amazing things for people of all ages. Even though she has a personal love of music in general, it amazes her every time it helps people heal, connect, feel and smile.

“There’s so much enjoyment and motivation when we turn to music,” Danielle said. “From the movement aspect of dancing or chiming along with a drum to reminiscing about favorite lyrics, music experiences are really beneficial.” 

What Danielle most likes about being a music therapist (aside from interacting with amazing seniors living at Eventide) is how it can touch all aspects of living: personal identity, socialization, tradition and ceremony, emotional and spiritual. 

The making of a music therapist

Unlike most young people, Eventide Difference Maker Danielle Steffes knew what she wanted to do at a very young age.

All it took was recognizing her love of music—and a chance encounter with a professional music therapist while volunteering with her high school Girl Scouts troop.

“Each of us Girl Scouts were helping at a special needs child-care carnival and got matched up with children,” Danielle said. “I got matched with a little boy on the autism spectrum and had a really hard time getting him to focus on activities.”

Danielle performs a clarinet solo at Hughes Fine Art Center at UND in 2014.

Frustrated but determined, Danielle decided to turn on some music to see if it would help the young boy. “It was honestly like a light switched on all of a sudden. He was completely engaged, following all the directions, and responded verbally to questions when prompted. I was really enamored with the way that it happened so instantaneously,” she said.

After that, Danielle said to herself, “Well, I guess I know what I want to be when I grow up: a music therapist.”

And the world is forever a better place for it, especially here at Eventide where Danielle has helped build our Music Therapy program from the ground up since she started.

Danielle graduated from the Music Therapy Program at University of North Dakota in Grand Forks. Later, when interning at Banner University Medical Center in Phoenix in 2016, she realized the true potential of the work she chose for herself. 

“I had the opportunity to work with everyone that would potentially be admitted to the hospital for a variety of reasons,” Danielle said. “We had an epilepsy monitoring unit, behavioral health groups twice a week. We went off site for a Parkinson’s date group once a month. And then we also were in an antepartum unit for mothers experiencing high-risk pregnancies.”

With 1,200 training hours to complete before she qualified for her license in Music Therapy, Danielle explored the ways patients she encountered surpassed great obstacles through music. Many stories stick out to her at that time, but helping a pregnant woman learn to play the piano during the long hours of constant monitoring for her high-risk pregnancy might just top the list. 

“I didn’t really know what to expect, but I knew the mother needed something to normalize the hospital environment and help her feel comforted and relaxed,” she said. “The mother was very open and said, ‘You know, when I got pregnant, I was like, well, maybe I could learn piano during this pregnancy. And I was like, ‘Okay, yep, we can work with that for sure.’ ” 

In just a few short weeks, Danielle helped the mother learn how to read music and play some hymns that were important to the family. “She went from not being able to read music whatsoever to being able to play piano, honestly, better than I can.”

Also special was that the mother kept the piano lessons a secret from her family, so before the babies were born, she surprised her family with a new skill. 

“Those piano lessons and having that personal, purposeful use of time and, and way to spend the hours that she had was one thing, but it also allowed her to process those emotions related to having to be so far away from home and the anxiety related to having at-risk twins. It was really amazing to be a part of her journey.” 

The mother ended up having two healthy baby boys. “They were so beautiful and so healthy. And it was really wonderful,” Danielle said. 

“My grandpa Vern Miller moved into assisted living at Sheyenne Crossings in April 2022. I love being able to see him more often and we have even taken the time to go for bike rides with the bike Eventide purchased for residents’ use,” Danielle said.

Bringing the music to senior living

Similar to Danielle’s experience during her internship, she sees these transformations every day in her work with residents at Eventide Sheyenne Crossings and the Fargo location. Her practice takes her from group therapy sessions to highly individualized meetings one on one. 

She said she loves both group and individual music therapy and considers them separate but equally important aspects of growing bolder.

“When I get together with a group of folks that live here, really overall wellbeing is something that I try to address and so always offering music experiences that will prompt physical engagement, social engagement, and then cognitive engagement as well. And so, for the physical types of things in may seem really simple to hold on to, like a shaker or mallet or something like that,” Danielle said.

But the benefits don’t end there. “Actually being prompted to hold onto things or to move your body in certain ways will help you to stay independent for as long as possible,” she added. “We all feel most satisfied in life when we can be our independent selves. Music prompts those muscles to move and to stay healthy and to stay mobile.”

When Danielle works with people on an individual basis, she’s able to customize the experience for whatever that person is going through or would like to work on.

“I can really take a peek at that person and how they respond to music and what musical experiences may be most beneficial to kind of encourage,” Danielle said. “So for example, someone that I may work with may tend to feel more comfortable with the help of music. It can help them when they first move in and get comfortable with where they’re at, and in their stay with us. So it’s really dependent on the person and how they have kind of engaged with music throughout their lives as to what is going to be most beneficial for them.”

 

Musical moments: pure magic

Danielle’s favorite music therapy activities tend to be the group sessions where seniors come together and make music together. 

She often collaborates with Eventide Chaplain John Anderson during music events. Chaplain John sings, plays guitar and fiddle, and is known to liven the crowd with hymns and other beloved songs. 

“Those are my favorite when we get to work together, and even the staff gets into it and dances along,” Danielle said.

Another satisfying aspect of her job is participating in “Heart Songs,” a legacy project that memorializes loved ones toward end of life where she records heartbeats and sets the rates per minute to a song that matches. 

“The projects just resonated so much with me, because sometimes when it’s time to say goodbye, we’re not ready, or we want that piece of a person,” Danielle said. 

Eventide received a donation through Eventide Foundation to purchase special equipment to record and edit the songs for families. 

“Their heart beat becomes the beat of the song. They’re pretty amazing,” Danielle said. 

Danielle with her husband Cooper and dog Milton, a regular participant in Friday group music therapy sessions at Eventide.

Making more music

Danielle said she’s very happy to work with people living their retirement years at Eventide. 

“I love working with seniors,” she said. “Even though I thought I’d end up working with children, Eventide and the community really spoke to me and I can’t imagine having worked anywhere else at the moment.”

Her appreciation for Eventide is certainly reciprocated by those who get to work with her, as well as those who benefit from her music therapy.

Thank you, Danielle!