MC grad serves U.S. military veterans through music therapyNovember 09, 2023

The image to use for this article. Listing image managed through RSS tab. David Mills headshot

David Mills didn’t start reading music until he was a junior at Midland High School.  However, today, he relies on music to earn a living.  He doesn’t play in a symphony orchestra or have a band.  Instead, Miller uses music to manage a range of psychological and physical conditions and improve quality of life for those who served in the United States military.  He is a music therapist for the Department of Veteran Affairs at a veterans’ community living center in Amarillo.

“The center is an assisted living center, so the patients whom I see are elderly,” Mills explained.  “Many are suffering from dementia and terminal illnesses, and I use music to help maintain and improve their quality of life.  When I play the guitar and sing a song that they know, it helps them to remember things from their past.  It also relaxes them and lowers blood pressure.”

Mills said that he played the guitar off and on from the time he was 12 simply by ear but was never very serious about it.  At Midland High School, he played football until his junior year when he quit football and joined the choir.  His choir instructor Jeff Fentem encouraged and helped him to read music for voice purposes, and in 2012, he took some piano lessons.  When he was 17, he sang as a tenor in the Midland-Odessa Symphony & Chorale (now the West Texas Symphony).  

“After high school graduation in 2014, I enrolled at Midland College but still never considered music as a career,” Mills said.  “However, then I took Music Appreciation from Dr. Rabon Bewley, and that class was amazing!  It really flamed my interest in music.  I remember talking to my Midland College math teacher Linda Penny about how I really enjoyed music, and she suggested music therapy as a career.  When I mentioned it to my mother, she reinforced the idea.  So, I did some research and discovered that I could use my talent and interest in music to help others.”

Mills graduated from Midland College in 2017 with an Associate of Arts degree and transferred to West Texas A&M University (WTAMU) in Canyon, Texas.  He said that his research led him to WTAMU because of their renowned music program, including music therapy.  

“It was at WTAMU that I really developed musical abilities,” Mills recalled.  “I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in music with an emphasis in music therapy with an instrumental track.  When I’m working with patients, I prefer to use the guitar and sing, but occasionally, I play the piano and autoharp.”  

After performing over 1,000 hours as an intern in San Angelo, TX, where he worked with people of all ages with disabilities under the mentorship of a private therapist Amy Rogers, Mills obtained national certification as a Music Therapist-Board Certified (MT-BC).  Prior to his current position with the Department of Veteran Affairs, Mills worked at Northwest Behavioral Health Center in Amarillo, an acute psychiatric facility.  

“When I discovered an opportunity to use music therapy to work with military veterans, I jumped at the chance to be able to help this population,” Mills said.  “There is a myriad of benefits to music therapy services that bolster recovery, rehabilitation and resilience with veteran populations across treatment domains, such as physiological, neurological, psychological and social.  

“I first visit with patients and find out what kind of music they enjoy.  For most of my current patients, it is ’50s Rock & Roll, old-school Country or Gospel.  I usually start by pulling up a song on my tablet computer so that they can hear the music with the original voice recording.  We listen to the song together and discuss the emotions and memories the song elicits. Then, I will play and sing along and encourage them to join.  Sometimes, I’ll play a little bit of the song, and then they will want to stop and talk about a memory that the song triggered.  At other times, they just want to close their eyes and listen.”

Mills said that while he currently works with senior citizens, music therapy is also used with the very young, such as children who have an autism spectrum disorder for whom the music and rhythm can help to regulate emotions.  He explained that while he was working at Northwest Behavioral Health Center, he has also used music therapy for teens to reinforce playing instruments as a replacement behavior to self-harm, such as cutting.  

“Music is processed and produced through a different pathway than verbal speech,” Mills explained. “Bypassing that verbal pathway allows patients to express themselves, communicate with loved ones and experience the world more vibrantly.”

According to the American Music Therapy Association, using music therapy to help veterans is not new. Modern music therapy was first used after World War II when community musicians visited hospitals to perform for veterans.  The soldiers seemed to improve both physically and emotionally, eventually prompting the institutions to hire professionals for the job.

“It is very rewarding at that moment when art and science come together to create an awareness, an accomplishment, a breakthrough,” Mills said.  “I’m fortunate to be able to have that moment with those who have served our country.”

Mills and his wife Melissa have been married for almost five years.  They first met when they were attending Goddard Junior High in Midland and were friends throughout their junior high and high school years.  Romance blossomed when they were students at WTAMU.  Melissa has a degree in psychology and is working on a master’s degree and credential as a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC). 

In his spare time, Mills enjoys, of course, playing the guitar, but his song genre of choice when he isn’t working is Heavy Metal.   

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