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Music’s Healing Power

By Jessica Pasley
July 2011

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On any given day, Jenny Plume can be seen pushing her instrument-laden, two-tiered cart through the hallways of the Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt. Her arrival onto patient floors is a welcome sight to staff and parents alike.

Plume’s instruments often offer a remedy for what is ailing a patient. Her prescription for healing is music to the ears – literally.

Studies have shown that using music in medical settings can help lower blood pressure, reduce stress in patients and assist with pain management.

But Plume, a music therapist, doesn’t need to refer to studies and skim through pages of research findings to know the impact that music has on patients. She experiences it every day.

“Music is therapeutic,” said Plume. “There is a science to what we do. There is a reason we do every single thing and there is a pattern to it all.

“We might look like we are playing,” she said laughing, “But, we know why we are playing, and it all has a purpose.”

Music Therapy
According to the American Music Therapy Association (AMTA) music therapy is a clinical and evidence-based use of music interventions. It is used to alleviate pain, elevate mood and counteract depression as well as apprehension and fear. It promotes movement and wellness. It is a way to express feelings, enhance memory, improve communication and calm or relax a patient.

Jenny Plume. Photo by Joe Howell.

Jenny Plume. Photo by Joe Howell.

Plume, MT-BC, joined Vanderbilt in 2007 when music therapy was integrated into the overall treatment plan for pediatric patients. The therapy is used for patients 6 months and older to help them cope with their hospitalization by helping them express their fears, distract them during procedures, teach them a new skill as well as socialize with others in a small group setting.

“Music, whether it is at a time of sorrow, fear or happiness, is a form of support,” said Plume. “I am not introducing music to people. I’m bringing it into their room to say – this is here for you and we’re going to make this work however you need it to support you through this journey.”

The Music Therapy program at Children’s Hospital is supported by the Julian T. Fouce Fund. Tom and Maria Fouce started the fund in memory of their son, Julian, a great lover of music, who passed away in 2005. The program is the first of its kind at Vanderbilt. Other projects for patients include Music Days, a weekly interactive music group, and Band in a Bag, which brings music to the child if a music therapist or volunteer isn’t available.

It Helps the Medicine Go Down
While some patients jump at the opportunity to participate in music therapy, there are others who take a little longer to warm up to the idea.

Since starting at Vanderbilt, Plume would check in on patient Chris Weber during her normal rounds at the hospital. Weber, who was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis at 3 months, would have two-to three-week hospital stays during his treatments. For the longest time, Weber seemed content watching TV, playing on the computer and listening to music.

One day Weber, 15 at the time, was intrigued by Plume’s activities and invited her into his room. Now three years later, Weber has written more than 10 songs and learned to play the guitar. He has aspirations of studying music in college.

“He is definitely someone I look at and know that music therapy made a difference in his life,” said Plume. “He now has a love and interest for something that he did not have before. If I can provide one patient with self-esteem, confidence and focus … with direction, a healthy passion and drive, then I feel really, really good about that.”

Weber, 18, knows his interaction with Plume made an impact on his life.

“When I am writing songs, it makes me feel special,” he said. “I feel like I can accomplish things in life. I am not just sitting around, bored and down and out.

When Vince Gill lends his unmistakably identifiable tenor voice to a song, he makes it his own. Gill recorded “That’s Who I Am,” penned by patient Chris Weber (right). Photo by Joe Howell.

When Vince Gill lends his unmistakably identifiable tenor voice to a song, he makes it his own. Gill recorded “That’s Who I Am,” penned by patient Chris Weber (right). Photo by Joe Howell.

“I am doing something that makes me happy and takes my mind off of being sick. I don’t know, I guess it really lets me be free and helps me let all the stress out too.”

One of his songs, “Don’t Give Up,” chronicles his journey with cystic fibrosis, an inherited disease that causes thick, sticky mucus to build up in the lungs and digestive tract. Another of his creations, “That’s Who I Am,” was recorded by well-known artist Vince Gill. It is part of a CD compilation that will be used to promote the music therapy program.

Amy McLaurin and her daughter, 4-year-old Ansley, enjoy all aspects of the music therapy program.

McLaurin said the program was a source of motivation during her daughter’s treatments for pleuropulmonary blastoma, a primary lung tumor.

“It was definitely beneficial for all of us,” said McLaurin of the music interventions. “Music has been so healing for her. It was the one thing that she would never turn down and served as a positive aspect of her treatment.

“I think music is an opportunity for another level of healing. It provides an escape and is great for the parents too. It is uplifting to see your child happy and enthusiastic about something. It gives us an emotional boost, too.

“For Ansley it planted a seed and gave her a whole new awareness of something she absolutely loved to do. It has not only been healing for her at the hospital, it has carried over at home as well.”

If Plume could have her way, music would be included in every aspect of a patient’s hospitalization.

“If we could have music coming out of the walls everywhere, then healing power will occur,” she said, quickly adding, “of course in conjunction with all the medicine!”

Musicians On Call
Vanderbilt has taken note of the importance music plays in a health care setting. Vanderbilt University Medical Center utilizes music in various ways to help patients, families, visitors and staff. In 2007, Musicians on Call was introduced to Vanderbilt and its affiliated facilities. It provides in-room performances by local entertainers.

Dylan Altman with Musicians On Call entertains surgical patient, Robert Ricco, who is clearly moved by the music. Photo by Steve Green.

Dylan Altman with Musicians On Call entertains surgical patient, Robert Ricco, who is clearly moved by the music. Photo by Steve Green.

Each week performers will spend three hours going room-to-room singing to patients and their families. To date, more than 100 volunteer musicians have performed for more than 40,000 people at the six locations that include VUMC, Children’s Hospital, Stallworth Rehabilitation Hospital, the VA Tennessee Valley Healthcare Systems in Nashville and Murfreesboro, and Bordeaux Hospital, a skilled nursing facility.

Musicians on Call started in 1999 in New York. It has since expanded to Philadelphia, Miami, Washington D.C. and Los Angeles.

“This program has received really great reaction,” said Katy Brown, program director of Musicians on Call in Nashville. “Not only do we find that nurses schedule around our songwriters’ appearances on the floor, the patients’ responses are incredible, and the musicians say they get more out of it than the patients.

“They love sharing their gifts and having the opportunity to brighten someone’s day.”

Dylan Altman, 39, is a volunteer musician for the program. He was recruited by a fellow singer/songwriter who thought Altman could use a little pick-me-up.

“I was in a dark place and being involved in Musicians on Call really gave me perspective. I fell in love with the program. It’s a great concept. I always loved music’s healing power, but being able to provide that to someone else…”

Altman, who wrote the No. 1 hit “Watch the Wind Blow By,” recorded by Tim McGraw, performs three times a month through Musicians on Call. He said his performances can be likened to a patient receiving a bouquet of flowers, balloons or a stuffed animal.

“It’s that unexpected gift or treat,” he said. “It’s rewarding for me and my listeners. It’s nice to be told that a patient smiled for the first time in a long time because of something I did.

“I keep coming back because it makes me feel good. Even if I am tired, I look forward to coming to perform because I’m giving to someone else. And whether I am on a stage, at a writer’s night, part of a band or playing at the hospital – I give it my all.”

Altman, who specializes in old rhythm and blues and gospel, is accompanied by a volunteer who asks each patient if they would be interested in hearing a song.

During a recent visit to the ninth floor of Vanderbilt University Hospital, patient Robert Ricco Sr. was distractedly pushing roast beef and peas around on his dinner plate.

A guitar-strapped Altman entered his room and Ricco’s disposition changed.

As he sang “Soothe Me” by Sam Cooke, Ricco settled into his chair, leaned his head back and removed his glasses. With a broad smile, he swayed to the music while tapping his hand to the beat.

As Altman neared the end of his song, Ricco was humming along and raised his arms above his head, now lost in the moment of the music.

“This is great,” Ricco said. “His playing made me feel special. I want to hear more. Can I pay you for more songs?”

“Your smile is payment enough sir,” replied Altman with a big grin. “Thank you.”

The group moved on to the next patient room and the music once again began.

According to Leslie Faerstein, Ed.D., LCSW, executive director of Musicians on Call, the impact musicians have on patients, families and staff at health care facilities is remarkable.

“It is amazing how the energy shifts in a room,” said Faerstein. “Music is a really powerful tool. When the musician begins, people really respond. There is a physiological reaction to it.

“When I see the profound effect that music has on people, every time I see the program in action, it is striking to me how important our work is.”

Musicians on Call also offers a CD ‘pharmacy’ that is tailored to a specific health care facility. Each library is stocked with 200 CDs. Patients are able to check out a CD as well as a CD player to use at their bedside. There are more than 350 such libraries throughout the United States.

The Benefits of the Beat
Faerstein cites findings from a 1983 study by Lucanne Magill Bailey on the Effects of Live Music vs. Tape-Recorded Music on Hospitalized Cancer Patients, which showed a significant impact on emotional and physical changes in patients who heard live music.

“There have been many studies performed to show that music can help to manage stress, reduce pain, enhance memory in Alzheimer’s patients, and express what people are feeling who can’t otherwise access their feelings,” said Faerstein. “We saw in the movie “The King’s Speech” how music helps with stuttering.”

Vanderbilt patient Michelle Allison used music in her post-operative regime to meet her breathing requirements.

“They wanted me to take deep breaths post surgery, and I have been playing my music and singing along to work my way up to taking the deep breaths,” she said. “And it worked! It was much more fun than sucking on that blow thing (incentive spirometer).”

Faerstein agreed that the incorporation of music in all levels of treatment in a medical setting is most useful.

“We all know how music and making our own playlists helps us to express how we’re feeling or to distract us from our emotional state,” she said. “It does the same with hospitalized patients. We know how music can be transformative.”


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