Why I Am A Music Therapist: Ashley Gant

At A Place To Be, we work everyday to help people with disabilities, medical and mental health struggles face, navigate and overcome life's challenges using the clinically-based practices of music therapy and expressive arts therapy. Our Board-Certified therapists create individualized plans to achieve therapeutic goals and discover unrealized potential all in a supportive, engaging and fun environment.

Our “Why I Am A Music Therapist” video and blog series captures the passion and driving inspiration behind behind the work. Enjoy!

Meet Ashley Gant

Ashley Gant has practiced Music Therapy at A Place To Be since 2012. A Board-Certified Music Therapist, Ashley graduated from Shenandoah University with a Bachelor's of Music Therapy in 2012, and a Master’s in 2016. 

Ashley works with a variety of clients, each with their own challenges, strengths, and personalities. She enjoys working with school aged individuals on the autism spectrum, adults with developmental or intellectual disabilities, children as young as two with Down syndrome, mature adults recovering from a strokes, and everything in between. In addition to offering individual sessions, Ashley is very involved with many other programs at A Place To Be. From Lunch Bunch to Immersion and summer camps; Ashley uses these opportunities to help individuals of all ages socialize, communicate, connect, serve and live.

Music is Connection…Music is Beauty…Even in a Hospital Room

By Ray Leone, MMT, MT-BC 

Ray is a Board-Certified music therapist who directs A Place To Be’s medical music therapy program through a partnership with Inova Health Systems.

One of the greatest benefits of using music as a therapeutic idiom in a hospital setting is that music helps us make connections. Connections to others, connections to thoughts and feelings and, perhaps most importantly, connections to ourselves. Music can help us retrieve and find the real self that is still inside, even when confusion or dementia may take over.

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In the hospital where I work, providing music therapy services, I was recently asked to visit with a gentleman in his early 70s, whom had been in the hospital for about a week, dealing with and consumed with some neurological issues (“altered mental status”) - confusion from dementia and agitation. When I walked into his room he was in the chair, had a pained look on his face with his head down…but not really sleeping. He was subtly rocking back and forth in his chair. It didn’t seem as though he knew where he was or was aware that I was there. I sat down, took out my guitar and simply started playing. I was improvising some sounds, just to gauge where he was and to see if I would get any reaction. After a few moments, he abruptly sat forward and the hospital aide, who was in the room making sure he stayed safe, attended to him and helped him settle back into the chair. He looked at me briefly than seemed to go back into his own inner world. After improvising for a bit more, and not really getting any response, I started playing ‘In My Life’ by the Beatles (just a hunch, based on his age and what I was feeling), quietly and just incorporating some humming to start. When I eventually started singing the lyrics, still presenting everything cautiously down-tempo, he slowly seemed to start “waking up”. As the song progressed his pained face gradually softened; eventually into a slight smile. His entire body appeared to almost jump-start and fill up with life. And then…he started “mouthing” some of the words. When I finished the song, I looked at him and said, “So, you like the Beatles.” He looked at me with a pause, smiled broadly and said, “Oh yeah.” ‘Hey Jude’ was next…more smiling…more singing. And now, he looked like a real person. Not the shell of himself that I met when I came into the room. The hospital aide was standing, looking at him almost in awe; “Mr. A! You’re singing!”

“Do you like Peter, Paul and Mary?” I asked (again, a hunch). “Oh…my favorite!” We sang ‘Where Have All the Flowers Gone’ and then he asked for ‘Puff the Magic Dragon’. Next, Simon and Garfunkel and Joan Baez (he was a “folkie”!) The change that happened was almost as if someone turned on a light switch (a dimmer switch really), and energy just slowly went back into his body - and his soul. Well…music is that energy and music can turn on, or jump-start our brains (remember, music is the only true “whole-brain” activity we know of). Music can help find the real person inside when we are hidden within ourselves. Music can connect us to our past and thus, help bring us into the present. And music can bring beauty into (or back into) our worlds. When we finished, he was smiling and he said, “Oh, I love that music. This is so beautiful…I feel so good.”

“This is so beautiful” was what stood out to me the most. Sometimes it’s simply the pure aesthetics, the pure beauty in music - music that we grew up with, music that we love - that can help us make a connection to the world again. I’m not sure what happened after I left. Perhaps he was still somewhat back to being his old self, or perhaps he went back into his dark inner world. But even at the very least, if something - music - allowed him to experience the aesthetic beauty of the world for 45 minutes, allowed him to simply be “himself” for a little while, while in a hospital for “altered mental status” - is that so bad? Music is connection…Music is beauty…Music is wellness.

The healing power of music...

(*the stories presented in this blog are based on accounts and experiences and are not actual accounts and experiences)

Amy and Ryan The Making of Abira

by Melanie Mullinax

When Abira and the Mountain opens to a packed audience in October, Amy Stone and Ryan Perry will realize yet another dream come true, both in their personal lives, and in their dedication to spreading awareness, empathy and acceptance throughout our community.

Amy, 23, will take the lead role as the beautiful and innovative princess Abira, who happens to use a wheelchair. Ryan, 22, will present the strong voice of the Mountain that helps provide strength and inspiration to Abira, who discovers that by embracing her own challenges, she can also help others.

But the story of Amy and Ryan runs much deeper than playing the leading roles of A Place To Be’s newest full-scale musical.  

 Amy Stone and Ryan Perry

Amy, who was born with cerebral palsy, and Ryan, who has high functioning autism, wrote the original screenplay for Abira. The two met at A Place To Be several years ago, and in addition to being strong advocates and ambassadors for supporting others with disabilities in our community, they also began their own fairytale romance. 

At the day of this interview Ryan, beaming at Amy, offered, “We’ve been dating one year, seven months and 19 days.”

Their affection, respect and acceptance of each other is as obvious as their devotion to helping others and expanding understanding. It is also what sparked the idea of Abira and the Mountain.

“We were having a conversation while having lunch at Panera,” Ryan says. “I was telling Amy about how impressed I was with the newest Power Ranger story line, depicting a Power Ranger with Autism.” Amy agreed, adding, “Now we just need a Disney Princess in a wheelchair.”

Despite what may appear to be challenges to casual onlookers, Amy and Ryan have few limitations. So, if Disney was not ready for a princess in a wheelchair, Amy and Ryan were ready to write about one.

Ryan, a talented writer, started the screenplay. He would read back his work to Amy who would comment and make suggestions. What they ended up with was a story of a strong and beautiful princess, who happened to be in a wheelchair, who found the courage and strength to leave the safe confines of her castle to find others like herself, and to become a source of  inspiration and strength.

If you knew Amy, you would recognize this storyline as paralleling her own life.

When Amy first began coming to A Place To Be in 2010, she could barely speak said Kim Tapper, Executive Director of A Place To Be. “Amy has quadriplegic cerebral palsy (which means all four of her limbs are affected). Spending her life in a wheelchair, having numerous caregivers...she felt very vulnerable,” Kim said.  But through music therapy, Amy quickly found her voice both physically and metaphorically. “Amy’s mind is brilliant,” Kim added.  “She is a creative visionary, and she wanted to be known for more than just a girl in a wheelchair.”

Amy helped develop A Place To Be’s signature program, The Same Sky Project®, a traveling group of performers who advocate for and promote messages of empathy, love, inclusion, acceptance and inspiration through music and performance. Since 2011, more than 60,000 local students have been impacted by The Same Sky Project productions.

Amy has also become a tireless mentor, spokesperson and ambassador for both A Place To Be and the local school system, speaking at schools about the challenges student face and even helping to rewrite IEP (Individualized Education Programs) to better support public school children with challenges. “If I can do something to help other kids, so that they don’t have to go through what I went through, it will all be worth it,” says Amy of her work. 

And now, through the art of theater, Abira and the Mountain offers one more venue for Ryan and Amy to share their story, and support and inspire others.

It is not unusual for A Place To Be to use the creative work of its talented clients to create musicals and powerful performances, but Abira and the Mountain is different. “Most of the time, when we produce a musical or performance, our clients are collaborating with us. Abira and the Mountain is truly originated by Amy and Ryan. They brought it to us as a whole story, we are just turning it into a musical to be shared with others,“ Kim said.

But Ryan and Amy are quick to point out, that turning their story into a full-scale musical was still a major undertaking. “The music in the production is astonishing and it was written and arranged by Brandon Hasson (a music therapist at A Place To Be) and the the show features a remarkable and talented group of performers and a production crew that really bring this story to life.”

 Abira and the Mountain

Abira and the Mountain will have its public premier in Middleburg, playing one day only at the Hill School on October 7 at 2:00 p.m. Tickets are $10 at the door. The musical will then tour Loudoun County Middle schools throughout the fall as part of The Same Sky Project underwritten entirely by generous support from the Virts Miller Foundation.

Amy and Ryan hope the show will move others to spread more compassion and understanding throughout our community. “I hope the messages of the musical don’t just hang in the auditorium. I hope people look around and see people who are different from them and reach out,” Ryan said. Amy added, “This is not just a beautiful show to see on stage, people need to apply it to their real lives. “ 

And if you didn’t catch it, there is not a prince in this story. “We wanted the princess to be able to do this on her own,” Amy said.  Smiling at his own real-life princess, Ryan added, “Maybe we’ll add a prince in the sequel. “

Why I Am A Music Therapist: Skylar Freeman

At A Place To Be, we work everyday to help people with disabilities, medical and mental health struggles face, navigate and overcome life's challenges using the clinically-based practices of music therapy and expressive arts therapy. Our Board-Certified therapists create individualized plans to achieve therapeutic goals and discover unrealized potential all in a supportive, engaging and fun environment.

Our “Why I Am A Music Therapist” video and blog series captures the passion and driving inspiration behind behind the work. Enjoy!

Meet Skylar Freeman

Skylar Freeman joined A Place To Be as a music therapist after graduating from Shenandoah University with a Bachelor’s in Music Therapy. You can find Skylar leading groups, working with individual clients, and conducting the “Different Strokes For Different Folks” stroke choir. In the summers, Skylar is heavily involved with her favorite A Place To Be program, summer camps!

Saying Goodbye to Cody

By Allison Echard, MMT, MT-BC

This summer, A Place To Be said goodbye to Miss Cody Huntington. After a fierce journey of resilience, love, and strength, Cody passed away this past July. As her music therapist, I want to share how amazing this young woman was and continues to be in the lives of those she touched.

In January of 2017, Cody started music therapy at A Place To Be. She began music therapy after a tragic car accident that resulted in a traumatic brain injury a year and a half prior. When we first started working together, I learned that Cody loved sea turtles, the ocean, and country music. She often wore bright t-shirts that had something to do with one of the three, and over the course of our time together, Cody consistently chose songs like “Toes” by Zac Brown Band to sing and dance to. Through music, we focused on vocalizing and increasing Cody’s mobility. Though she could not speak, Cody vocalized “ah” along to her favorite country and pop songs and stretched her arms, legs, and neck in an effort to play instruments like the guitar and tambourine. Cody developed so much control and strength in her legs that she played the tambourine with her feet at APTB’s Winter Recital by kicking the tambourine to the beat of “Little Drummer Boy.”

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Despite frequent hospital visits and medical complications, Cody and her mom, Karen, (and often an extra family member, friend, and even a dog on occasion) drove all the way from Warrenton each week to come to music therapy. And each week, both Cody and Karen arrived with smiles on their faces and a genuine kindness and warmth that permeated the whole building. Our sessions usually started with an update from Karen on Cody’s latest surgery or treatment that always sounded way more taxing and exhausting than either of them let it on to be. During these particular sessions, I would frequently check in with Cody to make sure she was up for one more exercise, one more try, one more challenge, keeping in mind that she just got home from the hospital. It never failed, however, that Cody would look me right in the eye and give a clear thumbs-up, communicating, “Bring it on!”

Cody demonstrated this resilience and strength up until her final session in June of this year. Although she’s not physically with us anymore, her lessons of strength and love will always be with me, the APTB family, and everyone who knew her. I am especially reminded of this when I hear the song, “Toes” by Zac Brown Band, one of Cody’s favorites during her last several sessions. This is a fun song about going on vacation to the beach and saying goodbye to your home, as the chorus starts: Adios and vaya con dios, which translates to: Goodbye and go with God. I can’t think of a better send-off for Miss Cody, as she has indeed gone with God, and likely to a beach brighter and better than we could ever imagine.

Same story/Different day

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By Ray Leone, MMT, MT-BC 

Ray is a Board-Certified music therapist who directs A Place To Be’s medical music therapy program through a partnership with Inova Health Systems.

This a story that I’ve told many times before:

Recently at the hospital where I work I had the pleasure of spending some time with a gentleman and his family in the oncology unit over the course of a few days.  He is in his late 70s with various medical issues and was, at the time, declining fairly fast.  He had recently become non-responsive and was put on “comfort care”; the goal now of simply keeping him comfortable at this point.  The first day I visited and was asked to help he appeared a bit agitated and perhaps in some pain.  I provided music for him and a few family members to help with relaxation and comfort.

The next day I was asked to return as his daughter was visiting and had heard that the music was helpful.  She greeted me warmly and thanked me for coming as it was just decided that he was soon being discharged to “home-hospice”.  When I saw him now he appeared to be more stable, although still unresponsive, eyes closed and with some labored breathing.  As his daughter sat next to the bed she told me that he loved classic country and folk music.  I started lightly playing some chords on the guitar to set the tone and then merged into a down-tempo version of Johnny Cash’s ‘Ring of Fire’.  As I started to sing the first line - she burst into tears.  As I continued, she was holding his hand and stroking his arm.  And there was a lot of emotion.  When I finished, I sat in silence to give her a moment as, obviously, this song was bringing up something for her.  After a pause she said, “We used to sing that song together when I was a little girl.  I remember sitting on his lap and that is the first song I remember singing with him.  Wow…I was going to ask you to play that but wasn’t sure if I could handle it.”  She then told me that she was having trouble dealing with his rapid decline, especially since her mother passed away less than a year ago.  This was all happening so fast.  After a few more songs, she paused and asked if I could play 'Can’t Help Falling in Love’.  She said that it was her favorite song and she learned it because her father used to sing it all the time; it was even her wedding song.  I started the song and there were a few more tears.  Then, about halfway through, he opened his eyes and appeared to smile.  (I don’t know if he was actually smiling or if he was aware of the music at this point, but for her, in this moment…he was smiling.)  She looked at me and said, “Oh my God…he’s smiling!  I’ve not seen that in quite some time.”  She was now also smiling through her tears (as was I).  It was a very touching moment.  When I finished she said, “Thank you for the music, it was great to hear those old songs again.  And thank you for taking me down memory lane with him one more time.”

Why did I choose 'Ring of Fire’ to start?  Was it by chance?  Why, in other cases, do I seem to choose the song that was played at their wedding, a funeral, the prom, the song when they met?  Is it by chance?

I also recently visited with a lovely older woman in her 80s, and her son who was visiting.  She was in the hospital for some breathing issues, but also had some confusion as a result of dementia.  Her affect was flat and she was looking off when I sat down and took out my guitar, but when I started playing and singing ‘When You Wish Upon a Star’ she held eye contact with me, slightly smiled and finally started lightly singing along.  As the song progressed, I noticed her son leave the room.  After we finished she said, “Do you know, that was my husband’s favorite song and it was sung at his funeral?  He passed away last month."  She then proceeded to tell me a little story about him, when they met and how he would fix up their apartment…and sing that song. 

Music equals connection.  When music is presented and shared, especially during times of such high emotion, there is an immediate connection that happens - between patient, caregiver, daughter, son, friend…me.  Always.  Music brings us together on another level like nothing else.  And music gave a daughter and her father, and a son and his mother, a very meaningful moment during a time when life (and death) makes one question what really is meaningful.  Music creates meaning.  Music creates connection.  And most importantly…music heals.

The healing power of music… 

(*the stories presented in this blog are based on accounts and experiences and are not actual accounts and experiences)

A tale of 2 ladies…and music.

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By Ray Leone, MMT, MT-BC 

Ray is a Board-Certified music therapist who directs A Place To Be’s medical music therapy program through a partnership with Inova Health Systems.

Music, and art in general, is subjective and very personal and on any given day at the hospital where I work, it touches and affects everyone whom I work with in very different ways.  It always amazes me how a simple song, style, mode, key, tempo or chord progression can have an individual effect on personal healing.  I learn something everyday when working in this amazing atmosphere with these amazing people that allow me into the world of their hospital rooms; people who allow me to share music with them during some of the most heightened times of life (and end of life).  I’d like to introduce you to 2 lovely ladies I had the honor to meet this past week:

The first was a woman in her 70s, in the oncology unit, who is now in palliative care for an end stage cancer.  When we met she looked tired and spent, however, was very “with it” and open to having me spend a little time with her.  When I asked how she was doing she said, with a slight smile, “It’s been a long road but I’m here today…and that’s good.”  She wasn’t in pain but just feeling generally bad and after I told her why I was there she said, “Okay, sit down and let’s see what you got."  She loves both spiritual music and the blues (contrast or conformity?) and when I started playing and singing, she closed her eyes and appeared to drift away with the music.  Her somewhat hardened face softened into a peaceful contentedness.  I started with ‘Old Rugged Cross’ and worked my way around to 'Route 66’.  During the later she was slowly grooving with some light movement with her head and feet, although still looking relaxed with her eyes closed while lying in her hospital bed.  When I finished and was packing up she said, "Everyone comes in here and gives me pills and takes blood, you come in and sing to me…now that makes me feel better."  Her smile made me feel warm inside. 

I then met with a woman, in the general unit, in her early 80s who’s in the hospital for various respiratory issues.  She also has dementia and gets agitated when the doctors and nurses try to work with her.  She was accompanied by her very loving daughter who told me that she loves music, also spiritual as well as the music of the 50s (again, conformity?)  When I entered her room she appeared quite confused and had an expressionless face; she barley seemed able to keep her eyes open.  However, when I started playing, just improvising around on the guitar to start, it was as if a switch went on…her face lit up and suddenly there was life in her eyes.  She held my eye contact and smiled.  Her daughter said, "Oh my God…that’s the most I’ve seen out of her today!"  When I stared singing she started bopping her head and when I worked my way to 'This Little Light of Mine’ she started singing along.  Her daughter was laughing through a few tears and took out her phone to film us (she said that she was going to send this to all of her relatives).  After the song, I said to her "You have a beautiful voice.”  And she immediately replied, “No, you have a beautiful voice” and started laughing.  Now there was no confusion and we were having a very real moment, in and around the music.  After a few more songs (and more bopping) I eventually tried to bring things down to close out the session.  I started playing and singing a down-tempo version of 'Love Me Tender’ but after a few phrases, she started bopping again in the bed and the intended “lullaby” turned into an upbeat 50s shuffle.  It was as if she couldn’t help herself…and I was just following her lead.  As I was packing up, her daughter said that the music seemed to just wake her up and that it was amazing to see (it was!)  She (the daughter) then started looking for music to play for her on her phone.  She (the patient) looked right into my eyes and gave me quite a smile as I said goodbye; a beautiful smile that I would cherish for the remainder of the day.

While music is indeed personal and subjective, amongst other things, it can soothe, ease, invigorate, move and bring one into the present moment.  And that is why music is so effective in a medical environment.

The healing power of music…

(*the stories presented in this blog are based on accounts and experiences and are not actual accounts and experiences)

The gift of a song…

By Ray Leone, MMT, MT-BC 

Ray is a Board-Certified music therapist who directs A Place To Be’s medical music therapy program through a partnership with Inova Health Systems.

Several months ago, when I was still fairly new at the hospital where I work as a music therapist, I met Mr. B. in the oncology unit.   Mr. B. was in for a few days for his chemotherapy treatment.  When I entered his room for the first time and introduced myself and told him that I was a music therapist, he looked at me in an odd way; perhaps wondering why I was there and what I was going to do.  Mr. B., in his early 70s, was a bit gruff.  He gave the appearance of a football coach, or a longshoreman, but in a gentlemanly way, offered me a seat.  I asked him how he was doing and he said he felt fine.  It seemed more of an annoyance that he had to stay in the hospital for a few days for his treatment.  He had more important things to get to.  After a bit of small talk, Mr. B. said “Well, are you going to take that guitar out and play something?”

Mr. B. told me that he liked country music, “Real country music, not this crap that you hear today.”  So I started with Johnny Cash.  After I played and sang, Mr. B. looked at me over his glasses and said, “Hmmm…not bad. Since you are here, you might as well play something another one.”  With each song, his stone face softened a bit.  I believe, Mr. B., was finding the music and the company…comforting.  After a few songs and a little more chit-chat, he said, “Ray, before you go, would you play ‘Amazing Grace’?”  As I finished the song, I noticed he was wiping away a few tears.  He then said, “Thank you Ray, I’ll be back in about 6 weeks, maybe I’ll see you then.”

When Mr. B., was back for another round of chemo, I visited with him again.  After a few country songs (real ones), he asked if I knew the song “In The Garden”.   I did not.  He said, “Ray, do yourself a favor and look it up.”  That night I did, and the next day when I went back to see him and played and sang it…more tears.  Mr. B. then opened up a bit about his cancer.  He told me it was a tough road, there was pain that no one knew about and he worried about his family.  But whenever he felt down he would rely on his faith.  He would sing, in his mind, ‘In The Garden’.

The next time I saw him, during his next round, he was looking a bit frail.  “Ray”, he said quietly with his eyes closed, “Will you sing ‘In The Garden’ for me?  I need to hear it.”  I sang, more tears, and then we just sat in silence.

I hadn’t see Mr. B. for months.  And during those months, ‘In The Garden’ became one of my go to songs.  I played it many times, especially for those patients who were really sick and relied on their faith.   Often times, this particular song brought on tears.  And I always thought of Mr. B., wondering how he was doing.

Just recently I saw Mr. B. again, this time in the ICU.  He was in pain, had some various complications and when I said “Hello” to him he said, “Ray, things are not good.”  I didn’t get to visit and share music with him at that particular time as he was going for a procedure.  When I was back on the unit the next day, one of the social workers grabbed me and asked me to go see Mr. B., to see if I could help.  I didn’t know what I was walking into and when I got to his room he looked very frail, he was agitated and very confused.  He was moaning and he was in pain.  It was so hard to see him suffering.  I sat and played.  I didn’t know if he knew I was there.  Finally, I played and sang ‘In The Garden’ and there were tears…they were mine.  Mr. B. passed away the next day.  I had seen him various times over the past year and my last moments with him, fittingly, was with the song ‘In The Garden’.  

Mr. B. gave me a powerful gift, the gift of a song.  A gift that I will never forget and a gift that I will always use and cherish.  A gift that may help others with their own pain, emotions, uncertainty or celebration.  And every time I play and sing ‘In The Garden’, I will always think about my friend…Mr. B.

I come to the garden alone

While the dew is still on the roses

And the voice I hear, falling on my ear

The Son of God discloses

And He walks with me

And He talks with me

And He tells me I am His own

And the joy we share as we tarry there

None other has ever known

The healing power of music…

(*the stories presented in this blog are based on accounts and experiences and are not actual accounts and experiences)

Music to say “Hello” again…and music to say “Goodbye”

By Ray Leone, MMT, MT-BC 

Ray is a Board-Certified music therapist who directs A Place To Be’s medical music therapy program through a partnership with Inova Health Systems.

One of the interesting aspects of working as a music therapist in a medical setting is not knowing who I am going to see, or what I may face on any given day.  What I do know is that music can be very powerful to experience in the hospital. Music reduces stress and anxiety, music can be a voice for emotional expression, music can empower, music can create a soundscape of comfort at the end of life and music can even help celebrate the small steps towards healing.  On a recent morning I saw two patients that covered the ends of the spectrum as to how music can “help”…

The first patient I saw on that particular day was a woman in her early 60s who was in the ICU recovering from a recent cardiac arrest.  I had seen her the a few days prior, providing music for stress reduction and relaxation, as she was recovering.  But now she was sitting up in a chair and smiled warmly when I peeked in to say “hello” and check in on her.  When I asked her how she was doing she said, “Much better!  I’m getting stronger and I’m ready to move on!”  She was smiling and happy and we used music to celebrate and empower.  She would soon be going home and just days before her expected outcome was not so promising.  We jubilantly sang, “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow” and “I Can See Clearly Now”, among a few others and she was smiling, singing and her face showed relief and exhilaration.  Oh how great it is to celebrate “feeling better” with someone in the hospital!  This story had a happy ending.

After after seeing her I was asked to visit with a woman and her husband in the oncology unit; a very sad case with a very different feel.  She was in her late 40s, had battled ovarian cancer several years ago and until recently had appeared to be well.  However, she suddenly had a rapid recurrence, seemingly out of the blue, as she started to feel very ill.  When she got to the hospital earlier in the week she was told that cancer was now spreading rapidly all over her body.  She was declining very fast.  This all happened within a few days.  She and her husband have 2 children.  The children had no idea of her past diagnosis as they never told them; her prognosis was good then so they felt it was not necessary.  But when she came to the hospital now, she was told that she is very far along.  There was nothing to be done.  This week changed their life in a way like no other and part of the week was telling their children of the dire situation.  She would not live much longer.  The plan now was for her to leave the hospital for “home hospice” and they now have to prepare for the inevitable.  She was very afraid of dying and worried about her children.  And her husband was not knowing how to handle this; it all happened so fast and his face showed how blindsided he has been.  I was asked to visit with her and husband while they were waiting to take her home.  She was declining rapidly and when I sat on one side of the bed, with her husband on the other side, holding her hand, he just started weeping when the music started.  It was a bit of a surreal moment really, the 3 of us there.  There was nothing to say so, I just played, softly on the guitar, playing what I thought they may be feeling inside.  The improvised music was “holding” them, supporting them and giving them a space to just be and let out emotion.  After several minutes, she looked directly into my eyes (for the first time) and as I held her gaze, without even thinking I just started humming along with the guitar playing, trying to sooth and comfort, similar to what you may do with a scared child.  For a few moments, the dark room was so quiet except for the soundscape of my light guitar playing and soft humming.  For a few moments it felt oddly peaceful.  When I finished I stood to leave and nodded “goodbye” to her husband.  He walked right over and embraced me and whispered “thank you so much” into my ear.  I felt both empty and also satisfied that I was able to help in a small way.  I was honored to have spent some time with them.

In just a few hours, music helped to celebrate life and music prepared for dying.  As the day went on, many other situations arose and it just goes to show - music can be many things to many people.  And that is why it works so well in the hospital. 

The healing power of music… 

(*the stories presented in this blog are based on accounts and experiences and are not actual accounts and experiences)

Thank you…tomorrow?

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By Ray Leone, MMT, MT-BC 

Ray is a Board-Certified music therapist who directs A Place To Be’s medical music therapy program through a partnership with Inova Health Systems.

Working as a music therapist in acute care in a medical setting allows me the opportunity to work with a wide range of people.  And part of the music therapy experience, what makes it therapeutic, along with the music, is the relationship that is established between the therapist and the person with whom we are working with.  In acute care however, I very seldom get to work with someone for more then a few sessions; and many I work with just once.  And even though we can’t establish “long-term” therapeutic relationships, we always connect, in some way, through music.

I did have the unique opportunity recently to work with a gentleman more “long-term” at the hospital.  I met Mr. R. a few months ago in the oncology unit. A young gentleman in his late 30s, he was diagnosed with various terminal cancers and when we met, he was in the hospital as a result of complications with his treatment.  Upon meeting him, I could tell that he was very ill and according to the medical records, he was rapidly declining…he was “terminal”.  Over the course of the past few months, he was in and out of the hospital several times and recently he was in for a fairly long stay as he was, unfortunately, declining rapidly.  In the recent progressing days, he was also dealing with extreme pain.  And what was unique about my work with Mr. R. was that I saw him about 15 times over the course of those months. 

Mr. R. was from the Middle East, only having been in the U.S. for a few years.  I remember when I was first met him, in his hospital room.  He spoke some English, although sometimes hard for me to understand, and I wondered how I was going to work with and help him considering our cultural differences and language barrier; how could I connect with him musically?  Admittedly, I was a bit nervous at the onset.  As I entered his room for our initial session, I remember him sitting in the middle of the bed, cross-legged, almost in a yoga-type pose.  I sat in a chair at the foot of the bed and introduced myself and why I was there.  Immediately, I knew that communicating may be somewhat of a challenge, so I thought I would rely on music.  I had some instruments to offer him, perhaps we could just start with some improvisation to break the ice.  As I started to take some out for him to perhaps choose from, he pointed to the guitar case and quietly said, “guitar”.  “Do you want to play the guitar?” I asked.  “No,” he said.  “You play.” Okay…so I took out the guitar and he was fixating on it.  Trying to get a sense of where to start, I simply said, “Is there anything in particular that you like?”  He replied, “You play what you like.”  Okay…so I started playing.  I just started improvising a bit, just to get us both comfortable and to set up a place for us to go.  I started playing what I thought he may be feeling inside.  He watched my fingers intently and after a bit, his face changed. He looked less pained and his breathing was slowing, almost matching the tempo of the music.  Then he closed his eyes and was just “in” the music.  I could tell that he was really experiencing the music in his own way.  Sitting in the bed, with his legs crossed, he almost looked as if he were moving into a trance-like state.  I intently watched him, and followed him with the music.  I played…for about 20 minutes.  When I slowed to a finish, there was silence…silence…and after what seemed like several minutes, he opened his eyes.  He looked peaceful and looked right into my eyes and said, “Thank you…come back tomorrow?”

And thus our relationship began.  

When I went back to see him, he smiled and greeted me and got into his “position” on the bed.  I played.  And, again, he was using the music, experiencing it, letting it take him on some sort of journey to “another place”.  After a few days he was discharged and, like most patients I see in acute care, I thought our work was done, we had a couple of really nice sessions and the music seemed to bring him some comfort.  But after a few weeks he was back.  And again, he welcomed me…and I played.  As I continued to see him, as is the case with many patients in the oncology unit, I could see the progression of the disease taking hold of him.  On one particular day, he was lying in his bed and he looked very uncomfortable.  I said, “How are you?”  “Pain…very bad.”  I simply sat down and played, but this time, trying to comfort him with the music, trying to work with his pain.  I used the music to work with his body, first matching what he may be feeling (dissonant chords, jagged rhythms) to show some empathy, and then slowly moving to more harmonic structures, hoping to take him with me, and move him out of the grips of the pain.  He, again, was using the music, but in a different way this time.  He seemed to find some relief, in the moment.  And as he always did, when I was through he thanked me and said, “Tomorrow?”

Over the course of the past few weeks, I saw him each day that I was at the hospital.  He was in for the long haul now, was declining rapidly; and…the pain. At times it seemed unbearable for him.  But…I played, and often he would find some relief in the music.  And always, “Thank you…tomorrow?”  I remember one particularly tough day, he would occasionally find some comfort but sometimes the pain was just too much, it would consume his entire being and he would incoherently yell out…he would show signs of delirium.  I tried to work with him, changing the music to try and give him some relief.  On this particular day, I played…for almost an hour (there were no words).  Finally…a little relief.  “Thank you…tomorrow?”

It got to a point where I knew things were coming to an end and I heard that the doctors were discussing “plans” with him about suspending treatment.  It was time to look at things differently.  I could see that he was declining and I have to admit, each morning when I got to the hospital I would immediately look at the patient list to see if he was still “here”.

Then, on a particular day when I went to the unit to see him, as I usually did I spoke with his nurse to see how he was doing. She told me that they did indeed make a new plan, they were suspending treatment going forward and he was being discharged, that afternoon, going to Hospice.  She also told me he was really not doing well at the moment; that he was really “out of it”. I went into his room.  It was quiet and dark and he was lying in bed.  Yes, he did look “out of it”.  I wondered if he would even know that I was there.  If I played…would he hear me?  Would I be able to help at all?  For one last time?  So, as I always did…I played.  He didn’t move.  I continued and I did not see any response in his body showing that he knew I, or the music, was present.  But, I continued…I played.  And in that moment, I suddenly felt an unexpected wave of emotion starting to overtake me.  This was it, after all of these weeks, all of our sessions, significantly more then any other patient I had ever worked with in the hospital, this was the final chapter.   This was going to be the last time I was going to see him.  I was battling my own emotions; this was a new feeling for me - after all of this time, this was the last time.  And…I played.  But it was a bit different.  Now, I was playing what I was feeling inside.  I needed something; perhaps some comfort for myself – some closure?  I played…and when I finally finished, I just sat in silence for a bit.  

As I slowly walked out of his room, for the last time, I paused at the doorway and looked at him.  And I whispered…“Thank you.”

The healing power of music…

(*the stories presented in this blog are based on accounts and experiences and are not actual accounts and experiences)

In the moment…

By Ray Leone, MMT, MT-BC 

Ray is a Board-Certified music therapist who directs A Place To Be’s medical music therapy program through a partnership with Inova Health Systems.

Music is an in-the-moment experience.  You hear a song and in that moment, you feel something; you may feel uplifted, melancholy, have a great memory of a special time and place, experience reminiscence for a lost friend.  Music takes you from where you are to another place.

This is one of the reasons why music can be so powerful in a medical setting, especially in the units that care for those who are very ill.  Music cannot cure in the traditional sense.  As a music therapist I cannot “fix” things.  And this was a hard concept for me to overcome when I first started visiting patients who were very ill.  I couldn’t “fix” anything.  But…I could help.  I could help, ‘in the moment’.  I could give them a reprieve, some hope, a cathartic experience to let go for a few moments, reduce anxiety, a relaxation experience, a means of expressing feelings, a connection.  Sometimes, I can just give them a moment.

On a recent day at the hospital where I provide music therapy services, I saw many patients with anxiety and pain, many who were feeling as if there was no hope.  And music appeared to help, in some way, with stress and comfort.  However, there was a rather beautiful moment when I was visiting a woman in her 80s, at the end of the day.  She is quite ill with various issues, including some pain and perhaps some psychosocial needs.  She’s been in the hospital for awhile.  When I entered her darkened room, she was lying in bed, staring at the ceiling with a rather pained look on her face.   She barely looked at me when I introduced myself and didn’t speak, although the slight eye contact we had let me know that she was aware of my presence.  I just started playing some soft music for her and then added a bit of humming and quiet singing, trying to present a comfortable soundscape for her while also addressing her pain and emotional needs.  She closed her eyes occasionally, but mostly continued to stare off.  After about 20 minutes, some of her family came to visit including her husband, who walked over and sat in a chair across the room.  They all seemed pleased to have me and the music and were all smiling and looking towards her as I concluded what I was playing.  I wasn’t sure if she was aware that they were present as she continued to stare off towards the ceiling.  I then greeted the family and asked her if she would like one more song and she subtly nodded “yes”.  Her husband asked if I knew “any Elvis” and I smiled and started playing and singing ‘Love Me Tender’.  As if on cue, she looked over at him (the first time she wasn’t staring off) and as she held his gaze…he started to cry.  But, she smiled at him and through his tears, he smiled back at her.  They continued to look and smile at each other, truly connecting with this song, in a way that was completely different then before this particular song was presented.  As I concluded, she looked at me, with a slight smile and softly said, “that was beautiful”.  Those were the first words she spoke to me and as I left, her family were all around her for a visit.  I certainly don’t know what tomorrow will bring for her, but for a moment today, a simple song helped connect her with her husband in a moment that was quite beautiful.  Today, music gave her, and her husband, a moment…

Love me tender

Love me sweet

Never let me go

You have made

My life complete

And I love you so

The healing power of music…

(*the stories presented in this blog are based on accounts and experiences and are not actual accounts and experiences)

Music…healing…togetherness…

By Ray Leone, MMT, MT-BC 

Ray is a Board-Certified music therapist who directs A Place To Be’s medical music therapy program through a partnership with Inova Health Systems.

We all know that music can bring people together.  At a party, at a concert, at a dance, a drum circle, gathering together to listen to a song on a friend’s phone…and a million other ways.  This is also true in a hospital room, when the stakes are extremely high - in the critical care unit.  When I visit patients at the hospital, providing music therapy services in the Intensive Care Unit, they are often times accompanied by family members and friends.  And, as you can imagine, it’s a very stressful environment for all involved; some of these family members don’t know if their loved-ones will make it through the next 24 hours.  In these situations, music therapy is as much for the caregiver as well as the patient.

In these cases, music is used to reduce anxiety and release tension, music is used to help with coping, music is used to help with finding and understanding feelings about the situation, music is provided to create a soundscape for saying…“goodbye”.  And music ALWAYS brings people together. Always.  It amazes me how instantaneous connections happen when music is introduced, between family member and patient, friends with each other, and even with me.  Music adds an element like nothing else.  Even in a hospital room.

I’m thinking of a recent patient that I saw, a gentleman in his mid-40s who had an unexpected seizure the previous day and has since been unresponsive and on a ventilator.  I was told that his family was having a very tough time and that his wife requested music therapy.  When I arrived there were some other family members in the room and she asked them to let her have some private time, with her husband. She told me that her husband loved the guitar and was trying to learn to play.  I started by playing some simple chords as she closed the curtain to the room and then sat next to her husband.  She then took his hand and put her head on his chest and started to cry.  This was such an intimate moment and it was also a little overwhelming for me.  But I had the music to hold everything together.  She needed to release tension and she needed emotional support and she was using the music to facilitate that and work through her emotions.  I played and quietly sang a few songs for them (her) including a song by U2, his favorite band; using the songs to create a space for her to just be with him.  She cried for a bit and then slowly appeared to become somewhat content.  I followed her lead and as she settled somewhat I slowed down the music, working with her energy, slowing down the tempo and then finally bringing the music to a slow mantra, holding on a final chord and a simple “ohm” vocal.  She appeared to have fallen asleep with her head resting on her husband’s chest.  She needed a release and the music helped her.  The music was both an outlet for emotion and a forum for comfort.  As I sat in silence, in the room with her resting on her husband’s chest, nothing but the subtle sound of the ventilator, I felt honored that she allowed me to share this moment with them.

Then there was the woman, in her 60s, whom had a recent cardiac arrest and the family decided to take her off of mechanical support, she wasn’t going to recover.  I was asked to provide some music as the family was waiting for the inevitable.  I entered a silent room and several family members, including some of her children, were sitting in various corners of the room, looking at the floor, staring off; together - yet alone.  I sat on the side and started quietly playing some arpeggiated chords on the guitar, working to provide a musical space for them to help soothe and emote.  Almost as if on cue, everyone in the room, perhaps 8 people total, got up and moved towards the bed and came together at her bedside.  Holding her hand, reaching for each other and many, through tears, were saying “goodbye”, but also saying that it was going to be okay, that she could let go and that they were going to be okay.  And, they kept telling her they loved her.  This was a sad, yet beautiful and very meaningful moment for them.  And what got them together, got them out of their own worlds and own awkward ways of figuring out what they were feeling, what brought them to her…was music.  Music…always…brings people together.

The healing power of music…

(*the stories presented in this blog are based on accounts and experiences and are not actual accounts and experiences)

Sometimes a simple song is all we need...

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By Ray Leone, MMT, MT-BC 

Ray is a Board-Certified music therapist who directs A Place To Be’s medical music therapy program through a partnership with Inova Health Systems.

Recently, at the hospital where I work and provide music therapy services, I was asked to see an older gentleman who had been in the hospital for several days.  He was somewhat disoriented, uncomfortable and agitated, and, it was his birthday.  When I entered the room, it was dark and his wife was sitting quietly as he was lying in bed with his eyes closed, but, with a somewhat pained look on his face.  When I said “hello” and introduced myself he stirred a bit and mumbled something that I couldn’t understand.  She gently touched his arm and said “this gentleman is here to play some music for you for your birthday.”  Slowly he looked up, looked at me and quietly said, “Really?” and then his face softened into a slight smile.  I sat down and started playing and singing “Fly Me To The Moon” and immediately his smile and face lit up, as did his wife’s.  As I continued with a few more songs, he never stopped smiling and occasionally let out a somewhat giddy laugh.  Then, when I started to sing “Blue Moon”, his wife stood up and said, “That song is our story!”  She then sat next to him on the hospital bed, snuggled up to him, gave him a kiss and held his hand.  Suddenly it felt like we were back at the high school dance as they continued to hold hands and smile and nuzzle at each other; like high school kids who just started courting.  When I then finished with “Happy Birthday”, his face was glowing through a few tears and they both were very thankful for my visit and for the music.  Many of the moments that I’m a part of in the hospital can be emotionally draining and quite sad.  This, however, was a very sweet moment that was able to happen because of a song…a simple song.  Sometimes that is just what we need to get through the day, a simple and meaningful song; it can do wonders, especially during very trying times.  And for me…seeing them together, in this way, really brightened my day too.

“Blue moon, you saw me standing alone

Without a dream in my heart

Without a love of my own…

Then suddenly you appeared before me

The only one my heart could ever hold

I heard somebody whisper please adore me

And when I looked up the moon had turned to gold.”

The healing power of music…

(*the stories presented in this blog are based on accounts and experiences and are not actual accounts and experiences)

Just your typical day of music therapy...

By Ray Leone, MMT, MT-BC 

Ray is a Board-Certified music therapist who directs A Place To Be’s medical music therapy program through a partnership with Inova Health Systems.

There is a myriad of ways that music can help in a medical setting, and in working as a music therapist at a hospital, each day is unique unto itself.  When walking in the door in the morning, I have no idea what the day will bring, what music will be provided or whom I will see.  However, each day is challenging and rewarding…and always filled with music as a means of healing and support.

Here is what a recent day of music therapy was like at the hospital where I provide music therapy services:

- There was the patient, on a ventilator in the ICU, who was anxious and scared.  Music was used to comfort both her and her husband and she appeared to relax and find some comfort in the music.  Her heart rate and respiratory rate decreased significantly.

- There was the post-operative patient who was in pain and hadn’t been able to get any much needed rest.  As the music started, by first matching his pain and then slowly transitioning to a more comforting mode, his pain seemed to subside a bit.  He closed his eyes, his breathing slowed and he appeared to fall asleep.

- There was the older woman who was confused and agitated.  She and her daughter have had a rough couple of weeks.  The nurses were having some complications in trying to insert an IV tube that was needed for medication.  The patient was anxious, as was her daughter (and I sensed a bit of anxiousness in the nurses as well).  Music was used as procedural support, creating a soundscape to sooth and comfort all in the room.  The procedure was ultimately a success and then the patient was resting comfortably.  Her daughter, teary-eyed, gave me a hug and thanked me for being there.

-  There was the gentleman recovering from cardiac arrest, whom, as his nurse said to me, “was running at 1,000 miles an hour” and having trouble coping with being in the hospital.  I sang some favorite Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash songs for him and his wife.  They were holding hands and smiling and the music seemed to help him (and her) just regulate and take a break for a bit.

 - My colleague saw multiple patients in Pediatrics, including a 5-year old who was exhausted and in pain.  When the music therapist sang “Let It Go”, her face softened and she smiled.  Suddenly she was a typical 5-year old again, finding comfort in a familiar song.

- My COPD group continues to master the recorder!  And…work on their breathing.  Today we continued work on a swinging version of the 50s song ‘Rockin’ Robin’.  When they play their recorders and sing together, they feel good about themselves and in being with each other.  Suddenly, they were not thinking of breathing as being labored and exhausting; they were breathing life into their instruments…and into themselves.

Finally, I was recently honored to have been asked to attend and play some music at the memorial service of a woman - a wife, a daughter and a mother of 2 young teenage daughters - whom had an effect on many of us in the oncology unit.  I had seen her and her family several times during her final days.  These were very emotional sessions, but, I believe the music provided some comfort when there really was nothing else.  It was a beautiful service and I was so honored to have been there and be a part of the beginning of the healing process for this family.  And for me, as I had been thinking about this family quite a bit, I was able to find some comfort and some closure as well.

Just your typical day of music therapy in a medical setting.

The healing power of music…

(*the stories presented in this blog are based on accounts and experiences and are not actual accounts and experiences)

Porgy & Bess + Ella & Louis = Perfection

By Ray Leone, MMT, MT-BC 

Ray is a Board-Certified music therapist who directs A Place To Be’s medical music therapy program through a partnership with Inova Health Systems.

“Music opens up a door, moves you through an alternative time-grid, parallel to the life of obligations and immediate needs. And so music can be a relief, or a corrective balance.“ Ben Ratliff, NY Times music writer in his book ‘Every Song Ever - Twenty Ways to Listen in an Age of Musical Plenty’ (which I highly recommend).

In his book, Mr. Ratliff discusses breaking down barriers of genre and allowing yourself to roam and experiment across musical languages, especially in the digital age when almost everything is just a click away.  And when you are open to, well, anything, its amazing what you may find. After all, we use music to help us feel things…many things; a sad song to bring out emotions and release tension, a favorite rock song to empower, or just a guilty pleasure to make us smile and give us a reprieve from the daily grind (Barry Manilow? Abba? Styx?)  But, again, if we are open, it’s amazing what we can find out there.

I’ve found, in my opinion, what may be the most-perfect recorded musical work out there.  There are many incarnations of George Gershwin’s ground-breaking masterpiece ‘Porgy & Bess’, but the one that speaks to me, takes me away, gives me chills, makes me stop what I’m doing to just listen and experience, is the Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong recording originally released in 1958.  All the parts here merge to create the perfect blend of aesthetic perfection (for me anyway).  Ella & Louis together just work in a non-traditional way, like satin and sandpaper.  Her silky smooth voice is both powerful and delicate, filled with pure emotion and is the antithesis of his giddy rasp that is unique in every possible way.  And Louis’ occasional trumpet work here is so pure, with an almost vibrato-less tone that cuts but is honey-tinged all the same.  Their voices, against the 30-piece jazz orchestra that’s filled with swaggering brass (arranged and conducted by Russell Garcia), is magical.

When a recording or a musical work has the ability to transcend one to another place and time, it’s a powerful experience. This work does it for me.  When the overture gives way to Louis’ trumpet, teasing the melody of ‘Summertime’ and then, as if pure listening pleasure is simply not enough, Ella’s voice enters the mix, I’m immediately transcended.  I can see it, feel it, smell it.  I’m suddenly sitting on a porch somewhere in the humid, 1930s South, experiencing the ease and the tension of that time and place.  Ella’s voice seems to get more beautiful with each track, almost trance inducing as it bridges the brilliance of the score, the lyrics and the orchestrations.  And Louis…well, how can you not feel good when Louis is singing.  There’s both tension and release in the orchestra, that you feel down to the core, and when the orchestra is allowed to go all out, it’s exhilarating.

This is why music is like nothing else.  Music makes us feel, it takes us places, it creates tension but soon gives resolve and it allows us to move from emotion to emotion as warranted.  Music can make us feel uncomfortable, only to modulate from minor to major and suddenly make us feel that everything is right in the world again.  This is why music is therapeutic and this is why music therapy works.

I’m thinking of a very lovely woman I met recently in the oncology unit of the hospital where I work.  I was asked to see her because she was having trouble coping with her illness and hospital stay; her frail body fighting against the cancer inside and the powerful effects of chemotherapy.  But when I played and sang ‘Georgia on my Mind’ for her, to help her relax and “get away” for a few moments, her hardened face softened with a tearful smile.  She looked at me and said it was her first favorite song and she remembered it from when she was a little girl.  She said she thought it was the most beautiful song ever written.  And at that moment, seeing her face and her smile…she was right.

The healing power of music…

(*the stories presented in this blog are based on accounts and experiences and are not actual accounts and experiences)

Rhythm…Harmony…Tempo…Wellness…

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By Ray Leone, MMT, MT-BC 

Ray is a Board-Certified music therapist who directs A Place To Be’s medical music therapy program through a partnership with Inova Health Systems.

We all know that music makes us feel good.  Think about when a favorite song from your senior year of high school comes on the radio unexpectedly…it makes you feel good. Or, a new song from a favorite band connects with you…it makes you feel good (‘Kiss This’ by The Struts!).  Putumayo World Music brought the music of the world to novice music listeners with the tag line – “Guaranteed to make you feel good!”  And it does, just listen to the albums Arabic Groove, Acoustic Brazil or Italian Café and see what happens.  Music makes us feel good!

But…there’s more to it then that.  Our bodies work like music works.  The backbone of all music is rhythm; our heart beats in rhythm, we breathe in rhythm, we walk in rhythm.  When our bodies are “in tune” we feel good, just like when the symphony orchestra is in tune, it sounds good.  However, if the oboe player is out of tune, it effects the entire orchestra and something just doesn’t sound right.  Just like, if something is ailing us, say a broken toe, a bronchial infection, a herniated disc, respiratory distress, cancer; we feel “out of tune”.  When we feel good, there is harmony.  And harmony in music, well, just listen to Lennon and McCartney’s vocals on ‘I Will’.  

In medicine, music can help:

-       The Parkinson’s’ patient, who’s shuffling gait stabilizes when listening to and feel the rhythm of Nat King Cole while walking

-       The COPD sufferer who’s breathing stabilizes when playing a wind instrument, such as the recorder

-       The stroke survivor who lost their voice…and finds it again through singing

-       The cancer patient, in pain, who finds relief by “playing” on an instrument what the pain feels like…and then “playing” what feeling better is like

There is scientific evidence backing all the above examples of how music can work with our bodies.  This is why more and more medical settings are bringing in music therapy.

Getting back to rhythm.  I work with a lot of patients in the Intensive Care Unit who are on mechanical ventilation because of respiratory distress.  Machines that help them breathe and breathe for them.  And as you may imagine, that is an extremely stressful experience.  When these patients have anxiety, their heart rates quicken.  And they need medicated sedation and therefore, it takes longer to get them back to breathing on their own.  And the longer on mechanical ventilation, more complications are probable. We can use music to help reduce their heart rate and anxiety.  Again, music works with our bodies, thus, the concept of entrainment.  In working with these patients, I can play music in the tempo of their heart rate, using the rhythm of the music to match and lock in with their current heart rate. And when the tempo of the music is slowly decreased, often times, their heart rate will follow.  Their heart rate “entrains” with the music…and their anxiety is reduced.  Again, there is scientific evidence that this works and this is why a trained music therapist, using live music, works in medical settings.  The core of our inner being and functionality is in line with…music.

At the hospital where I work I recently was asked to visit a woman who was having cardiac issues and shortness of breath. She had been in the hospital for several days and was very anxious.  When I met her she told me that she felt weak and “just didn’t feel right” (out of tune?) and her hands were visibly shaking.  Reducing her anxiety was very important to her well-being.  We chatted briefly, about her feelings about being in the hospital, her support system, and about music.  She liked soft rock, from the 70s.  So I started with “Take it Easy” by the Eagles.  I played the song in a tempo and feel that matched her current “state of being”, where, I felt, she was at the time.  Over the course of the next few songs I gradually started bringing the tempo and “feel of the music” down, using the music to help relax her body…and her mind.  And we talked about rhythm, her heart beating in rhythm and her breathing rhythm.  I concluded with a slow and easy version of the song “Keep Breathing” by Ingrid Michaelson.  At this point her eyes were closed, her face was soft, but she was slowly keeping pulse with her feet.  She seemed to be in a fairly relaxed state.  When the song ended we just sat in silence for a bit.  I noticed that her hands were not shaking as they were earlier. Finally, I asked her how she was doing and she smiled and said, “I feel good, I think I’m going to take a nap.” I used the music to work with the tempo of her body and her mind.  I used the rhythm of the music to work with the rhythms of her body.  And, I chose songs that she liked; that made her feel good. Music therapy.

“All that I know is I’m breathing,

All I can do is keep breathing,

All we can do is keep breathing…now.”  Ingrid Michaelson

The healing power of music…

(*the stories presented in this blog are based on accounts and experiences and are not actual accounts and experiences)

Just two guys, sitting around, talking about and sharing music

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By Ray Leone, MMT, MT-BC 

Ray is a Board-Certified music therapist who directs A Place To Be’s medical music therapy program through a partnership with Inova Health Systems.

I was recently asked to visit with a gentleman, in his late 30s, in the oncology unit of the hospital where I work.  He was currently in the hospital as a result of complications from chemotherapy treatment and I was referred to see him as he was feeling quite ill, with some pain and was having trouble coping with his treatment and hospitalization.  He is dealing with a rather aggressive form of cancer.  I introduced myself and sat down in a chair next to his bed.  He looked very tired and down, but welcomed me warmly.  When I asked him how he was doing he paused and said; “Its been a tough day.”  After a few moments of silence, we chatted briefly about his treatment and his stay in the hospital.  Then, looking to move the conversation, I asked him what kind of music he liked to listen to.  He said that he was from Egypt and he liked to listen to music from his country.  I asked him to tell me about it, tell me about what he liked, what styles of music, what artists.  He said it was hard to explain.  Then after a moment, he grabbed his phone and pulled up a music video on YouTube.  I told him that I thought it was very cool…and he smiled (for the first time that I saw).   I asked if he could show me another video.  And he did, this time explaining a bit more about the singer.  He was now showing a bit more energy as it seemed that he was enjoying telling me about his music.  (Don’t we all like to do that?)  Again, I told him that I really liked what I was hearing and I thanked him for sharing with me.  I then said that I had my guitar with me but I didn’t know any Egyptian music but I asked if he wanted to hear something.  He said that he didn’t really know much “American music” and then said; “You pick.  Play something you like.”  So, I started with the Beatles’ ‘Here Comes the Sun’.  He smiled and said that it sounded a little familiar; he said he liked it. He asked for another; “one of your favorites” he said with a smile.  This time I played a Foo Fighters song.  He smiled and I noticed his head moving slightly up and down to the beat.  (Perhaps he couldn’t help himself despite his condition.)  I told him that the Foo Fighters was one of my favorite bands and that I liked rock & roll.  He said, “me too!”  Next was Green Day…more smiles and more moving to the beat.

As I was playing and singing, I too was moving my head up and down to the beat and strangely, I was having fun (as was he it seemed).  And then I thought, is it okay for me to feel as though I was having fun?  Then it struck me.  I had almost forgotten that I was sitting in a hospital room in the oncology unit, with a patient who was quite ill.  For a few moments we were just two guys, sitting around, talking about and sharing music.  For a few moments, he was not a cancer patient and I was not a therapist.  We were just two guys.  And it was music that made us “just two guys”.

This actually happens often in the hospital when you add music to a compromised situation; music that is meaningful in some way.  And isn’t all music meaningful in some way?  Yes, he was going to go back to being a cancer patient with more tough treatments ahead and I was going to go back to being a therapist, getting referrals to see more patients who were feeling bad, but for about 45 minutes, we were just two guys, sitting around, talking about music.  And that was good.  

The healing power of music…

(*the stories presented in this blog are based on accounts and experiences and are not actual accounts and experiences)

“All I really have is music…All I really need is to sing”

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By Ray Leone, MMT, MT-BC 

Ray is a Board-Certified music therapist who directs A Place To Be’s medical music therapy program through a partnership with Inova Health Systems.

providing music therapy services in major medical center, it always amazes me how people, people who are quite ill, use music as part of the healing process.  Music and music preferences are very subjective and very personal. Imagine how personal music, when used as a coping mechanism, can be for someone who is dealing with battling cancer.  

I recently had the pleasure of working with a woman in the oncology unit who was quite distressed and emotional.  She had been in the hospital for a few days and was dealing with some pain as a result a malignant tumor in her abdomen area.  She welcomed me warmly when I entered her room and introduced myself.  As I sat and took out my guitar I noticed that she started to softly cry.  I just looked at her, making sure she was alright and asked if she was in any pain.  She said, “Oh, a little but the guitar makes me think of my daughter, she played the guitar.  And she loved music.”  After a few moments of silence, she quietly said, “I miss her every day.”  I gave her a little space and after a few moments I softly started playing quietly on the guitar.  “She passed away a few years ago, she was such a loving person.”  I didn’t really know what to say so I just continued to play quietly (fortunately for me, I had music).  She then told me that she too loved music, used to play the clarinet, and loves to sing. She said that ever since she lost her daughter, she sings “5 small songs” every day for comfort.  I asked her if she would sing one for me…she sang all 5.  These were short, old spiritual songs and when she finished I complemented her on her voice.  She said that “singing is my best therapy.”  Okay than - let’s sing together.  We started with a few traditional spirituals.  She sang with me, knew all the words and with each song her voice seemed to grow stronger.  We then moved on to “All You Need is Love” (after she mentioned the love she feels for all of her children and grandchildren), “I’ll Be Seeing You” (one of her favorites) and then we finished with “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”.  By the last song she was singing full out and was even harmonizing with me.  Her face was different; clinically we would say her “affect brightened”, but really, what I saw was her entire being brightening.  And, we sounded good together!  When we concluded, she took my hand, smiled warmly and said, “All I really have is music…all I really need is to sing.That’s what gets me through and I really needed it today.”  She asked if she could give me a hug, and thanked me for visiting.  I thanked her too, for singing and sharing some music with me.  As I was packing up my guitar I said to her “keep singing”.  And with a smile she said back, “And you keep singing too dear.”

Singing.  Simple singing can be very therapeutic in many ways.  It helps us with our breathing, the vibrations in our chest can be soothing and grounding and we can express our feelings by singing.  In musical theater, it is posed that when emotions become too heightened to speak, there is singing.  Chanting has been around for centuries and singing can bring one in touch with their spirituality.  When babies cry, we sing to them (and that is also soothing to us). And, singing, just plain and simple, feels good.

But others may find comfort in playing the piano, banging on a percussion instrument, listening to opera, rapping, improvising jazz, moving to the music, etc., etc., etc.

There are many ways we use music, to cope, in our everyday lives; when we are stressed, when we need energy, when we want to wallow in sadness.  But when the stakes are high, such as in the oncology unit, music can be a very powerful and personal tool.  I am lucky that I get to share music with these amazing individuals that I work with. Music…their music is so powerful.  For them.  And for me.

The healing power of music…

(*the stories presented in this blog are based on accounts and experiences and are not actual accounts and experiences)

Sometimes...all that is left is Music

By Ray Leone, MMT, MT-BC 

Ray is a Board-Certified music therapist who directs A Place To Be’s medical music therapy program through a partnership with Inova Health Systems.

Music can be a very powerful phenomenon for someone who is in the hospital and is very ill.  And that is essentially why music therapy works in a medical setting.  I spend a significant amount of time in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) and Oncology unit providing music therapy services.  Bringing music - to help with pain, anxiety, coping with an illness and to comfort - can be very powerful for all involved, including the caregiver…including me.  In these hospital units, I’m often times sent to see patients, and families, when there is nothing else that can be done for them.  When it’s time to think of “other options”.

-       There’s the patient who is on a ventilator, whose family members were just told that breathing trials are not working and they no longer have the lung capacity to breathe on their own.  And it’s time to consider terminal extubation.  Music can help process the situation.

-       There’s the patient in ICU, who is confused and delirious as a result of powerful medication.  And is extremely agitated because they don’t know where they are.  Music can help with orientation and relaxation.

-       There’s the patient receiving dialysis for kidney failure, who is in severe pain.  Music can help comfort.

-       There’s the patient in oncology who was just told that radiation therapy is not working and it’s time to consider hospice care. Music can help with coping and emotional expression.

-       There’s the family who is bedside, saying goodbye to a loved-one as they are actively passing. Music can help hold and create a sense of unity.

And in these units, where emotions and stress levels are high, often times the music therapy session becomes as much, if not more, for the caregiver (the wife, the husband, the mother, the son).  I was recently sent to see a patient in the ICU who was unresponsive and his breathing had been supported, for several days, by mechanical ventilation.  His wife was sitting quietly in the room and when I went in to provide some music, she smiled warmly and quietly said “hello”.  She appeared quite calm (maybe resolved?) as she sat, aimlessly looking at a magazine, off to the side.  I took out my guitar and sat next to the bed and after a moment I asked her what kind of music her husband liked to listen to.  She said that they used to enjoy going to see Broadway shows together “many years ago” and they still enjoy listening to that type of music.  When I started playing a few songs from some of the traditional musicals of yesterday, she put aside her magazine, went to the bedside and took his hand.  And she began to cry.  She was looking at his face, partially covered with tubing, and crying, seemingly releasing some much built up tension but also, perhaps, thinking of happier times.  It was a sad moment, but also a very real moment; very intimate.  A few moments prior she was sitting, distracted and somewhat removed from him, perusing a magazine, but once music was brought into play, they were connecting on some level.  She was connecting with him in a way that wasn’t really possible when the room was silent.  Did he feel her presence?  I certainly like to think so (I believe he did).  She certainly felt his.  And, there was music, providing a soundscape, taking her back, giving her a memory, allowing her to release tension, and allowing her to “be”, in the moment, with her husband.  How many more moments would they share together?  Music brought them together on another level.  

It always amazes me how quickly emotions rise when music, a simple tune, an old song, is brought into a heightened atmosphere such as a critical care hospital room.  Sometimes we just don’t know what tomorrow will bring or how we are feeling. Sometime we are confused and scared. Sometimes we don’t know what to say. Sometimes the medical staff is out of options.  Sometimes we just have to let go.  And sometimes…all that is left is music.

(*the stories presented in this blog are based on accounts and experiences and are not actual accounts and experiences)

Therapeutic Songwriting…and Gwen Stefani

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By Ray Leone, MMT, MT-BC 

Ray is a Board-Certified music therapist who directs A Place To Be’s medical music therapy program through a partnership with Inova Health Systems.

Gwen Stefani has been a pop superstar for over 20 years, fronting the hip-pop 90s super-group No Doubt, as a solo artist and as one of the recent panel stars of the hit reality TV show “The Voice”.  Ms. Stefani has also been in the news recently as a result of the very public break-up of her marriage, where she admittedly stated that she was completely reeling.  “Suddenly my life was literally blown up in my face.  I’m gonna die, I am dead, actually.  How do I save myself?  What am I going to do?”  Perhaps Gwen Stefani was having trouble expressing and bringing to the service what she was really feeling inside.  Perhaps she was unable to express and release the very real pain she was experiencing.  And therefore, perhaps she was not able to let that pain go and was unable to heal and move on.  Like many of us, she used music to help her rise out of the abyss.  And, as she’s done in the past when experiencing emotional turmoil, she turned to songwriting, “When I was able to first write a song, that’s when I found my whole self.”  Ms. Stefani’s new album, titled “This Is What The Truth Feels Like”, explores the rawness of her emotional state during this recent, very trying and very painful time in her life.  The writing and recording of this album was her…therapy.  About the writing process she said, “Being in that room and being creative, that was the only place that felt good.” And, of the finished album, “I’m not going to say I’m not still picking up the pieces and every day isn’t a challenge, I’m still in shock. But it’s an awesome time.”

Read more about Gwen Stefani and her new album here:

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/13/arts/music/gwen-stefani-truth-feels-like.html?_r=0

In music therapy, songwriting can be a very powerful intervention when working with a myriad of clients and patients.  

-       Songwriting can help give a voice to a child with autism, who has trouble finding the words to express what they are feeling

-       Songwriting can help the young adolescent who has been abused; with self-worth and self-esteem

-       Songwriting can help the newly diagnosed cancer patient understand what they are feeling inside and how to cope

-       Songwriting can help a group of recovering addicts work together and support each other in starting to put their lives back together

-       Songwriting can help the hospice patient reflect on and review their life, and perhaps leave part of their legacy (their “song”) for their loved ones to cherish after they are gone

Recently I had the pleasure of working with a 9-year old child who had been in the hospital for almost a week, dealing with various respiratory issues.  We spoke a little and sang a few songs, but the child was feeling down from being bed-bound in a hospital room; missing friends, the family pet and missing being at school. The child kept talking about everything that had happened in the past week; the IV lines, the medicines, the tests and feeling lonely.  I then suggested we write a song together, about what the child was going to do after leaving the hospital.  What was going to happened when they got to go home.  We wrote a song about looking ahead and about looking forward to better times.  We wrote lyrics about friends, ice cream, riding a scooter, seeing a movie and sitting at the family dinner table on pizza night.  We picked out some music that sounded like the current Disney-pop that was on the radio.  And when the child sang about going forward, about looking ahead to all of the great things to come, there were smiles…then laughs!  The child’s eyes lit up like, well…a 9-year old child!  The child’s mother said that it was the first laughter she’d heard in days.  Suddenly there was a very different feeling in that hospital room.  We wrote the lyrics down on a piece of paper, to keep under the pillow in the hospital bed so when the sad feelings of still being in the hospital rose up again, those lyrics could be looked at and the child could sing and look ahead to tomorrow.  And my favorite quote – “Wow, did I really just write a song?  I’m awesome!”  Just like Gwen, sometimes we need help getting out of the grind of the past, figuring out what we are feeling inside and how to express ourselves so we can move on.  Luckily, we have music.  We can all be songwriters when needed.  And sometimes, its just what the doctor ordered.

The healing power of music…

(*the stories presented in this blog are based on accounts and experiences and are not actual accounts and experiences)