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.
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)