The Intimacy of a Shared Music Experience…in the Oncology Unit

By Ray Leone, MMT, MT-BC, head of A Place To Be’s medical music therapy program at Inova.

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One of the unique elements, when providing music therapy in an acute care hospital setting, is sharing a music experience with a total stranger – a total stranger, often times, with a debilitating disease, or in intense pain, or going through powerful chemotherapy treatment, or transitioning towards the end of life. And every single time I share music with a patient in these heightened situations, in the hospital, I am truly amazed at the intimacy these shared music experience creates between us; total strangers that have just met minutes prior.

We know that music is very powerful on any given day. We know that music can bring on or create emotion. We know that music can be a form of expressing deep, sometimes untapped feelings. And we know that music can create intimacy. I’ve performed music for most of my life in various capacities, from giant theaters to small intimate settings. However, there is nothing like the intimacy created within a shared music experience with someone who is hurting (emotionally or physically) in a hospital setting. The music seems to take over and bring us together on another level.

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I recall recently visiting with a woman in her 50s in the oncology unit. She was dealing with intense pain from the cancer that was taking over her body. After a quiet introduction I simply let the music take over. As I often do in these situations, I just started playing the guitar and let the music unfold, going where it wanted to go as I worked to create a connection…through the music. I imagined what she may be feeling, both physically and emotionally, and allowed the music to gently match those feelings with the sounds, rhythms and harmonies (including minor idioms and dissonance). The music worked to validate those feelings, showing empathy for those feelings within the soundscape. Once we were entrained together, I then allowed the music to start moving to more soothing sounds and modes, letting the music start to bring some comfort…take her to another place that is not “cancer” - “pain” - “hospital room”. We move there together. I can often times “feel” what she is feeling. For 45 minutes the room is so unbelievably quiet, except for the sounds of the guitar. The experience is so…intimate. In this specific session, when I finished, she remained with her eyes closed for several minutes and I just sat in pure silence. When she finally opened her eyes she gave a slight smile, looked at me and said, “I felt like I was floating…in water. I felt…free. Everything just seemed to melt away for a bit and I just felt like I was…floating.” I asked her about her pain and she said, “Hmmm…I feel somewhat outside of it right now.”

There was a gentleman I visited with recently, in his 40s and dealing with what was becoming the end stages of a form of leukemia. His wife was by his side and I was asked to visit because of his extreme anxiety. The nurses did not want to give anymore medications. I entered the room and he and his wife both looked out of sorts (wouldn’t you?) with somewhat pained looks on their faces. However, when I introduced myself they welcomed me in. I asked him how he was doing and he just said, “This does not look good.” (I could tell that was what they were dwelling on.) I said, “I understand. How about if we just take a little time to refocus on something different…like music.” I suggested that he close his eyes and just…listen and breathe. “Let the music take over for a bit.” And…I started to play. As the music started progressing, she took his hand and slowly, both now with eyes closed, I could sense that they were truly taking in the music. The pained looks on their faces were slowly softening. The music seemed to be taking them somewhere else in that moment. Somewhere besides angst. As I played (or, really just let the music “come out” of the guitar), again, the moment was so intimate; the three of us in this shared music experience. When the music ultimately concluded he appeared to be asleep. She stared at him for a few moments. She then looked at me and through tears quietly said, “Oh…he really needs to sleep. Thank you.”

I have hundreds of stories like these and each is unique unto itself. Everyone takes in music in their own way and the way they take in the music endorses how the music will change, progress and where it will go. It’s a dynamic process. However, the one consistency in all of these experiences is – intimacy. Intimacy that is unlike any other experiences of “intimacy” I know or have experienced outside the hospital room.

Perhaps the pure aesthetics of the “art” simply takes over. Perhaps the music allows for something that is not “medical intervention”. Perhaps the music brings back a sense of self, brings them to the “outside” world again. Or, perhaps experiencing music in a heightened situation as such just takes us to another level that we cannot explain. (Isn’t that what music does?) The music is not going to cure them. The music is not going to take away their disease. The music is not going to change their entire outlook on what they are experiencing. But, the music gives them something like nothing else. A moment. A moment to feel like you are floating in water. A moment of peace, quiet or…sleep. A moment of connection to the outside world. A moment of feeling like a real person again, even though for just a while. A moment of intimacy.

When I leave these hospital rooms, I also feel honored. I feel honored that these people allow me into their world during these very trying times. I am honored that they trust me and I am honored that they experience the music that I am bringing (or harnessing from somewhere) into their world. And the experiences I have, every time I leave their rooms - the intimacy of the moment, the power of the shared music experience, the honor I feel - will never ever go away. That I am sure of. The other thing that I am sure of is that music, in a medical setting, is very powerful and Music in a medical setting is like nothing else.

The healing power of music…

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