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


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)