How Music Therapy Can Lift Spirits


child_surgEven though patient Garrett Lambert is in an isolation room at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, meaning visitors must don masks and gowns to enter, music therapist Holly Mentzer’s harp makes the enclosed room feel like a serene, welcoming space as she and Lambert harmonize.

Lambert says “Don’t Let Us Get Sick,” written by Warren Zevon, is one of his favorite melodies to sing and strum in the hospital.

“Don’t let us get sick. / Don’t let us get old. / Don’t let us get stupid, all right? / Just make us be brave. / And make us play nice. / Let us be together tonight.”

For almost 25 years, Lambert has been a part of the New York City Gay Men’s Chorus (NYCGMC) — about 260 singers of various ages, backgrounds and experiences who perform widely and “champion love, equality and acceptance,” according to its website. Recently, members of the group raised their voices in honor of the victims of the tragic shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando.

Ever since Lambert became hospitalized, he has continued to rely deeply on music for strength and support. The music therapists with MSK’s integrative medicine service offer individualized and group sessions — as well as art and movement therapy — which aim to ease pain, nourish social connections and bring peace and familiarity to patients in the hospital.

“There have been times when Holly knocks on the door and asks if I’m up for a session and I sort of feel like I’m not, like I don’t feel well,” Lambert said. “But I usually say yes, and I’m always glad I did in the end, because I’m definitely lifted up by it. I’m taken to another place.”

Music and Medicine

MSK is not the only hospital offering music therapy. Music has been used therapeutically with special needs children since the 1940s in the U.S., but in recent years it has “expanded to treat the medically ill, including neonatal care, hospitalized children and adults and palliative care and hospice,” according to Barbara Hesser, the director of the music therapy program at New York University.

The field is not necessarily captured by a single description or intervention, but music therapists rely on “clinical and evidence-based use of music interventions” to accomplish “individualized goals within a therapeutic relationship,” according to the American Music Therapy Association’s (AMTA) website. These therapists must be accredited in through programs that include 1,200 hours of clinical training.

Sometimes, music therapy involves playing a song at a rhythm that matches the human heartbeat to help lull a patient to sleep or help regulate breathing to reduce pain.

“There’s a notion in music called entrainment,” said MSK’s lead music therapist, Karen Popkin. “When we offer a regular pattern, we are able to kind of establish a river of sound or a gentle babbling brook, something that the listener can travel with.”

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