You’re sitting in the fourth-floor waiting room of a clinic in the Rockefeller Cancer Institute at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, nervous about the treatment you’re about to have or the test results you’re about to get, and then you hear it: Someone playing that beautiful grand piano you noticed in the lobby. Chopin, that one nocturne that’s so lovely and melodic. You put your magazine down and listen. Within a few minutes your blood pressure starts to drop, your heart rate slows and you begin to breathe a little more deeply. Maybe that nagging pain in your lower back eases a bit too.
You may not realize it, but you’re benefiting from an informal kind of music therapy. In its formal incarnation, music therapy is a very intentional activity practiced by certified professionals working toward specific goals with individual clients. But what happens at the Rockefeller Cancer Institute and in other hospitals and nursing homes and living rooms around the country—just the simple act of one person playing beautiful music for another—can be a valuable part of the healing process for anyone within hearing range.
In fact, the Rockefeller Cancer Institute building was designed specifically so that patients in all its clinics’ waiting rooms would be able to hear the music rising through the 12-floor atrium from the Steinway on the ground floor, a gift from an anonymous donor. Volunteers play it for at least a few hours every day, but it’s also available to patients and caregivers and anyone else who feels like playing it.
“I walked in about a year ago, about 7 o’clock, and somebody was playing the piano,” says Janie Lowe, the cancer institute’s director of volunteer services and auxiliary. “She said, ‘I’m here from out of state, I don’t have my family, I don’t have my friends, I don’t have my piano.’ She started crying and so did I. She said, ‘This is wonderful therapy for me, to sit down and play this piano.’ So it serves that purpose too.”
Barb Richards of Hot Springs, a retired professional vocal coach and accompanist, asked if she could play the Steinway on one of her visits for cancer treatment in 2010.
“It was here that I began to realize how much playing in a non-performance environment was relaxing me and seemed to have the same effect on patients and staff,” she says. She began playing every time she came for an appointment. Later, after she went through a course of daily radiation treatments at Mercy Hospital Hot Springs, she helped arrange a donation of an antique piano to the cancer center there. Her cancer is now in remission, but she still plays the piano there several times a week.
“Hardly do I ever leave there without hugs, tears, handshakes,” she says.
Numerous studies over the last few decades have documented the health benefits of listening to and playing music. It lowers blood pressure and increases blood flow. It eases pain, allowing patients to take less medication and heal faster. Its rhythms can help stroke victims learn to walk again, and singing can help them learn to talk again. Upbeat, familiar songs can help Alzheimer’s patients and elderly people with limited mobility get moving and raise their spirits. Even premature babies benefit from hearing music. Music taps into whole regions of the brain that otherwise go unused when we simply talk or move in silence.
Carrie Jenkins, one of two certified music therapists in Arkansas, uses music to help a young man with autism learn how to navigate basic social situations—how to have conversations, maintain eye contact, and recognize and deal with his emotions.
“Music is such a global process in the brain,” says Jenkins, who practices in her hometown of Farmington and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music therapy from Drury University in Springfield, Mo. “If we do it in song form, he grabs it from that part of the brain that works on rhythm and melody. Then we can tie it in with different parts of the brain that use other aspects of it, and get him to respond more quickly.”
Music therapy degree programs include classes in physiology, psychology and biology as well as music. Most graduates work in hospitals or other large institutions, says Dale Misenhalter, a professor of music education at the University of Arkansas who studied music therapy as part of his doctoral degree. Others, like Jenkins and Donald Betzold of Little Rock—the state’s only other certified music therapist—work with private clients, and often supplement their income by teaching music lessons on the side. It’s not an easy way to make a living, Misenhalter says, because even though the benefits of music therapy are widely recognized in the medical community, insurance companies lag behind.
Betzold, who earned his master’s from Loyola University in New Orleans, currently spends most of his time teaching preschool music classes. With past clients, he’s used music to reinforce what the children are learning in other types of therapy, such as speech or occupational programs. It’s also useful in reinforcing what his preschool students are developing in other areas.
“The main thing I’ve found, especially working with behavior, is it’s nice to have a tool that is interesting,” he says. “If you have a kid who is acting out and you take that drum away, they really think about it.”