Memorial Sloan Kettering patients have access to the most cutting-edge medical treatments available, but for many, the best care incorporates mind-body therapies into the overall treatment plan. To meet that need, the Integrative Medicine Service offers a range of holistic options, including yoga, creative writing, and music.
One of the service’s longest-running programs is music therapy, which includes Musicians On Call, a volunteer organization founded in 1999 that brings music directly to the bedside. Friends Michael Solomon and Vivek J. Tiwary, both managers of artists in the music industry, had helped to organize a concert at Memorial Sloan Kettering sponsored by the Kristen Ann Carr Fund. After the pair witnessed firsthand the beneficial effect live music could have on patients, Musicians On Call, or MOC, was born that very night.
In the 15 years since, the group has become an essential component of Memorial Sloan Kettering’s integrative-medicine offerings. It has also grown, with its volunteers performing for more than 400,000 people at hospitals nationwide.
Karen Popkin, manager of the music therapy program at Memorial Sloan Kettering, shares why music matters so much to patients.
How does music help the healing process?
I think music is important on many levels: It gives us an opportunity to express our emotions and a safe place to have catharsis, to have laughter, to have the full range of emotions. It’s very important for people who are hospitalized to have their environment humanized, and I believe arts [can help do that]. It’s a holistic kind of interaction with an interest in the person as a human being, and as a music lover — not as a patient.
Can you briefly describe how Musicians On Call works?
The organization brings professional musicians into the hospital once a week. Once I know which musician and which guide are coming, I prepare a list of patients who I believe would be interested. The guides are MOC volunteers who have a good knowledge of our inpatient floors and help facilitate the performance so that everything runs smoothly.
The musician and the guide then go room to room together, introducing themselves and offering to play music for the patients. They try to see as many folks as they can in about an hour and a half. I’d say the average is 20 visits per musician. Many people find it to be a pleasant, uplifting, and unexpected bright spot in their evening.
What kind of value do you feel Musicians On Call brings to patients?
In the music therapy offered by the Integrative Medicine Service, we work on building therapeutic relationships and spending quality time with patients. Musicians On Call adds some variety to that experience, allowing patients, family members, and staff to share in a moment of joy. I don't think you can have too much music in a hospital.
What about the effect the program has on the musicians who volunteer?
Many of them come away feeling very moved. They find it extremely fulfilling to come and share their gifts and to get this kind of reception from patients and family members. From time to time, they also stop in the nursing station and play a song, and the staff members really look forward to those moments. We know that when we care for the caregivers, whether they’re family or hospital staff, we’re also caring indirectly for the patients.
I think these musicians are very special people. Not only are they very gifted, but their hearts are in this and they come to give of themselves. I believe that when someone is truly giving of themselves, it’s going to touch others.
What impact do you think music has on healing? Have you or has someone you know been positively affected by music? Tell us about it in the comments section below.