Guest Post: Music Therapy is Easy, Right?

I have long sense touted that my husband is one of the best non-music therapist MTs. He understands deeply what my work entails and can advocate for it and explain it to others just as well as professional music therapists. He would be the first person to say that he does not have the ability to do what I do daily, but he nevertheless had an experience in the hospital where he thought he could implement some therapeutic music in order to help a patient. Below is his experience in his own words of what it was like to attempt to provide music therapy without any formal and certified training, and the lessons he learned from that experience.

I recently traveled back home to be present with my mom during a routine surgery. The surgery happened early in the morning and we arrived at the hospital around 4am, so needless to say the previous night’s sleep was not great. The surgery went well and was routine with no surprises. While she was recovering, they started her on a particularly strong pain medication but wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. Although they are still unsure exactly what happened, my mom ended up with more pain medication in her system than her body could metabolize and ended up having extreme difficulty breathing. This was exacerbated by her sleep apnea and the fact she had now been in the hospital for more than 24 hours on very little sleep.

During this uncertain time, there were many thoughts going through my head. Having spent very little time in hospitals before, it was an interesting perspective to gain since my wife works in healthcare. What I quickly learned was that the nurses can be hit or miss, some of them extremely caring and some simply doing their job. From my perspective and based on many different iterations of “let us know if there is anything we can do,” there were many different services all of which had the same goal: to make the patient feel better and decrease the patient’s length of stay.

Being the problem solver that I am, I immediately tried to use my own expertise of what I thought my mother needed to aid their quest. How could I help the nurse better understand who my mom is and be a catalyst to unlock the “answer” of her recovery? At each shift change I would pull the new nurse aside and explain what I thought was important to know about my mom in hopes that they could use that extra information, in addition to what they received during the shift change. Erin was not able to make the trip with me, so during the first few days I kept wondering, “Where is the music therapist?”

Asking the nurses and doctors at every opportunity – pre-op, post-op, recovery room, ICU – no one seemed to understand what music therapy was; an experience most music therapists and music therapist advocates I’m sure have grown accustomed to. I thought “I’ve spent the last 5 years learning about the realities of music therapy through my wife. Sure, I don’t have any formal training, but I’m a musician and I understand that my mother appears to be appropriate for music therapy. Why can’t I offer something helpful to her?”

So I offered to play live music to my mom. She is generally go-with-the-flow and has never turned down me playing music before, so she was game. First goal – asking the patient if they would like services… check. Next, based on my assessment, what did I think was most the appropriate for her and something I could successfully provide? The only options of instruments were a guitar and from what I assessed about my mom was that she needed to relax. She was starting to become restless from being in the hospital 3 days longer than anticipated and her symptoms were ones I thought music could help with: elevated blood pressure, some pain, general anxiety, lack of sleep and general discomfort. I’ve seen Erin provide a guided imagery before, why couldn’t I do that?

This is where I really started to question whether or not I was appropriate to provide this “service.” First, as her son, was our relationship one that allowed my mom to fully participate and reap the benefits? I don’t know. Second, the guided imagery I provided was about relaxing on the beach. Since I live in Florida, was this scenario actually relaxing to my mom or stressful because it reminded her that I no longer live in the same state as her? I don’t know. Third, the imagery was about walking on the beach and “feeling the sand between your toes.” Being in a hospital room, does this image remind her that she cannot do that right now and cause more stress? I don’t know.

Despite my questions, I attempted the guided imagery with live guitar playing and finished it 15 minutes later. My mom was still awake and it was unclear to me if this “intervention” was overall helpful or harmful. Or was it neither? Later, I considered that there were many variables to the situation and that I had no idea which were the most important to try to control. Some of the variables I couldn’t change were that:

  • I’m her son, so I clearly didn’t need to develop rapport; but does that personal relationship prevent music therapy from being effective?
  • Since I don’t have the opportunity to see my mom often, did I really have enough information to assess her current needs?
  • Was my mom willing to go along with whatever I wanted to do simply because she wanted to spend time with me?
  • Because my wife (her daughter in law) is a music therapist, did she feel that she had to say yes to my music in order to communicate her support?
  • I didn’t really have a full toolbox to draw from. My mom loves to sing. Should I have played something she could sing along to? Should I have given her an instrument? Should I have just played something I knew she likes but had no words? Was the guided imagery actually as appropriate as I thought?

In the end, I don’t think I was self-conceited to think I could just take all of what I knew about music therapy and immediately practice it effectively. But I clearly thought that it was easy enough to whip out a guitar, play some music,  and lower my mom’s pain perception and blood pressure. While I don’t think I was in a position to truly cause harm, because just spending time with my mom was beneficial, I can definitely see that had I offered to provide these untrained music therapy services to a stranger, all those safety nets I had would not be present. I think the gap between “knowing” that music has all of these immeasurable benefits and understanding what music therapy actually is is one of the reasons why it has such a difficult time being widely understood. This was even evident when I asked the nurses at the hospital if there were music therapists available and they responded with, “Oh yeah, the beds have the ability to play relaxing music.”

Music and therapy are both words that people have their own definition for. It’s difficult for people to come up with a new definition for what “music therapy” might be. Of course, music can be therapeutic, but the concept of music therapy is more complex than the two separate words convey on their own. The sum is greater than the individual parts.

Perhaps we should call it something completely different.

Words are hard.

I have always told my husband that I wished he could try my job out for day so that he could understand it from a different perspective than just based in my stories. I’m happy to report that his mother is doing well now and that his therapeutic music implementation is one of her favorite parts from her hospitalization, and the time he spent with her. But, I think it’s safe to say he will continue to advocate for music therapy and encourage others to leave it to the pros!

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