Category: Health Magazine, Winter 2024

Title:Meet Karen Ashbrook, an Artist-In-Residence at the Lombardi Arts & Humanities Program

Author: Gabrielle Barone
Date Published: February 7, 2024
a woman with a pink scarf poses with a medical staff in a hospital
Photo: Courtesy of Karen Ashbrook

Karen Ashbrook is a Certified Music Practitioner, and plays the hammered dulcimer for patients at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital. 

What is your typical day like?

KA: We musicians are able to structure our day. As a group we try to make sure we cover different units. I typically do two five-hour shifts a week, playing both in one-on-one settings and in common areas. 

We have a protocol when playing in patient rooms. First we sanitize our hands. Then, whether the patient is visibly conscious or not, we introduce ourselves and explain very simply what we’re going to do. 

Although some sessions with patients are fun and interactive, the majority of what I do is gentle meditative music to help people calm down, reduce anxiety, fall asleep. It’s the polar opposite of performing for a crowd. If I’m really doing my job, I’m wallpaper. The patient doesn’t feel a need to interact with me. My role as a certified therapeutic musician is to create a sonic healing environment that makes the patient more comfortable or brightens their day.

How do you recharge your own emotional battery?

KA: Playing for the NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit). If I feel a need to recharge—maybe I played for someone’s end-of-life, maybe it was really intense—I will go to the NICU. They keep the lights low there. It’s pretty calm, though sometimes babies cry. It’s different from the rest of the hospital. There’s something very life-affirming about newborn babies. 

How do you move your instrument around the hospital? 

KA: I have a baby buggy—a double stroller. I can actually play standing. In patient rooms I just stroll into the room and play while standing. If I’m going to play for a while, I set up a stool and I have a little scissor stand that I keep in the bottom of my baby buggy.

What’s an experience that really stood out to you? 

KA: Putting on an impromptu concert with a patient who had been a professional singer. When he had entered the hospital several weeks before, he was angry and confused. He wanted to give a concert for the staff to thank them. We arranged this concert, and you could tell he was a performer. The day of the concert, we had to perform without rehearsing. There were maybe eight or 10 staff members gathered, nurses and doctors, people from around the floor. That was the highlight of anything I’ve ever done. It was so amazing.

When did the power of a sonic environment stand out to you? 

KA: I had an experience with a family member who was dying of lung cancer when he was in the hospital. I went in—along with a flute and a harp player—and we played for him at that time. This was the late 1980s and the therapeutic music programs were only open to harp players. 

We went in and played for him, and it was a life-changing experience. First of all, he smiled for the first time in three days, even though he was intubated and heavily sedated. The family was gathered around. And I noticed as we were playing, everybody who was walking down the hallway, relaxed their shoulders and got a smile on their faces. There was a reaction from everybody going by that this is not the usual soundscape.

What is the training process like to become a Certified Musician Practitioner?

KA: The MHTP (Music for Healing and Transitions Program) was a really good fit for me, but it’s a rather involved application process. They require letters of recommendation and a self-care plan, and you have to prove you can play at a certain level. It takes at least 150 hours to do the 45-hour practicum, and then you have to take a test—and you play every step.

What’s something people might not know? 

KA: Lots of people don’t know what a therapeutic musician is. They know what a music therapist does; a music therapist has a degree. They have 1200 practicum hours, they have psychology classes, and their scope of practice is very wide. It involves working with a patient using a care plan that involves music. It might involve listening to music together; it might involve having the patient play music. 

The scope of practice of a therapeutic musician is we play one-on-one at the bedside. It is not interactive; it’s not intended to be interactive. We use our acoustic music to create a sonic healing environment or whatever the patient needs. You’re observing what’s going on and you respond and adapt to what’s happening. There’s also a National Standards Board. It shows ‘I have an ethics code, I have a scope of practice. This is the training I’ve done.’ That gives us credibility. And we bring everything we’ve done in our lives. 

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