Category: Health Magazine, Winter 2024

Title:Therapeutic music lifts mood, sonic environment at Lombardi

Author: Gabrielle Barone
Date Published: January 18, 2024
two women smile together in a medical room
Karen Ashbrook has over 40 years of experience playing the dulcimer around the world. Her therapeutic music provides comfort to both patients and staff members. Photos: Courtesy of Karen Ashbrook

Most performance musicians don’t want their audience to fall asleep. However, for therapeutic musicians, that’s a goal—if a patient is able to fall asleep, that means they’re relaxed. “It’s sort of the polar opposite of performing for a crowd,” says Certified Music Practitioner Karen Ashbrook, one of the artists in residence at Georgetown University’s Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center. “If I’m really doing my job, I’m wallpaper.”

Certified therapeutic musicians like Ashbrook are specially trained for the environment through a program recognized by the National Standards Board of Therapeutic Musicians, and know how to monitor vital signs like blood pressure and heart rate to tell if their efforts are helping.

“If the patients feel better, it’s easier for the staff. If the staff feel better, it’s better for the patients.”

—Julia Langley

Georgetown Lombardi’s musical component began with the introduction of the Arts and Humanities department, and they hope to double musician spots in the next year from five to 10. One musician is also doing her certification practicum onsite. The musicians, all independent paid contractors, play in common areas and one-on-one for patients, anywhere from patient rooms to busy spots like the emergency department, dialysis suite, and neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).

Importantly, there is a difference between music therapists and therapeutic musicians. Music therapists are trained to help rehabilitation using music. Therapeutic musicians are trained to create a better sonic environment, and, according to Julia Langley, assistant professor at the School of Medicine and faculty director of the Arts and Humanities program, serve patients where they are at that moment. They can be conduits for expressing difficult emotions as well as joy and hope.

a woman with a pink scarf plays a musical instrument in a hospital room
Photo: Courtesy of Karen Ashbrook

“We see patients and staff as two sides of the same coin,” Langley says. “If the patients feel better, it’s easier for the staff. If the staff feels better, it’s better for the patients.”

Georgetown Lombardi incorporates music into its foundation, from a 2021 National Arts Endowment grant to study effects of recorded music, to the annual Day of Dance, symposiums, and even the use of remote technology to safely provide music for patients during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Langley believes the program offers something special: the chance for patients to have control in an environment where they’re vulnerable in other regards. “[Unlike with medical staff] the musicians aren’t coming to take your blood or your temperature,” she says. “They just bring themselves to be present and attentive.”

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