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The Healing Magic in Music

Courtesy of the Huntsman Cancer Institute

Primary Children’s Medical Center and the Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah attract patients with serious medical problems from around the region and across the country. In an effort to foster optimism in these patients, medical professionals are harnessing the power of music.

As of 2011, there are 69 board-certified music therapists in Utah, with around a dozen working in areas throughout the U’s hospital.

“We’re going in and assessing the need — the medical need, the spiritual need, the emotional need — of all our patients, and then creating music interventions based on research,” said Heather Fellows, one of two music therapists at the Huntsman Cancer Institute. “Everything that we do is evidence-based. That shows that it can be effective in helping our patients to accomplish the goals that we’re setting for them.”

Through song, patients work to decrease anxiety, manage pain and symptoms, such as nausea, and process what is happening to them. This form of therapy isn’t only for the patients — it’s also for the caregivers.

Once, Fellows walked into the room of a patient who had just undergone a bone marrow transplant. In pain, the woman’s body was tense. She released moans as she breathed rapidly. Fellows assessed the situation. She decided this patient needed anxiety relief, she needed to slow down her breathing and to cool down. After 20 minutes of playing and gradually slowing the music, the patient relaxed.

Music, Fellow said, gives patients the tools to mend the mental health ailments caused by their illness.

“At one point the husband [of a patient] said, ‘Oh, I almost fell asleep that was so relaxing,’” Fellows said. “I said, ‘Music will give you what you need. You need rest? You need energy? What do you need?’ At the end, he was very tearful and he looked at me and he said, ‘I want you to recognize how important your work is.’ And he said, ‘You know your songs make me cry sometimes.’ I said, ‘Music gives you what you need, and you guys are holding in a whole heck of a lot of emotions right now and maybe you just needed a moment to let it out a little bit.’”

Music therapists typically obtain a bachelor’s degree in music therapy and behavioral science, followed by a 6-month clinical internship, a national board certification exam and the Utah state certification exam. Knowledge of behavioral science and proficiency in guitar, piano and singing is a must.

“We have to be very skilled musicians,” Fellows said, who started out as a vocalist. “So all of the musical skill [should] come second nature because what we focus on is the behavioral science, so whether we’re addressing emotional goals or physical goals or cognitive goals or whatever it is, that can be our focus and the music skill part is just there in second nature.”


The focus of these sessions, Fellows stressed, is not her performance. They are about the connections that can be made through a musical outlet.

The blood infusion center is Fellows’s favorite area to work in. She handed a couple a list of songs they could choose from. The two kept choosing songs with themes of inner strength and turning to each other as sources of hope. The husband requested Christina Perri’s “A Thousand Years.”

“I started singing and as I was singing, he grabbed her hand and they were just looking at each other … tearfully and he started singing along to the words,” Fellows remembered.

Fellows ran out of the room to grab the lyrics to make sure she got them right — it was the second verse she remembered to be the most moving.

“I will be brave,” the song stated. “I will not let anything take away what’s standing in front of me. Every breath, every hour has come to this.”

“Both of them looking at each other in tears, sharing that moment, it felt like [the song was meant for them],” Fellows said. “I just faded into the background, and it was all about them and all about their strength as a couple and their hope around facing this really tough time in their life.”

Music therapy is used for patients in all stages of life, from infants in the neonatal intensive care unit to individuals suffering from age-related ailments or terminal illnesses.

Fellows recalls a time when she and her viola-playing intern slowly snuck into the silent, dimly-lit room in the intensive care unit. It was full of the patient’s family — many of whom were crying. They welcomed the two in.

Quietly asking what type of music they should play, the family requested religious music. They pulled out what they had and began to play. The pair softly cradled the room with the sound, creating what music therapists refer to as “providing the container.” The trick is to not let the music stop.

“If you stop, it interrupts the whole thing,” Fellows said. “We kept the music going, and we were in there for about an hour. During that time more and more family came. … [When the patient passed] they said a prayer together and the whole time we were just kind of in the background, but providing that support and that space to just hold all of that emotion during that moment of time. When it felt like the family was starting to take a breath and just be okay with that moment and not so actively anxious and stressed about what was happening, we closed up and stopped the music. We walked out of the room and several members of the family followed us out.”

The mother and the wife felt inclined to individually thank the music therapists. It wasn’t about the religious beliefs of the musicians — it was about what the family needed most to be able to tell their loved one goodbye.

“It’s really, really important for the family to feel like they’re supported and like they can have time to express what they need to express,” Fellows said. “That’s what music therapy can be there to provide.”

Experiences like these are common in the world of music therapy. Fellows has been at the Huntsman Cancer Institute for one of the two years it has employed music therapists. As research on the method continues, Fellows hopes the program will grow.

“Working here, every interaction that we have is just so meaningful,” Fellows said.

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