Music that Picks You Up
It’s several days before Christmas and no one wants to be in the hospital. But they are.
Both the outpatient dialysis unit and the inpatient pediatric wing at SUNY Downstate Medical Center in Flatbush are packed, and the bleeps and blips of electronic monitors provide a constant soundtrack. Staff members have clearly tried to lessen the gloom and pictures of holly-jolly Santas and red-nosed reindeer deck the halls. It hasn’t worked. No two ways about it, the place is glum.
Then Kathy Lord and Susan Weber, founders of a 15-year-old group called Music That Heals, walk in, strolling minstrels armed with guitars and small, easy to hold, percussion instruments. As they begin singing, nurses and technicians are the first to notice and within seconds begin making requests, asking for Feliz Navidad, Jingle Bells, something by Bob Marley, some Calypso. Soon patients are tapping their feet, moving their arms, and dancing in place. A few sing along; in the pediatric unit at least one previously inconsolable little boy stops crying for the duration of a tune.
According to the American Music Therapy Association, music reduces stress, lowers blood pressure, and can boost motor skills and cognitive abilities. “It helps people connect to one another, giving them a chance to rejoice, reflect, and be human,” their website boasts. And it is time tested. The Old Testament cites King Saul who, when tormented and depressed, was cheered by David’s harp. In the more modern era medical workers have consistently noted that shell-shocked war veterans respond positively to melody, their physical, psychological, and social function improving after exposure to rhythm and song. What’s more, neurologist Oliver Sacks’s 2007 book, Musicophilia, explains that everything from a symphony to rap can be used to promote alertness and improve focus, word retrieval, and memory in people with Alzheimer’s disease and other impairments.
On this particular December morning, however, Lord and Weber aren’t thinking about theory. They’re at the Medical Center to entertain patients, staff, and visitors, their repertoire ranging from time-honored Carols to lullabies. It’s not easy to be upbeat in a venue filled with so much anxiety and sadness, but the smiling duo say they’re used to performing for audiences that are hooked up to machines or unable to communicate.
Then again, they’ve seen what some might call miracles: The toddler with brain lesions who everyone thought was deaf—until he began swaying to the song; the clinically depressed adult who suddenly smiled; the girl with hydroencephalus who is now studying to be a music therapist because she so enjoyed Lord and Weber’s presence at her bedside; the “Love” postage stamp that a nursing home patient gave Lord to express her gratitude.
“We bring an hour of joy,” Lord says, explaining that Music That Heals visits 32 New York City facilities each month. A roster of approximately 100 musicians, including a Julliard trained quartet, perform as part of the organization. Thirty or so regulars—the remainder play one or two engagements a year—bring their talents to sites including Brooklyn, Downstate, Maimonides, and Methodist Hospitals as well as the Calvary Hospice at Lutheran Medical Center in Sunset Park. The shoestring operation—their annual budget is $65,000—is financed by foundation grants, individual donations, and a once-a-year 5K fundraising race that is held in Prospect Park on the last Sunday in September.
Although both Lord and Weber have sung professionally—as The Lord and Weber Band and as individuals—on cruise ships and in clubs throughout the U.S. and Europe, they say that it’s their work with Music That Heals that is most gratifying. “After we started going to hospitals, hospices, and nursing homes, I realized that this is what music is all about,” Lord says. “It’s not about playing in a bar while people are getting drunk.”
The pair met in 1984, at an audition. “We were in Manhattan,” Lord recalls. “Susan was auditioning with someone else and I was alone, playing guitar and singing for a number of agents who were looking for performers to go to Finland, Norway, and Switzerland.”
Lord got the gig and upon returning to the States contacted Weber. “I thought it might be fun to play with someone else instead of by myself, so I called her and the next thing I knew we were a band entertaining audiences all over the world,” she laughs. They later hooked up with Hospital Audiences, a 42-year-old Manhattan-based organization that brings music, dance, and theater to inpatient units across the city. “After working with Hospital Audiences for a while we realized that they had no money for children’s shows so we asked the administration if we could raise money ourselves and then begin performing for seriously ill kids,” Lord says. They said ‘yes,’ and Music That Heals set up shop in 1997, initially doing four shows a month. “We were funded by friends and family who donated a few thousand dollars to get us launched. We still work in collaboration with Hospital Audiences today,” Lord continues, “and have since expanded to include adult audiences as well as children.”
Then, as often happens, a fluke occurred. “Susan was onstage one day and when she turned her head her hand went numb,” Lord says. “After this happened a few more times she went to see Dr. Fred Epstein at Beth Israel North. Susan had no health insurance and thankfully did not need surgery.” Even luckier, Dr. Epstein was one of those rare physicians who got to know each patient. “After Susan told him about what we were doing with Music That Heals he said he’d give her a discount if we’d donate a show and perform in the pediatric neurosurgical unit of the hospital,” Lord adds. “We did and Dr. Epstein came and was so pleased he told us he wanted us to return twice a month. We donated two shows to the unit and Dr. Epstein paid us out of his own pocket for subsequent ones. He passed away in 2006 but from 1997 until he died we’d go room to room for an hour or two twice a month.”
In the intervening years Music That Heals has evolved and expanded. There have also been personal changes. Lord now not only performs but also serves as the group’s fundraiser and administrator. At the same time, she has become an accomplished photographer. Weber, meanwhile, returned to school and earned her Ph.D. in 2007. She now has a fulltime teaching job on Long Island.
Yet regardless of competing obligations or interests, Music That Heals remains a front-and-center priority for both women, a highly touted source of gratification that can’t easily be matched.
“When Susan and Kathy walk into our pediatric unit it’s like The Wizard of Oz, when it goes from black and white to color,” Maureen Walsh, an RN at Downstate explains.
But there’s obviously a difference. This time around the Wizard is not only real, she can harmonize.
You can contact Music That Heals by going to www.musicthatheals.org, or writing Music That Heals, PO Box 950205, Ft. Tilden, NY 11695.
ContributorEleanor J. Bader