Jessica Gallo’s love for the harp started in grade school, when her grandfather would often take her to lessons. Years later a series of strokes put her grandfather in the hospital. Jessica was in college studying harp performance when he fell ill and she decided to play for him. Something about the music made a difference.
“I saw how much joy the music brought him and how it helped him be calm and rest,” remembers Jessica. “That planted a seed in my heart to explore music in medicine.”
Jessica looked into music therapy, where music helps to accomplish medical treatment goals. But it wasn’t until she discovered the Music for Healing and Transition Program (MHTP) that she could see the path she wanted to take with patients. The MHTP trains musicians in the methods of playing music to create a healing environment for any patient, but especially for the very ill or those at end of life. Graduates of the two-year program become Certified Music Practitioners (CMPs).
“I play music to help promote the relaxation response,” says Jessica, who as part of her training volunteered in Virginia Mason’s Oncology Department and Critical Care Unit. “There’s a science behind what we do, in terms of engaging the parasympathetic nervous system that controls things like heart rate. I can adjust my playing to the same beats per minute as a resting heart rate, which helps calm patients. I see patients who start out very anxious and flustered being able to fall asleep.”
Patients don’t always know what to expect when Jessica enters the room. They may say they’re not ready for a “concert,” but Jessica assures them she’s not there to perform, but to play while they rest. Patients don’t have to watch, clap or even request specific music, which would create undue pressure. They are welcome to keep doing an activity, like being on their phone or iPad, but Jessica finds that after a while, the device is forgotten, eyes close and tension fades away.
Because music can have a strong emotional connection for people, CMP training provides guidelines for certain patients. For someone who’s critically ill, a reaction to known music, even if positive, might be too much given their condition. But for someone with dementia or Alzheimer’s, finding a familiar song they’re able hum along with can be comforting. For the dying, familiar music can disrupt the process, as can complicated pieces of music.
“I play fewer notes, pieces that are more ethereal,” says Jessica, about playing for people at the end of life. “Every note is like a packet of information for the brain to process. As it’s slowing down it’s too much input to hear constant notes. So I play two or three notes with silence in between.”
While she plays, Jessica is always aware of the patient. Being able to adjust the music based on the patient’s reaction is a key advantage over recorded music. Sometimes Jessica finds herself improvising new music as she listens to a patient’s breathing. She views music as creating a mental space for reflection and new thoughts, allowing a patient’s mind to leave the hospital, even if their body can’t.
“One woman was crying a few minutes after I started playing,” says Jessica. “She said, ‘I’ve been in the hospital for four months, but when you played I felt like I was home.’ It is a privilege for me to be in those moments. If there’s a measure of peace I can bring I am grateful.”
Though the practice of CMPs is still an emerging field (there are less than 200 estimated working in the U.S.), controlled studies of live music in the health care setting have demonstrated reductions in pain, physical anxiety (lowering heart rates, blood pressure) and improved muscle relaxation. Other successful applications have shown benefits for premature infants, who in controlled studies gained weight faster and went home earlier when music was played daily.
Another therapeutic benefit is the comfort to families, who may not have seen their loved one relax or sleep for days. A calmer environment supports the needs of the medical team as well. “The entire staff looked forward to hearing Jessica play the harp,” says Shirley Sherman, RN, director, Critical Care Services. “We could see it bring a sense of well-being to our patients and to the care team. It’s like a massage for the soul.”
Jessica playing her harp in Virginia Mason’s Critical Care Unit