The Power of The Song

I have been a board certified music therapist for nearly 20 years so one might think that I wouldn’t be surprised by the power of music, but sometimes I am. I am currently in an administrative position so I don’t often get the opportunity to use music or music therapy in my day to day work.  I think this contributes to my not remembering how powerful music can be.

Recently I had the honor of working with a music therapist in providing music for a client who was at the end of her life. We set a time to meet in her room.  I had no idea who would be there, and at first it was just the client, the attending staff member and the two of us.  When we arrived the client’s breathing was raspy with each breath coming as a gasp at irregular intervals. She was unresponsive, but did not appear entirely at ease.   She was receiving intravenous fluids and comfort measures, nothing else.  She was clearly in the last days, perhaps hours, of her life.

The music therapist brought out her guitar and began strumming. We began singing some songs that we knew the client enjoyed and was familiar with. Almost immediately her breathing normalized and she appeared more relaxed. When we stopped singing her breathing quickly became labored again.  The music clearly was creating a change in the client.

As time passed, more visitors arrived in the room and we encouraged them to sing along. Some said they “couldn’t” sing, but we encouraged them to sing with us. We created a safe place for them to sing in, no matter their ability level.  As we sang, not only did the client show physiological benefit but, all in the room appeared to benefit in some way.  The power of the music was evident.

The music created a safe container for the  grief.  The quality of the singing didn’t matter, the act of singing mattered. It offered a way to be close to the client and provide her with comfort.  It also provided a support for the visitors allowing them to process some of the emotions associated with the imminent death of someone dear.

The singing helped relax the client, this was easily observed.  It also helped to bring the level of tension and anxiety down in the visitors.  It is  impossible to have constricted breathing when you sing.  When people are upset or tense they breathe more shallowly which serves to increase the tension,  singing counteracts this as when a person sings, the are forced to breathe more deeply.  The atmosphere in the room became more relaxed the longer we sang.

As we sang, stories were shared and tears were shed. The singing was as comforting for the singers as it was for the client.  By the end of the session, a feeling of peace and comfort descended upon the room. It no longer mattered who we were in relation to one another or what our individual backgrounds were, all that mattered was that we were there to support the client and one another. The music broke down barriers and allowed us to be fully present with and for one another as we sang the client down her path “home”.

I am  grateful to have had this experience with the client and the people who love her. I am  grateful that music is such a powerful tool and a gift that I am able to access as needed.  I am grateful to have a wonderful music therapist who is assigned to “my” program and who is compassionate and willing to drop everything to serve a client in need.

I know that the singing provided comfort to all of the people in that room that day, including me.   I hope to be able to be a part of the singing at the celebration of life that is being planned for the lovely soul that we sang to that day.  Rest in peace sweet lady. I know that we will sing together again someday.