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Songwriting with an Institution


by Sarah Pearson, Music Therapist

In a busy environment like a hospital, where everyone – patient and staff alike – has a job to do – it’s challenging to make time to reflect on how much we’re all holding. The lived experiences of people in an oncology program are vast and profound.

Those of us interested in psychosocial oncology are interested in stories. Not just patients, but the staff, volunteers, and family members that make up our institution. I have long been interested in the stories that my particular care setting, a cancer centre in a local hospital, is holding. Because I am a music therapist, and a songwriter, the most obvious way for me to tease out these stories is through song. And so in the spring of 2015, I ventured to create a songwriting project that would involve telling the story of the Cancer Centre as a whole.


Songwriting is a powerful tool for making meaning out of life. Through playing with words, structure, musical mood, and the creative process in general, writing songs can be a healing and life-giving activity. Many of the patients I work with in oncology use songwriting as part of their music therapy experience. Most of them have never written a song, let alone played an instrument. Countless powerful songs have emerged from these sessions with patients, many of which went on to be shared with their loved ones and care partners. These songs have been tools of connection, expression, and healing for people wrestling with some big unknowns and sitting on some unspoken stories.


But songwriting with the organization as a whole was something new.


For one month, questionnaires were circulated across the facility where staff and patients could anonymously answer questions about their experience of the cancer journey. Questions included: “what does cancer mean to you?” “what are three words to describe the cancer centre?” and “what can cancer not do?” Boxes were set up across the clinics, units and waiting rooms where these forms could be dropped off. Dozens of family members, staff, patients, and volunteers filled in questionnaires.


I collected them all and read each word. The breadth of emotion was astonishing. There was hope and sadness, fear and joy, anger and gratitude. There was loss. There was celebration. There was even poetry! Some participants submitted entire songs – lyrics set to familiar tunes – or whole poems about their cancer journeys. One colleague told me in confidence that she was a poet, and that she would be curious to explore setting her verse to music. Mostly, the submissions were short clips of prose, jotted down while waiting for an appointment or grabbing a coffee on break.


I typed all of the submissions into a document, and then hosted three open songwriting workshops. Anyone could attend, and no experience was necessary. In each of these one-hour workshops, participants combed through the lyrics and identified themes. Through discussion, brainstorming, group writing, and lots of trial-and-error with music, we were able to write three distinct songs. These songs were later recorded at a professional studio, and shared on the cancer centre website.


Each of these songs have a distinct feel. The participants wanted to reflect the diversity of experiences shared, balancing the importance of hope with the honesty of how lonely and terrifying cancer can be. When taking a therapeutic approach to songwriting, we merge musical craft with counseling goals. We make choices about choruses, verses, musical themes and styles, melody, and mood, based on what version of reality we want to create. A song that lingers on despair can validate that emotion so that we can begin moving through it. A song that begins on a sad note and turns hopeful in the chorus can help us reframe a challenge into something positive. Always, the emphasis is on writing the best possible song. The healing power of art can then work its therapeutic magic.


These three songs now live on the Cancer Centre website and are available for anyone to listen to. Through writing and sharing these songs, it was hoped that the Cancer Centre community as a whole could feel connected to the shared lived experiences that we are all stewarding. Perhaps, through music, we can feel united by one another’s strengths, fears, and love.


Listen to the songs here!




SarahPearson2Sarah Pearson is a music therapist working in oncology and palliative care, with previous experience in long term care. She is a clinical supervisor at Wilfrid Laurier University, and the program development coordinator for the Room 217 Foundation, where she leads educational programming for caregivers on the use of music. She holds a master’s degree in music therapy, and is a singer-songwriter, professional choral musician, and a sought-after speaker on the impact of music and music therapy in care.





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