As a music therapy intern in an urban Toronto hospital setting, I have been learning to appreciate the unique narrative that each patient brings with them. In spending time with patients at the bedside during what are often prolonged and complicated admissions, I have had the privilege of listening to their stories and their struggles. My role at the hospital is to support these patients in contextualizing their experiences, and promote creative self-expression through music. I want to share a story of a particular patient who found comfort and confidence through therapeutic song writing. For confidentiality purposes, identifying details have been changed. I will refer to this patient as Karen.
Karen, a 55-year-old female was referred to me for emotional support and anxiety management due to her own prolonged and complicated admission. When I first introduced myself to Karen as the music therapy intern, she immediately said “I love music, especially Leonard Cohen. My favourite song is ‘So Long Marianne’.” Karen told me that she used to enjoy writing and that she had wanted to start writing again prior to her hospital admission. She also expressed her fears and worries about being in the hospital and said that she wanted to write about her experience. As a student and a future clinician, I saw this as an opportunity to introduce the role of therapeutic song writing as a tool to help Karen address and combat her feelings of anxiety and fear. Karen was reluctant at first. “I’ve never written a song in my life”, she told me cautiously. I reassured her that I would support her through every step, and that we would make the song writing process as meaningful and authentic as possible.
At our next session, I brought in a copy of the lyrics to “So Long Marianne.” I wanted to ease Karen into the song writing process through a lyric analysis. After singing the song together, Karen analyzed the lyrics and started to connect them to her own experience in the hospital. As Karen began sharing her experiences with me, I wrote down important themes and ideas. At the end of the session, I held up the piece of paper to Karen to show her all that she had shared with me. “Wow,” Karen said, “I had no idea that I had so many important things to say.” I then chose three major themes that she shared (fear, loneliness and pain) and began a musical improvisation using my guitar and voice. Karen listened intently to the music. I found that she would close her eyes and nod when something would resonate with her. At the end of the improvisation she said “Thank you. You have encapsulated exactly how I feel.”
I went home that night to put Karen’s lyrics to music. Because Karen shared so much of her experience with me, I found her words to be natural and poetic. I came back the following Monday to present the song to Karen. As I sang, she closed her eyes and began to cry. She then said to me, “This has given me confidence and strength. I feel a sense of accomplishment. I never really become emotional but I also never really thought that I would write a song from my hospital bed.”
As a singer-songwriter, I admired Karen’s honesty and courage. Much like Leonard Cohen, Karen perfectly embodied the human experience through song. As a music therapy intern, it has been an honour to bear witness to her story and numerous others. To be with them in their suffering is something I do not take lightly and will hold closely throughout my career. Therapeutic song writing is a technique that music therapists often encourage regardless of the patient’s previous experience with music or song writing. It is an accessible intervention that can be used by individuals of any age or diagnosis. I encourage patients of all ages and stages to consider songs that are meaningful to them, and to reflect on lyrics that may hold deeper meaning, or reflect their own narratives. As music therapist Kenneth Bruscia writes “a composer is an architect of emotions, expressed in sound” (Bruscia, 2014). Karen’s song writing process embodied this very idea. It is my hope that when Karen reflects back on her hospital stay she will remember that through pain and suffering, came beauty and music.
Bruscia, K. (2014). Defining Music Therapy, 3rd Edition. Dallas: Barcelona Publishers.
Taylor Kurta is a fourth year undergraduate student pursuing a degree in Music Therapy at Wilfrid Laurier University. In September of 2018, she will begin her Masters in Music and Health Sciences at the University of Toronto, with a focus in Neuroscience and research interests in Neurologic Music Therapy. Taylor is an established singer/songwriter who was awarded with Canada’s Walk of Fame/RBC Emerging Artist in 2013. Taylor is a passionate advocate for Music Therapy in healthcare and is committed to making Music Therapy a primary form of care in hospital settings.