Each time I sit by the bedside of a patient nearing the end of their life, I find myself looking around the room, gauging the looks in the eyes of their surrounding loved ones. Grief and emotion are palpable.
With my guitar as my partner, I begin to sing one of their most beloved songs. I use my voice as a gentle lasso, shepherding everyone into a circle where we can all experience this moment’s gravitas together. There are tears, laughter, and voices joining in shared song.
It may appear as though I am a hired musician entertaining a very small crowd that needs a pick-me-up during a difficult time. But entertainment is not the goal — these are some of the final moments in a person’s life. It is more important to bring these loved ones together to connect, reminisce, and create meaningful memories during a time of great transition.
Connection and healing are what music therapy is all about. It is a supportive, evidence-based allied health discipline, provided by accredited music therapists. We use music as our treatment tool, for people from all walks of life with diverse individual needs. We provide specialized care for children who have developmental disorders, elders with dementia, and people in substance abuse recovery programs, among others.
Most of my work is in end-of-life and bereavement care. The goals I have for my patients are:
-to connect with their family and friends
-to review their lives and legacies
-to reduce pain
-to induce relaxation with gentle music
-to work with emotions such as anxiety and despair
-to be present with the moment
Music connects and brings people together. It engages the whole brain and inspires movement, language, cognition, and spiritual engagement — all of which can be felt in the room when we start singing together.
Music therapy exists because music has always been part of us. No culture has existed without music in one form or another, from drum circles to choral chanting. Most human beings respond to music and enjoy it, and I imagine you can agree that music is some part of your life, whether it’s singing along with the radio in your car, listening to your favourite album, or playing a musical instrument. (And if you are not a fan of music, that does not mean there is something wrong with you — it means that there might be other forms of treatment that are best for you!).
I meet people daily who tell me that they absolutely love music, but, regretfully, they are “not a musical person”. My philosophy, which I am all too happy to impart, is “If you like music, you are a musical person”. As I reply, I feel this conversation turning into a connection.
Tracy Laslop is a music therapist at North Shore Hospice.