In music therapy, healing is more than physical

July 10, 2015 | by Ellen Alperstein

The transplant patient had been hospitalized for a couple of months. A professional violinist, he hadn’t touched his instrument for too long, ever since chemotherapy had caused his skin to peel and his fingers to go numb; they were too sensitive even to touch the metal strings, much less make them sing.


music and cancer Music has power, not just in terms of emotion but also in terms of healing power. City of Hope tailors music therapy to the individual.


He had no interest in music. He was depressed.

Kimberly Bradstreet, a board-certified music therapist at City of Hope, knew she had to reach this patient on a different level from other cancer patients she treated at City of Hope. They’re all at different points in their treatment, and respond differently to their circumstances, she knew, but as cancer patients, they have in common challenging physical side effects and, often, fragile emotions. Science has shown that both can be ameliorated through music therapy.

With a bachelor’s degree in music therapy and a master’s in music education, Bradstreet is well-equipped to help cancer patients. She surveys them about what music they like and the kind of relief they seek: Do they need to manage their pain? Are they unable to relax, and to sleep? Are they having difficulty concentrating?

After evaluating their needs, Bradstreet sets therapy goals with specific objectives, and develops a treatment plan. City of Hope offers music therapy through the Sheri & Les Biller Patient and Family Resource Center, both for patients in their hospital rooms and in group sessions held at the center.

To address the violinist’s depression, Bradstreet wanted to reconnect him with his instrument. She chose the Don Ho way — a ukulele. If asking a concert violinist to strum a ukulele seems like serving gruel to someone accustomed to eating vichyssoise, consider: Ukulele strings are nylon, and more forgiving to fingers than metal; playing a uke helps build hand strength and position; and playing any instrument with which you’re unfamiliar enhances neurological processes that chemo often compromises.

“I just encouraged him to challenge himself in a new way,” Bradstreet recalled, “to show me what he could do as a way to help him get his performance groove back. Playing the ukulele helped him keep up his chops, and that helped improve his state of mind.”

Bradstreet reaches other musicians through their common language, but noted that the best therapy for each patient is whatever music he or she prefers. She asks patients what musical ability they have, if any, and consults with City of Hope’s recreational therapists to figure out how to reach their range of skills and interests, from kids learning nursery rhymes to tone-deaf adults who still swoon over the Beatles.

Musical preferences are individual — so is music therapy

Therapy for groups composed of patients and caregivers with no musical experience, Bradstreet said, might involve tonal instruments, such as xylophones and glockenspiels.


music therapy in treatment Music therapy takes different forms for different patients.


“Anything played in a group will sound cohesive with a wide variety of other percussion instruments,” she said. “And cohesion promotes communication and self-expression through the music. The process is the treatment, and the product can be an artistic, personal result.”

One recent therapy group composed of about 15 outpatients and caregivers chose several goals for the session — immune support, release of tension, breath awareness and distraction from pain and anxiety. Before improvising the music, each person rated his or her energy level; most were 6 out of 10, except one man, who was a 2. He was asked to sit in the middle of the group circle as its members played music to support him.

The group's members gradually increased their volume and drum tempo to match his body language. Eventually, Bradstreet reported, he “opened his eyes, took a drum and began to play. Everyone in the group benefited from the musical energy circle of give and take.”

For groups of kids, she might decide the best way to help them flex some mental muscle is to play animal sounds or movie-related music. They compete to shout out the name of the animal or the name of the movie.

“The therapeutic idea,” she said, “is to develop their ear-brain connection, a function that can be delayed by cancer treatment. And working within a group helps their socialization; they don’t feel so isolated by having a disease.”

Bradstreet has worked with several professional musicians whose treatment, like the violinist’s, required the refined approach.

There was a rap artist whose five children wondered why they had to wash their hands every time they visited him at the hospital. Bradstreet, who has recorded three albums of children’s music, helped him write a children’s song, and set up a bedside recording studio. He recorded “Wash Your Hands” on the day of his transplant.

It was a hit among all audiences. “All the nurses loved it,” Bradstreet said. “They’d never heard a children’s song rapped.”

If music be the food of health, play on


music therapy styles Music therapy is not one-note. Different styles benefit different people.


The one-on-one and Biller Patient and Family Resource Center group sessions are evidence-based active music therapy. But there’s also value in a more passive approach, because listening to good music simply makes you feel better, with preliminary studies showing it even can help moderate pain.

To that end, the medical center also provides periodic performances in a variety of venues and formats, helping patients and visitors experience the transformative power of music. Among the performances:

LA Opera: Intended to bring opera to the community, the LA Opera's community performances make opera accessible at a variety of venues throughout the area. Each year, it offers three performances at City of Hope's Cooper Auditorium.

• Hands-on-Harp: Harp concerts by internationally acclaimed artist Alfredo Rolando Ortiz, Tuesdays, 6:30 p.m., City of Hope Helford Clinical Research Hospital Main Lobby

Musicians on Call Jason Pollack Bedside Performance Program: Musicians bring periodic live performances to inpatients unable to leave their beds.

• Roaming performance: Mobile harpist plays throughout the hospital’s public areas and inpatients’ rooms on request

• Holiday concerts: Performances at Hanukkah, Christmas and Good Friday


Learn more about becoming a patient or getting a second opinion at City of Hope by visiting our website or by calling 800-826-HOPE (4673). You may also request a new patient appointment online. City of Hope staff will explain what's required for a consult at City of Hope and help you determine, before you come in, whether or not your insurance will pay for the appointment.


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