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Healing arts: Chemo and Chopin

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 7, 2013 - During the long month between Richard Hawkins’ stage-four neck cancer diagnosis and his first chemotherapy session, he worried about the slow-growing cancer spreading. “I was very nervous and anxious,” Hawkins, 61, said.

But Hawkins’ first session at Saint Louis University Hospital cancer center this past November actually became a calming experience.

For 40 minutes, the Jerseyville, Ill., medical sales representative and other infusion-room patients were serenaded by two St. Louis Symphony musicians of the SymphonyCares program.

“It was very soothing. The nurse measured my blood pressure and it was higher before the music and went down 20 points after the music,” Hawkins said.

Listening lowers heart rate

Hawkins, whose cancer responded well to treatment, is participating in a SLU study of how music impacts cancer patients. SLU Hospital patients enjoy performances not only by the Symphony but SLU student musicians, Maryville University music therapy internship students and board-certified music therapists.

Researchers monitor the patients’ respirations per minute, blood pressure and pulse. Participants also answer questions about their anxiety levels.

In conversation, most are effusive about their appreciation of the music and its calming results, according to SLU Hospital music therapist Crystal Weaver.

“We hope, through the study, to prove that with data and with numbers,” Weaver said.

The benefits of live music are well-documented by the American Music Therapy Association. One tangible way in which music can promote healing is when it’s performed at the speed of an ideal resting heart rate, around 60 to 72 beats a minute, something both certified therapists and Symphony musicians consider in their playing.

“The heart rate and their pulse will begin to mimic and match the speed of the music, which will help with their relaxing and also help their pain medications take effect more quickly,” Weaver said.

Patients receiving music therapy one-on-one from certified providers -- available at no extra charge at SLU hospital -- get to pick their favorite music.

“Research has shown that if a music therapist incorporates music the individual prefers into a session, it’s going to have a better result and they’ll be more engaged,” Weaver said.

SymphonyCares infusion-room performers choose music they believe will appeal to a wide range of listeners in the infusion room -- up to 20 people. Their selections include not only classical but jazz, folk and other genres, according to SLSO community programs manager Maureen Byrne.

“We’ve had everything from arrangements for violin and guitar of ‘The Girl from Ipanema’ to some of the beautiful Bach duets for violin,” Byrne said.

Music’s ‘power to transform’

SymphonyCares, which launched roughly three years ago, is a multi-faceted program. It recently received a $15,000 boost from the Getty Education and Community Investment Grant program, which will fund a violinist-Circus Flora clown duo called “Clowns on Call” who perform for hospitalized children, help bring music to Siteman Cancer Center, and continue the SLU Hospital relationship.

Symphony musicians are so enthusiastic about playing at SLU Hospital that there are more musicians than spots on the program. Cellist Bjorn Ranheim jumped at the chance to play in the chemotherapy infusion room.

Ranheim has played for patients in other settings as well as with the SymphonyCares program. At SLU Hospital, he experiences some patients actively showing their enjoyment and others listening quietly. Many look forward to the next time.

“A lot of people tell us they’ve actually switched their appointments to the weeks that the Symphony musicians are going to be there,” Ranheim said.

For Ranheim, it’s another chance to use his gift and skills to make a difference in others’ lives.

“As a musician, you have a great power to transform people out of their current situation, wherever that may be in Powell Hall, a second-grade classroom or the middle of an infusion room at a cancer center,” Ranheim said. “You’re hoping to ease a little bit of that pain and struggle.”

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