Laughter, it has often been said, is the best medicine. However, the residents of some local nursing homes and the patients and staff at Arkansas Children’s Hospital might argue the best medicine is music. And they may have a case.
Musicians from the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra, comprising the Rockefeller and Quapaw Quartets, regularly visit area nursing homes and Arkansas Children’s to perform a mix of familiar classical and contemporary music – apparently to great effect. According to Joanna Klett, Arkansas Symphony Orchestra education director and cellist, the music has promoted wellness among patients by helping to manage stress, alleviating pain, encouraging the expression of feelings, enhancing memory, improving communication, promoting physical rehabilitation, strengthening human connections, and aiding in behavioral and social development.
“I’ve played for countless kids, but what is special about ASO’s presence at the hospital is the respite music can provide for the families of those who are ill,” said Katherine Williamson, a musician with the symphony. “Nothing could ever make me forget the held-back tears in a young mother’s eyes as I played ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’ for her restless, ailing newborn.”
Music as Medicine
Many patients at Children’s are there for extended periods of time and are unable to leave. Music can provide an escape.
“We want to play pieces that are soothing and joyful,” said Klett. “It takes them out of where they are. For a minute, they are not thinking about their health struggles. Just to see those little smiles of joy is worth it. To see them go through that kind of struggle and to be able to help in any way is huge.”
Drew Irvin, Arkansas Symphony concertmaster, became acutely aware of the value of music in circumstances like these when a personal friend of his, a former employee at the symphony, ended up spending a lot of time at Children’s Hospital when her daughter needed multiple surgeries in her first three years of life.
“When I realized the journey a family could go on, it all became very real to me,” he said. “To see a friend go through this was hard.”
Drew wanted to help in any way he could.
“I would go play music on their porch,” he said. “To give them just a few seconds of something to take their minds off everything.”
Now he performs at Children’s whenever he can. “I think about those families who basically live there,” he said. “Their whole life is in that bubble with their sick child. If I had more time and emotional space, I would do it even more.”
Adapting to COVID-19
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the Rockefeller Quartet regularly went to the oncology ward at the hospital to play in the children’s rooms. After COVID, it became necessary for Children’s to implement safety protocols that prevented in-room visits. The new restrictions were, of course, necessary. But they also increased the isolation many patients felt.
The quartets began to play in the lobby to audiences whose masks could not hide their smiles.
“Similar to children, many studies have shown how music engagement for the elderly improves their mental well-being, especially those receiving memory care,” said Kari Schulz, Arkansas Symphony Orchestra associate director of development. “As patients in a hospital or residents in a nursing home, many children and seniors are not able to access or leave to see live music. People gain so much value from hearing live music and the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra aspires to offer these bedside and lobby visits to make a huge difference in a patient’s, a family’s, or a caretaker’s day. Performances by ASO musicians have impacted many people at ACH and nursing homes by making their stay a little less foreign and overwhelming.”
Grant Fosters Music Program
With a $5,000 grant from the Blue & You Foundation for a Healthier Arkansas, the symphony musicians have made more than 20 visits to Children’s and local nursing homes so far in 2022 and plan to do more.
“The Blue & You Foundation is pleased to support programs that make a positive impact on the lives of children and families,” said Rebecca Pittillo, executive director of the Blue & You Foundation. “It warms my heart to think a child, while in the hospital, can hear beautiful music to reduce anxiety and stress and the patient in a nursing home might feel more comfortable and relaxed because of the music being played by the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra.”
With the grant funds, the symphony can continue to foster a healthier Arkansas by taking the music to where it’s needed and so appreciated by those who aren’t able to attend symphony events.
“We’re always looking for ways to be in the community,” said Klett, “Music is not just for the concert hall.”