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The healing power of music
A Music as Medicine project, courtesy of the Arlington Philharmonic, brings a piano and smiles to an Arlington hospital.
Gretchen R. Crowe | Catholic Herald
Gretchen R. Crowe | Catholic Herald

The plunking could be heard down the hall, creating rubberneckers out of those walking past the Virginia Hospital Center’s activity room. Inside, Darrel Miller, 65, a resident of the Arlington hospital’s inpatient rehabilitation ward, sat in front of a black upright piano, his wheelchair pulled in close to the keys. The fingers of his left hand — the only one he could lift — pressed down on the ivory, eliciting a clunky melody that turned out to be an “O, Christmas Tree” and “Itsy Bitsy Spider” medley.

Miller’s face crumpled into tears; then he breathed out and gave a slight smile. Fingering the keys reminded him of his love of music, how he had played the cornet as a child. Now, thanks to the arrival of the piano at Virginia Hospital Center, courtesy of Genea Callahan and the Arlington Philharmonic’s Music as Medicine project, Miller can recreate those memories while in the hospital as his schedule and strength permit.

This was just what Callahan, a parishioner of St. John the Beloved Church in McLean and the chair of Music as Medicine, envisioned when she launched the project earlier this year. A music lover, Callahan is a firm believer in its healing powers — for physical, emotional, mental or spiritual troubles.

“Music heal(s) in ways you can’t put into words,” she said. “Where words stop, music can carry some kind of expression that our language limits us in getting across.”

According to the American Music Therapy Association, music can “promote wellness, manage stress, alleviate pain, express feelings, enhance memory, improve communication (and) promote physical rehabilitation.”

“Music can be beneficial in so many ways,” said Julia Reppucci, a music therapist at the Levine School of Music in Washington. “There are a wide variety of needs that we can meet because music is such a motivating tool to use in therapy.”

A stroke victim, for example, can listen to a song that is meaningful to them, and that music can distract from the pain and assist him or her in movement, she said. Certain chords and musical progressions “naturally encourage us to move.”

“We’re able to change music, make a song slower and lower its beats per minute, and slowly increase those beats per minute to have somebody walk to that,” Reppucci said.

Though the research is still developing, she said studies have shown that music therapy also can help lower blood pressure and regulate an individual’s heart rate. It can affect the production of white blood cells, which leads to more rapid healing. It’s also shown to be effective for those suffering from Down syndrome, autism, muscular dystrophy, as well as for adults with depression or anxiety, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, women in labor, and babies in the neonatal intensive care unit.

The arrival of the piano at Virginia Hospital Center, which was donated by a private owner, was the first step in what Callahan hopes will be a wide-reaching program providing access to musical instruments to more area hospitals, nursing homes and retirement communities as needed. The instrument will be available for music therapy sessions as well as for general tinkering. A sheet music drive will be held at the next Arlington Philharmonic concert Nov. 11 at Washington-Lee High School.

“A lot of pianists will tell you that a piano tends to become kind of like your confidant or your best friend,” said Alan Naylor, a piano tuner living in Washington who spent six hours servicing the upright. “When you need to relax or need therapy, you go to the piano. When you are the one creating the music … it allows you to let yourself out. It allows you to deal with things without knowing you’re dealing with them.”

Naylor, who sings in the choir at St. John, knows firsthand the effectiveness of music as a healing tool. When he was a teenager and hospitalized for a few days, the piano helped relieve some of his stress.

“Certainly my stay would have been much different had I not had the piano to go to,” he said.

When Naylor heard the piano donated to the Music as Medicine project needed some work, he offered his services — “MacGyver-ing” several pieces together and giving it a painstakingly careful tune-up.

Even in the few hours he spent working on it, Naylor could already see what a difference the presence of a piano made in the hospital.

“You can see everyone on the floor, everyone on the corridor … it just pulls them out of what they’re doing,” he said. “People will stop in or they’ll smile.”

The human response to music is a natural one, Callahan said. Youths sing and dance along, and even adults have a propensity toward some type of rhythmic expression.

This natural response to music also is manifested through the music of the Catholic Church, she added.

“There are inexpressible emotions and an inexpressible connection to our God when a piece of organ music or a violin sonata can express where words can’t,” Callahan said. “That is a perfect vehicle for our relationship with God.”

As evident through Miller at Virginia Hospital Center, the release of emotions through music “doesn’t stop at the church door,” Callahan said. “That extends all the way into a patient’s room and a patient’s experience.”

When Naylor was in high school, he volunteered at a nursing home where a woman had Alzheimer’s. She couldn’t talk, he said, but if you played the piano, she would sing old Christmas hymns.

That’s the beauty of music. It can be comforting and familiar, even when nothing else is.

“Being able to sit down and play music that means something to you from your teenage years or a song you can connect to can be extremely therapeutic,” Reppucci said. “Music spans so many ages, generations and cultures. It’s just a very powerful, powerful tool.”

Crowe can be reached on Twitter @GCroweACH.

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