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Signs of Hope: Hitting the high notes

Conquest - Summer 2013

A dose of music therapy shifts the mood

By Gail Goodwin

Children have been known to call Michael Richardson “the music man.” As patients in MD Anderson Children’s Cancer Hospital, they love to follow his lead, playing keyboards, drums and boom whackers.

Packing a guitar, beautiful choir chimes, keyboard and an assortment of professional percussion instruments, MD Anderson’s music therapist is often seen in the hallways on his way to work with patients and families.

Ingrid Moeller, a part-time music therapist, and Erin Feuerstein, a music therapy intern from West Texas A&M University, round out the MD Anderson team.

Michael Richardson is MD Anderson's "music man" to patients 
like Judith Nelson.

“It’s hard to tell you what I like best about this internship,” Feuerstein says, “but more than likely it would be getting to interact with a broad range of patients from around the world and creating music that is meaningful to them.”

Feuerstein remembers an experience with a 
4-year-old boy, who was referred by his doctor. Her goal was to normalize the hospital environment for the young patient. Using age-appropriate musical play, the patient learned ways to express his feelings and explore his surroundings, leading to decreased anxiety.

Music therapy an emphasis since 1991

Richardson, who began working as a contract employee at MD Anderson in 1991 before becoming a full-time employee in 2004, enjoys patient interaction.

He measures his success by sessions, such as a recent one, when music distracted a patient from her pain. That’s a big win for a music therapist, who tries to understand a patient’s mood and then affect a change that is beneficial for that person.

To receive music therapy, patients must be referred by their physicians. Once the order is received, the therapist works with a patient to manage stress, deal with pain, help express feelings, improve communication, encourage physical rehabilitation and, in general, promote wellness.

Hidden benefits

Patients’ needs vary from physical to emotional to cognitive and, finally, to social. A simple tune can go a long way to improving well-being.

One of the offerings of MD Anderson’s Integrative Medicine Center, music therapy is provided to children and adult inpatients, outpatients and their families. Here, health care teams have discovered that a dose of music therapy can change a patient’s mood and behavior. Being involved in an activity not normally associated with being an inpatient has been shown to increase a patient’s self-esteem, self-confidence and coping mechanisms.

Music therapy is more effective when patients can choose music they have a connection to. So patients are always invited to help select the music the therapist uses.

While Richardson may be singing or playing for patients, his ultimate goal, along with that of his colleagues, is to contribute to a patient’s health and well-being — with every tune.

Celebration Singers: No musical experience required

When her doctor sent her to a nutrition class, she heard singing from the next room. “That sounded like a lot of fun so I joined up,” says Liz Lewis, a Celebration Singer.

Left to right: Sally Berger, a patient in active treatment, sings
out with Marifel Malacara, a caregiver and MD Anderson
employee, Jeri Coalman, a patient and new member, and 
Liz Lewis, a patient and member of the group for six years.
Photo: Wyatt McSpadden

The singers enjoy singing together, but they also come for the friendship and support they receive from Michael Richardson and each other. The only criterion to join the Celebration Singers is that you must be a cancer patient, survivor or caregiver.

Singers are not expected to read music. Richardson, MD Anderson’s music therapist, is there to guide participants. Hold a note, repeat the chorus, take a breath and, most important, have a good time. Richardson leads his singers through a mix of all genres during each rehearsal.

“We sing a little bit of everything,” Richardson says. “It’s definitely a variety show.”

He speaks the truth, leading the Celebration Singers through songs such as “Eye of the Tiger,” “Amazing Grace” and even that old favorite, “Happy Trails.” During the rehearsal, in between songs, there is plenty of time for members to catch up on the latest in their lives and share the most recent news with the group.

The Celebration Singers meet weekly to make beautiful music. “Come join us,” Richardson says. “It’s relaxing and fun, and we grow as singers and friends each week."

For rehearsal information or to join the Celebration Singers, contact Michael Richardson at 713-563-0858.

— Gail Goodwin

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