Amid the constant beeps and hums of the medical equipment on Children’s Hospital Boston’s dialysis unit, it’s not unusual to hear a patient belting out an upbeat rendition of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” or a solo, acoustic version of the theme to Sponge Bob Square Pants. If it throws you off at first, don’t worry—you’ve simply caught wind of a music therapy session.
Music therapy is the practice of empowering patients though music. By combining traditional therapy techniques with song and music lessons, music therapists can help alleviate patient stress, encourage creativity and allow patients to better communicate their emotions—all of which can drastically improve their overall well-being. For those that regard music as a hobby, the thought of using it as therapy may seem odd, but for Brian Jantz, MT-BC, one of Children’s two music therapists, songs have always meant more than just entertainment. “Music and playing guitar was the main way my father and I communicated when I was younger,” he says. “Now that I’m a father to a teenage boy, I can really appreciate its powers to open people up.”
In the mid 1990s, Children’s partnered with Berklee College of Music to create a practicum program which incorporated music into traditional therapy. As a Berklee student at the time, Jantz enrolled in the program and was assigned to Children’s dialysis unit, where he offered music and lessons to help patients cope with pain and pass the time while receiving treatment. The positive reaction from patients far exceeded his expectations and Jantz quickly shifted his educational focus from performance-based classes to music therapy.
“The whole experience really touched me,” he says. “I’d always seen myself as a guitar player, but after my first few weeks of music therapy, I saw how much more I could do with music. I could help people with it.” After graduating, Jantz continued his music therapy work at Children’s, but at the time, funding for the program was hard to come by. Initially, his visits were only available to a single unit at the hospital for five hours a week. But thanks to donations from private contributors— and the hard work of Jantz and his colleagues—the music therapy program grew substantially every year. Their dedication was validated this past March, when the music therapy program was adopted from Berklee by Children’s Child Life Services.
“The program has grown by leaps and bounds in its 10-year history,” says Miranda Guardiani, a Child Life specialist at Children’s. “What started as small program with limited hours in a single unit now has a presence at every inpatient unit and few outpatient ones. We’ve seen huge successes with music helping kids heal, and the fact that we’ve been able to fully adapt the program is wonderful.” When the music therapy program became fully sponsored by Children’s, both Jantz and his fellow music therapist, Joanna Bereaud, MT-BC, were hired as Children’s employees, a move that expanded the scope of the program. As a result, music therapy is now available to well over 200 patients a week.
One of those patients is Josh Opalenik. After one of Josh’s kidneys failed last year, the 9 year old began receiving treatment three days a week on Children’s dialysis unit. Because they live in Connecticut, Josh and his family must make the four-hour round trip commute to Children’s every other day for his dialysis treatment. The travel time and lengthy hospital stays can be hard on both Josh and his family, but his mother says the music therapy he receives from Jantz while at Children’s is a blessing. “It’s a nice diversion while he’s here, and one that’s better for him than being glued to video games or TV,” she says.
In addition to working directly with Josh, Jantz often incorporates Josh’s younger sisters, Tegan, 5, and Nicole, 18 months, in the sessions. According to Jantz, including them in the healing process helps promote family bonding and makes the hospital setting less intimidating. Josh’s mom says the girls like the music sessions so much they often look forward to coming to Children’s, but it has raised questions about her own musical ability. “The girls talk about music with Brian all the time at home,” she says. “But now they’re wondering why I don’t play the guitar. They keep asking me to learn and I don’t know how to tell them that it’s never going to happen.”
Stories like the Opalenik’s demonstrate the value of combining traditional treatment with progressive therapeutic techniques. In addition to the music therapy program, Children’s sponsors other art-based therapies like painting and cooking. Though each program is unique and tailored specifically to the patient, all are designed to help children explore their creative side, interact with their peers and better express themselves.
“Medicine and surgery are crucial for helping kids overcome illness, but there are a lot of great alternative programs that can really help them feel better as well,” Guardiani says. “No two children are the same, so we want to offer as much variety as we can. Music, art, food, sports—whatever helps our patients heal in addition to the medicine and treatment they already receive—we want to be able to provide that for them.”