Music As Therapy, One Note at a Time

Music is everywhere in today’s world: on the radio and on television, in shopping malls and doctors’ offices, inadvertently shared by headset-wearing teenagers. Some might say there is too much music present in our daily lives, but music is a valuable form of therapy for people who need comfort beyond medical care.

“There are so many ways to use music in the healing process,” says Lennie Tan, music therapist at Mount Saint Joseph Hospital. “We can sing or dance, play instruments or clap in time – even just listening to music can be a comforting, communal experience.”

Lennie has worked as a music therapist at Mount Saint Joseph Hospital (MSJ) residence since 1995.

At the outset of the program, Lennie was unsure how to reach residents, many of whom were most comfortable with Chinese language and culture. She decided to begin with Chinese opera, a musical genre with which most residents had some experience. Assembling recordings from residents and their families, she listened to these familiar pieces with residents and afterwards discussed the stories and themes that arose.

“Some residents were able to sing along with the recordings,” says Lennie. Others could use rhythm instruments to play along in certain sections of the operas. While some residents were illiterate, others were able to follow the lyrics in written form, so Lennie, with the help of volunteers, began the laborious task of writing out the lyrics in large print – in Chinese, of course – so that everyone who wanted to could follow along with the performance.
“I could not manage without my volunteers,” says Lennie, who speaks both Cantonese and Mandarin but does not read or write Chinese. Volunteers continue to help collect music and produce materials for the residents’ use.“ Music therapy is now an integral part of life for MSJ residents,” says Lennie. During one of the two weekly sessions, Lennie directs a residents’ choir. “We perform here at MSJ as well as at other residences,” Lennie says proudly, “and for the residents’ families at Christmas time.” The choir sings mainly Cantonese and Mandarin music, but Lennie is always looking to expand the repertoire to be as inclusive as possible of all residents.

Music helps to integrate residents into their community.

“The choir gives them a purpose. I tell them that we can all still learn something so let’s do it together.”

The members of the choir take pride in their musical accomplishments; many of them memorize the lyrics and work on the songs on their own time.

“They teach me so much,” she adds. “When I am unsure of the meaning of some of the Chinese lyrics, they sit patiently with me and help me to understand.”

This two-way street is a bonus for both Lennie and the residents, who love to help and to be needed for their wisdom and expertise.

Lennie usually plays the piano for choir practice, but she is delighted when a volunteer can take over so that she can be on the floor, closer to the participants. The 100 residents at MSJ wait eagerly for their music sessions, whether a choir practice or a gathering in the lounge for dancing, body percussion, or any other surprises that Lennie brings.

Lennie is not a performer herself; she had a career as a lawyer before becoming a music therapist.

“Law wasn’t it for me,” she says. “I wanted to do something with meaning.”

Music therapy means something different in each situation. Lennie finds out what people like and then finds a way to create it for them.

“I had a patient with a brain tumour who could no longer speak but could still play the piano,” she says. “I used to listen while he played and watch the emotion on his wife’s face as she listened, too.”

People sometimes take comfort in hymns or chants from their religious background—whatever fits, Lennie provides it in the form of music.

“I just go in with my heart wide open and listen for what might be needed.”