When someone falls asleep as Robin Prechter is playing music, she takes it as a compliment.
After all, that’s a big part of her job. She’s not on some stage performing in front of crowds of people, she’s in a room for one and doesn’t even call it a performance.
“Even if you make a mistake as you’re playing, you just keep going and don’t think anything of it,” Prechter said. “You just let it go because you're there to make a healing environment, and that's the only reason you're there.”
Prechter is a certified music practitioner with the Northeast Georgia Health System, which just officially kicked off its therapeutic music program.
The program is meant for those at the Gainesville hospital who are critically ill or near the end of their life. It has a full-time staff and is being funded completely by employees through the Northeast Georgia Health System Foundation’s We Are Targeting Community Healthcare Employee-giving Club.
“Live therapeutic music is an artform based on the science of sound,” said Chuck Beckman, coordinator for the program. “So as clinically trained musicians, we are trained to provide therapeutic music to create a healing environment for patients, but it is not goal oriented.”
No medical outcomes are expected from the therapeutic music program. The musician simply goes into the room and begins playing the harp, guitar or piano.
“The only outcome that we’re really looking for is that the patient will relax and rest more comfortably,” Beckman said.
It’s not just playing music, though. Certified music practitioners are trained to read a patient’s vital signs and how they’re physically reacting and adjust the music accordingly.
Don Walsh, associate professor of physical therapy at the University of North Georgia, has spent some time studying the connection between music and pain.
“My background is helping people in physical therapy who are in pain,” Walsh said. “So anything I can use to augment improvement in patients is a powerful tool, and I think music is one of those things, whether it's drumming or something else, there's definitely a connection there.”
Prechter picked up the harp eight years ago and is still taking lessons. She enjoys having the opportunity to change tempo and adjust according to the patient’s response.
“I never start with the same thing,” Prechter said. “I go in there and look at the patient and decide what I think would be good to start with. And sometimes you need to play something with an even tempo that keeps going at a regular speed, other times you need to play more dreamy, loosely-metered music. So it just depends on the patient. You have to try something and see how it affects them.”
Though the musicians are usually there for just 20 or 30 minutes, they have an impact. Beckman and Prechter said they could tell story after story of how they’ve seen, right before their eyes, the way music has helped patients begin to rest, stop fidgeting, release anxiety.
“We’ll play music that we think will comfort the patient and then we watch for subtle changes in the patient’s vital signs or physiological responses and then we continuously modify the music so that it helps the patient rest more deeply,” Beckman said.
And again, it’s not as simple as it sounds. The reason patients are able to relax usually isn’t because of the actual melody. Beckman said it’s a little more scientific than that.
“It’s the acoustic vibrations of the sound that we produce with our instruments that are suppressing a patient’s sympathetic nervous system,” said Beckman, who plays guitar.
There’s nothing complicated or scientific about why both Beckman and Prechter got into this line of work, though. It was personal experience, which is why they’re so motivated.
Beckman saw firsthand how his playing the guitar helped soothe a friend. Prechter watched it as she played piano for her mother and father.
They saw the effects and both knew they wanted to bring that healing to others.
“I just saw for myself what happens when I went into a patient’s room and played for them and I felt that there should be a program,” said Prechter, who volunteered at the hospital as she was getting her certification. “I dreamed of helping start a program, and that's what I worked toward, so here we are.”
This story has been updated from its original version.