Each year the Indiana University (IU) Jacobs School of Music sends graduates to many of the world’s greatest orchestras, opera companies, and concert halls. After completing our musical studies at IU, we set off on a road slightly less traveled than those of other Jacobs School of Music alumni—we embarked on the road to becoming physicians at the Wake Forest School of Medicine (WFSOM). While medicine traditionally relies on the universal languages of science and math, we were excited to integrate our medical studies with another universal language in an effort to benefit our patients—the language of music.
Our passion for combining our love of music with patient care started during our time at IU while we were working on our degrees in music performance. The two of us would organize musical performances/activities for individuals recovering from traumatic brain injuries and strokes, patients in Alzheimer care centers and hospice care, and those with psychiatric conditions. When we entered the Wake Forest School of Medicine, we were delighted to find an institution so supportive of our personal interests. During our first year of medical school, we were awarded a generous grant from the WFSOM Wellness Committee, which enabled us to form the first-ever WFSOM Musical Outreach Committee.
A memorable performance
Since the inception of the Musical Outreach Committee, we have provided music as therapy for individuals at Brenner’s Children’s Hospital, the Comprehensive Cancer Center, and the Sticht Center on Aging, as well as in substance abuse group therapy programs. One of our most memorable performances was at a local care center for patients with dementia. Some of our most enthusiastic audience members were those who were severely cognitively impaired. Many of them could not recognize their family or friends, and nearly half of the patients were uncommunicative, only saying but a few words. As we worked to engage the individuals in attendance, we began to play the tune “You Are My Sunshine,” a song written in 1939, and a top hit at that time.
As the melody unfolded, more and more voices could be heard joining us in song. Eventually, some patients formed an impromptu women’s choir in one corner, and a group of men formed a barbershop quintet in the other, all singing together in beautiful harmony. The transformation in these patients was astounding. Several patients who were previously slumped in their chairs were able to sit up, stand, and walk to where we were seated. One of them gave us a big hug, and another an enthusiastic standing ovation while waiting eagerly for the next number. As the day went on, patients with dementia would laugh, cry, and dance as they joined our ensemble. We took as many requests as we could, which was always a highlight.
It was as if music was an instant intervention—one that could rekindle something inside the listener and make them feel young again. We could imagine 81-year-old Ms A., a retired nurse, dancing in her bright-colored A-line skirt, red peep-toe heels, a beret, and powdered face with red lipstick. We could imagine 88-year-old Mr R, a former schoolteacher, in knit brown dress slacks, a trench coat, wide-brimmed hat, and a Lucky Strike cigarette in his hand. It was as if music was their time machine, bringing them back to some of the best days of their lives.
“This song was played at our wedding, do you remember?” said Ms. A as she looked fondly at her husband of 55 years. “I swooned your mother with my dancing to this song at the high school dance . . .,” said Mr. R. His daughter started crying tears of joy as she witnessed her father regain his old charm.