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Healing painful times through music therapy

Judy Friesem and Carole Glenn visit with Hospice patient Naomi Murphy. Both Friesem and Glenn offer music therapy as a service to patients at the care center in Bremerton. - Seraine Page/staff photo
Judy Friesem and Carole Glenn visit with Hospice patient Naomi Murphy. Both Friesem and Glenn offer music therapy as a service to patients at the care center in Bremerton.
— image credit: Seraine Page/staff photo

Musicians perform and play for various reasons. Some do it to entertain, others for self enjoyment.

For Carole Glenn and Judy Friesem, music is a healing art, and it’s something that they do regularly. Both women work for Hospice of Kitsap County part-time, offering up soothing tunes to the dying — a job some musicians would find too challenging.

“Music can affect people in the most wondrous ways,” said Glenn. “It makes a difference. It affects on a very, very deep level.”

Wendy McNeal, Hospice Communications and Development officer, noted that the therapeutic music program is just one of several complementary therapies that Hospice of Kitsap County has to offer.

“The therapeutic music program is just one example of the many ways that Hospice goes above and beyond,” said McNeal. “We provide holistic care for patients and families, including attending to their physical, emotional, and spiritual needs.”

Others, too, have found the benefits to be of tremendous comfort to those in the last stages of life.

Sandi Curtis, a music therapy professor in the Concordia University Department of Creative Arts, published a study regarding the benefits of music therapy. The findings were based on a collaboration between university music therapy students, professional musicians and a hospital palliative care ward, states a Science and Technology report.

“Our study showed how music therapy was effective in enhancing pain relief, comfort, relaxation, mood, confidence, resilience, life quality and well-being in patients,” Curtis was quoted as saying of the study results.

And while Glenn and Friesem often see patients during their most difficult times, the musicians are usually welcomed into the room to play quietly by bedside.

In every sense, what the two women do is therapy on a very different level.

Friesem is a certified therapeutic musician, and Glenn is a music practitioner. A few days a week, they spend time with patients to relax them and ease their pain.

Glenn loves to bring out her pink guitar, the one with the heart in the center. She cooes along with the instrument, bringing the patient back to happy memories or just bringing them to a new level of comfort.

“The patient doesn’t have to be awake or alert to gain the benefits,” said Glenn. “The music still vibrates through them.”

The guitarist and singer said the type of songs she performs depend on the patient. Prior to sitting down, she’ll observe the room to see if the patient is completely alone or if there’s any indicator of a religious preference. Often, she’ll sing “You are my Sunshine,” and although the words are sad, the melody is still uplifting,” Glenn said.

Aside from singing joyous tunes, Glenn said her faith is also what keeps her grounded in doing difficult work.

“It’s knowing that life isn’t over. It’s another phase,” she said of losing patients. “There’s a oneness in knowing everyone will be with the Creator.”

When Glenn comes in to the care center, she’ll often go down the hallway and knock on patients’ doors. She finds out who is in the mood for music. Sometimes, a nurse will point her in the direction they believe she needs to go.

“I feel honored,” Glenn said of the work she does with patients.

Friesem, on the other hand, carries around a very different instrument — a harp.

She’s played the instrument for the last few years, and was just recently hired on at the care center to spend four hours a week with patients. Friesem, like Glenn, is a freelance musician who travels to assisted living and hospitals where she is needed.

“I love this work. It’s honored, sacred work to be able to come into someone’s life at such a fragile time,” she said. “What I love about it is it’s not about me, it’s about the music.”

Unfortunately, sometimes it takes dying for people to stop and hear the music. While both ladies have met bitter, angry patients once they started playing—maybe the first time or the last time for a patient—something in the body softened. Their eyes closed. They found some semblance of peace despite everything in their bodies creating a war within themselves.

“I never know what I’m going to find when I walk into a room,” Friesem said.

But even the most agitated patient can settle down after hearing a few strums on her harp, she’s found.

“I think the music goes past the mind and connects on a spiritual level,” she said.

Most recently, both Glenn and Friesem visited patient Naomi Murphy. Some days are good for Murphy and on those days, she is happy to see the musicians.

Murphy reminisces about her life, and she talks about the two husbands she has waiting in heaven for her. But when Friesem starts plucking on her harp, “Pieces of Heaven,” Murphy falls silent.

She closes her eyes and hums along. At what seems to be the right time, Friesem whispers soft questions to Murphy, asking what her family is like and how she’s feeling.

“She’s my harpist,” Murphy said proudly after Friesem finishes her song.

On a good day, Murphy will see both Friesem and Glenn.

Her favorite songs are Christian songs, and she’ll happily sing along with Glenn any day of the week. Even at 100, Murphy is animated in her singing, clapping her hands, closing her eyes and finishing a song with a resounding, “amen” when they’re finished.

“She sings with me every so often,” Murphy said of Glenn.

In order to be certified, a musician must complete an “extensive course of study that includes music theory as well as medical knowledge, plus document a 45-hour internship of playing at bedside,” states a therapeutic music flier from Hospice of Kitsap County.

Both Glenn and Friesem have personal experiences that have also encouraged them to pursue their line of work.

Glenn easily recalled a time where she sat with a friend’s dying father during his last days. She talked with him and sang to him in his assisted living facility, and she was there when he passed away.

“I felt such honor being there at that time,” she said.

For Friesem, the experience was also very personal. Since age eight, she had been a flutist. But when her husband had a stroke a few years ago, she was unable to rehearse because the noise was too shrill.

“I had to play something,” she said.

She ended up with a harp, an instrument her husband loved to hear, and she loved to play. For 15 minutes per day, she would practice, lightly strumming and finding her peace in the music it produced.

“I went to my harp for healing,” she said. “It’s my spiritual practice.”

Since her husband’s passing, playing the harp has become an even larger part of her life, as well as a soothing aspect of her days.

“This is their journey. I honor their journey. I come in to see if I can help them heal,” she said. “I’m not afraid of death. I accompanied my husband. This is beautiful. Perhaps this is my healing as well.”

For those she plays for, the healing is often obvious. Sometimes, they’ll tell her. Othertimes, vital signs on machines will settle down and return to normal.

“Celtic music is great because it’s familiar--it sounds comforting,” she said. “Basically, what I play is simple and soothing. I’m not a good jukebox.”

Sometimes people cry when the musicians have finished a piece. Some smile, and others are quiet, unable to respond.

Often, beeping machines and labored breathing are the only response the musicians will hear in an otherwise silent room. But when the patients do offer feedback, it is a combination of words the therapists could never dream of hearing.

One patient told the harpist, “I couldn’t have been more comforted if God himself were here.”

Another told her, “The music doesn’t begin with you. There’s a long, white, satiny flowing scarf behind you that moved through your harp strings outward and beyond.”

Whether their music or voices are being heard or not, both still feel like they’re doing what they’re meant to do.

Other staff members see the benefits as well, like McNeal.

“My favorite part of seeing the therapeutic musicians at work is the obvious relaxation and comfort that it brings to our patients,” said McNeal. “When the musician starts playing and you can visibly see the calmness and relief come across their face, even in unresponsive patients, that is very powerful.”

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