Exploring Music as Medicine is a service learning course through the School of Music that pairs students as 'musical companions' one on one with elders in our community, offering care, attention, and fulfilling, heart-warming exchange through the bridge of music. In cultivating relationships over the course of a semester, students and elders are equally served through a kind of 'gift exchange' of human contact that spans a spectrum of joy, meaning and friendship. Many of the elders we visit suffer from profound social isolation. For many, student visits are a highlight of their week bringing them "sunshine" through live music making. Often, music can be heard up and down the hallways, feet are tapping and smiles abound.
For the first few weeks of the semester, students can be heard learning and playing for each other, songs from about 1940 through 1970 as well as some music from the classical repertoire. It is a time of growing appreciation for a wonderful repertoire of songs that is new to many of our students. Through films, articles and sharing from our own lives in group discussions, students deepen an understanding of the culture and issues of the aging community, including life with Dementia or Alzheimer's. Soon we begin to role play as givers and receivers of live music on whatever instrument is available to each student. What does it mean to have an audience of one? What does it mean to play music not as a performance, but as an offering that seeks to serve another on a deep human level? In what ways can a musical exchange be as intimate as a conversation or physical touch? Slowly, students begin to make a shift in their capacity to give through music. They often also begin to feel this giving as a gift back to themselves as people and as musicians:
Working with elders ... [in the skilled nursing facility]…was one of the most transformative experiences of my life. It became clear to me that music is meant to be shared, and that the power of music can elevate and transform the human condition. I carry this discovery with me every day of my life.”
~ Tristan Jarvis, Ithaca College School of Music, class of 2018
After a few weeks preparing together students are carefully matched with residents from a community skilled nursing facility who would enjoy and benefit from having a student 'musical companion'. They are closely mentored and supported by the course instructors and the facility's activities director. Students keep ongoing journals and return weekly to the classroom to share and discuss their experiences and get feedback from the instructors and class members.
Our exploration of Music as Medicine is a lively, transformative and joyful one, where the combination of the human and musical connections come together to benefit all concerned. Reknowned cellist, Janos Starker used to speak of "music as a verb". In this class, we "music" or "musicate" together in a way that is distinctly different from performing for one another in repertoire classes, coffee houses or concerts. Likewise, the word medicine is not understood in a western clinical way, but as a healing force that results from the combination of human and musical sharing of time and space.
For students who want to dig deeper, inspired by experiences in this class, we encourage them to learn about and pursue the professional fields of music therapy, therapeutic music and music thanatology.
Elizabeth Simkin, Associate Professor, Cello
Jayne Demakos, Certified Therapeutic Harpist, School of Music Adjunct Faculty