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A Chorus of Connections

Music Therapy
Top row (Left to right): Katie Opher – Child Bereavement Coordinator/music therapist, Carolyn Kantor – Bereavement Coordinator/music therapist, Ethel Joy Bullard-Moore – Per Diem Bereavement Coordinator/music therapist Middle row (Left to right): Molly Hicks – Bereavement Coordinator/music therapist, Jenny Swanson – Child Bereavement Coordinator/music therapist, Melissa Srolovitz –Hospice Music Therapist Bottom row (Left to right): Gina Brockway – Music Therapy Graduate Student Intern, Jenny Borgwardt – Hospice Music Therapist, Anna Spackman Cephas – Music Therapy Graduate Student Intern

Think about your favorite song. Maybe it’s a song you’ve heard a thousand times or just discovered last week. Regardless of the genre, the tempo, or age of the song, it’s your favorite because it connects with you in a meaningful way. And this relationship isn’t just a personal one between you and a particular song. If you’ve ever been to a concert, you’ve been part of a connection among tens or even thousands of other music lovers. At a time when individuals are being asked to socially distance, music is helping people connect like never before. For staff at Penn Medicine, one program is making this abundantly clear.

Every day, frontline staff from Penn Medicine at Home working in hospice, palliative care, and home care spend their time on the job by visiting with patients and families who are going through some of the most difficult and demanding moments of their lives. These are roles which can be emotionally taxing on their best days. The rise of COVID-19 in March of this year only amplified the necessity of effective home care services for a larger number of patients and their families with a variety of different health conditions.

“It’s just amazing, what our staff is doing,” says Michelle Brooks, director of Psychosocial Services. “They are going into people’s homes, and taking care of COVID-19 patients. So the question was, how do we support these teams?”

At the same time, COVID-19 interrupted educational opportunities for many different trainees, including students in music therapy programs who were no longer able to have in-person clinical experiences. “With all of the changes to our internship program, we were trying to come up with creative ways for the music therapy interns to use their skills, while supporting our larger hospice and homecare community,” says Jenny Borgwardt, hospice music therapist. Borgwardt and board-certified music therapist and bereavement counselor Molly Hicks put together the two challenges in this unique situation and came up with one creative solution, and two music therapy interns from Drexel University, Anna Cephas and Gina Brockway, gave it its name: “Team Tunes.”

Team Tunes is a program that began in mid-March of this year (around the time of the state-wide shutdown order for Pennsylvania), in which frontline Penn Medicine at Home staff can request their favorite songs be performed by Penn Medicine music therapists. “In the absence of seeing the rest of the team for our regular in-person meetings, Team Tunes has been a great way for me to feel connected to other colleagues. Giving staff the opportunity to request songs has introduced me to a lot of great music, and led to some wonderful conversations with team members as well! Music is so personal, and a great way of getting to know one another better while collectively coping with the challenges we face,” Cephas says.

Staff are invited to email requests for songs they would like to hear performed. These requests go directly to Penn’s music therapy team. The team records the songs in an order close to that in which requests are received, with slight changes made to create a greater sense of variety. Once the song is ready to go, the music therapists attach the audio file to an email, include a note from the staff member who requested the song and what it means to them, and send it out to over 1,000 staff members. Songs are sent out first thing in the morning, each weekday.

While this particular project may be new, it is hardly uncharted territory for the music therapists recording each song. “One aspect in which Team Tunes is similar to the work we do every day with patients and clients is our intention to provide care and support through music” Hicks says. “I think music therapists bring that to music performances, recordings, and all their other tasks. That’s part of who we are as professionals and people. We don’t reserve that orientation of caring for people solely for our interactions with patients.”

Although music sharing is familiar territory for these therapists, the Team Tunes group is taking full advantage of their digital toolboxes. Via a cell phone or another digital device, staff record their song vocals, with musical accompaniment. and make any needed edits, in some cases adding background vocals or additional instrumentation. “When we want to collaborate, we can email the tracks to each other, and one person can compile them all in Garage Band [audio mixing software],” Hicks says. The complexity of this work, as well as the beauty of it is apparent in the Team Tunes recording of ‘Lean on Me’ which includes the contribution of 5 different music therapists.

When it comes to the reception the program has received, it could be said that Team Tunes is certified platinum by both the artists who perform the music, and the staff who enjoy it. “It’s a great feeling to know that we are still able to connect with our teams, and provide support and comfort through such a powerful modality as music,” says Melissa Srolovitz, a hospice music therapist. For staff, much of the feedback centers around feelings of support and comradery. Furthermore, at a time when it’s easy to forget exactly what day it is, Team Tunes serves as something to look forward to, with one anonymous staff member saying, “These tunes have become a welcomed ritual to start my day! Thank you for identifying and filling a need, and thank you for sharing your amazing talent!”

Ultimately, this project, along with all the work being done by Penn Medicine at Home staff, is aimed at forging connections. It’s the reason the team is dedicated to recording every song that is requested of them, and it’s the reason staff are showing up to work each day even amid a disease pandemic to care for some of Penn Medicine’s most vulnerable patients in their homes and in hospice settings. “There are people — colleagues who we may have never met, who have reached out to tell us how meaningful the songs are to them, and to give us a sense of how they are connected to music as an individual,” Hicks says. “I love hearing how people are experiencing our music, and they tell us about their own connections to music, which we would have never learned about otherwise.”

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