Songwriting in healthcare institutions

Categories: Care.

These stories are stewarded by those of us who make up an institution: patients, staff, residents, families, volunteers.

I have long been interested in the stories that my particular care setting, a cancer centre in a local hospital, is holding. Because I am a music therapist, and a songwriter, the most obvious way for me to tease out these stories is through song. And so in the spring of 2015, I ventured to create a songwriting project that would involve tell the story of the Cancer Centre as a whole.

Songwriting is a powerful tool for making meaning out of life. Music therapists commonly use songwriting as a therapeutic intervention to help clients explore feelings, construct new narratives, and contain emotional experiences. Through playing with words, structure, musical mood, and the creative process in general, writing songs can be a healing and life-giving activity. Many of the patients I work with in oncology use songwriting as part of their music therapy experience, most of them having never written a song – let alone played an instrument – in their lives. Countless powerful songs have emerged from these sessions with patients, many of which went on to be shared with their loved ones and hospital staff.

Songwriting with the whole institution was something entirely new to me.

For one month, questionnaires were circulated across the facility where staff and patients could anonymously answer questions about their experience of the cancer journey. Questions included: “what does cancer mean to you?” “what are three words to describe the cancer centre?” and “what can cancer not do?” Boxes were set up across the clinics, units and waiting rooms where these forms could be dropped off. Dozens of family members, staff, patients, and volunteers filled in questionnaires.

I collected them all and read each word. The breadth of emotion was astonishing. Cancer impacts people so broadly, nudging its way into all areas of people’s lives. There was hope and sadness, fear and joy, anger and gratitude. There was loss. There was celebration. There was even poetry! Some people submitted entire songs – lyrics set to familiar tunes – or whole poems about their cancer journeys. Mostly, the submissions were short clips of prose, jotted down while waiting for an appointment or grabbing a coffee on break.

After reading through the submissions and typing them into a document, I hosted three open songwriting workshops. These were open to anyone to attend, and no experience was necessary. In each of these one-hour workshops, participants combed through the lyrics and identified themes. Through discussion, brainstorming, group writing, and lots of trial-and-error with music, we were able to come up with a rough draft of a song after each of the three sessions. With the bare bones of three songs, I quickly flushed them out and made a few edits. They were recorded at a professional studio, and shared on the cancer centre website.

When taking a therapeutic approach to songwriting, we merge musical craft with counseling goals. We make choices about choruses, verses, musical themes and styles, melody, and mood, based on what version of reality we want to create. A song that lingers on despair can help contain a truly-felt experience of that emotion, validating it so that we can begin moving through it. A song that begins on a sad note and turns hopeful in the chorus can reframe a challenge, reinforcing our resilience to help us move through it. Always, the emphasis is on writing the best possible song. When we hold the art to a high standard, truth – and its therapeutic effect – inevitably follows suit.

For that reason, the songs that emerged from this project were deliberately contrasting. The participants were clear about reflecting the diversity of experiences shared, balancing the importance of hope with the honesty of how lonely and terrifying cancer can be.

These three songs now live on the Cancer Centre website and are available for anyone to listen to. In a busy environment like a hospital, where everyone – patient and staff alike – has a job to do – it’s challenging to make time to reflect on how much we’re all holding. The lived experiences of people in an oncology program are vast and profound. Through writing and sharing these songs, it was hoped that the Cancer Centre community as a whole could feel connected to the shared lived experiences that we are all stewarding. Perhaps, through music, we can feel united by one another’s strengths, fears, and love.

Listen to the songs here!

Sarah Pearson is a music therapist working in palliative care and oncology in Kitchener, ON, and is the program development coordinator at the Room 217 Foundation. Workshops using music and music therapy techniques such as this one can be provided through the Room 217 Foundation.