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Phoenix Symphony musicians bring the healing power of music to patients

People drum by in scrubs of blue, jackets of white, shoes with thick soles. Coffee from the Baguettes Lobby Cafe sharpens the air.

In the corner, dressed in formal black, a violinist and cellist from the Phoenix Symphony ready their bows. The rhythm of Scottsdale Healthcare Shea Medical Center beats steady until the first clear notes release. The first public performance last week of B-Sharp, the Phoenix Symphony’s new music wellness initiative, ionizes the atmosphere, slows the pace.

Hospital staff flatten against the wall and listen. People in the cafe scrape chairs to face the duo.

“Beautiful,” whispers Juliana Swenson, a patient sitting in the cafe, recovering from a thyroidectomy.

The 40-year-old Phoenix resident has spent four days in the hospital, and she welcomed a nurse’s invitation to leave her room, even if it meant sitting in flannel pajama bottoms with a bandage taped across her throat.

The music transports her to weekends in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and waking to hear her father blasting jazz, bossa nova and samba.

“He believed music made the house feel happy,” she says.

Program expansion

B-Sharp is the fine-tuning of the Phoenix Symphony’s work in playing music for people with Alzheimer’s and their caregivers four years ago.

Expanding the program to include others in need of music’s soothing qualities fit with one of the organization’s tenets to “feed the souls of the community,” Phoenix Symphony President Jim Ward said.

The program is one of many across the country using music to reduce anxiety, ease patients’ pain and improve coping abilities. Former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords used song to regain language skills after she was shot in the head. The Mayo Clinic Hospital in Phoenix and the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale have offered a noontime concert series with local musicians in their atriums weekly for the past few years.

The program attracts regular doctors and staff on lunch breaks and music-loving members of the community. But it also serves as a surprise interlude for visitors at the hospital on not-so-routine matters, said Kit Kough, Mayo’s coordinator for the Center for Humanities in Medicine.

“Mayo was founded on the idea of creating a healing environment. We have art on the walls to welcome people, and music serves as a positive distraction,” Kough said.

B-Sharp’s sponsor, the Scottsdale Healthcare Foundation, has another Phoenix Symphony performance planned for the spring for cancer survivors and loved ones.

Foundation president John Ferree said the setting is unconventional but the emotional impact of music is universal.

“It’s a little busy, obviously,” he said. “But it’s nice to have something fresh, something that can bring a little joy.”

Phoenix Symphony’s B-Sharp musicians who played last week hope to gain more sponsorships to perform in other health arenas, as much for themselves as the people they aim to comfort.

Audience reacts

Phoenix Symphony cellist Laurie Selby played in a quartet that also performed at the hospital that day. The audience was attentive and polite.

“I was expecting more patients,” Selby said of an audience of mostly doctors, nurses and staff. “But then I thought, ‘Well, this is really therapy for them isn’t it?’ Some had just come from surgery, and you could tell they were wiped out. And how lucky I am that I get to provide something calming for them that helps them reset.”

When the music stopped and workers helped patient Swenson back into her bed, thoughts of iodine pills and her prognosis for thyroid cancer were overlaid by memories of music.

“I got my taste for classical music from my mom,” Swenson said. “She took my sisters and I to watch every major ballet performance at Rio de Janeiro Municipal Theater. We’ve seen ‘Coppélia,’ ‘Don Quixote,’ the ‘Nutcracker,’ ‘Giselle’ and many more.”

She listens to classical music to set an inspiring tone while writing, painting and drawing. Listening to the throaty strings of classical music at the hospital “made me feel almost normal,” she said. “A step closer to getting out of the hospital and having better days.”


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