With an elfin grin, Kyle Watson approaches the piano, eager to tickle the ivories in preparation for his first recital.
“Oh, no!” he declares, dismissing the question with a quick shake of the head and flip of the hand.
“Him?” his mother, Chasity Watson, teases. “He loves the attention.”
Weeks before the musical event in a St. Jude auditorium—invitation only, and everybody who knows and loves Kyle is invited—he is rehearsing his selections and preparing his wardrobe.
“He has a new blue shirt and tie,” announces his mom, eyes twinkling.
“And…tell what kind,” he prompts her.
“A big-boy tie; no clip-on.”
“Yep, that’s right!” he affirms, delighted.
At 7, Kyle possesses the confidence and tolerance he needs to take on not only the keyboard, but also the cancer treatment he’s undergoing at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
He arrived in February from Louisiana and, to him, it was important to continue his music. Kyle had begun piano lessons in October 2013 and had started memorizing recital pieces.
But cancer interrupted the plan.
“He was upset,” Watson says, “because he would miss his spring recital.”
When Kyle arrived at St. Jude, he met music therapist Amy Love. Kyle told her of his appreciation for piano; she immediately added an electronic keyboard to her collection of instruments. The more Kyle listened and learned and practiced, the more he hoped for a recital.
Hitting the right note
“Music is therapeutic,” Love explains. “Research shows that music is the only thing that lights up all of our brain at once. For kids like Kyle, music helps build fine motor skills, improves concentration and task orientation, and assists with reading and learning a language.
And music gives Kyle something to celebrate,” Love adds.
Kyle is being treated for a rare combination of germ cell tumors: germinoma and embryonal carcinoma. As part of his treatment, Kyle has undergone brain surgery, spinal surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy.
“He’s had minimal sickness. Chemo hasn’t slowed him down one little bit,” his mom reports, “but he did get upset thinking he was going to have to miss a year’s worth of piano.”
“I had already picked my song, ‘Swans on the Lake,’ for my recital,” Kyle adds.
“So they came up with the idea of a recital here,” Watson says. “While we’re in Memphis, Kyle particularly looks forward to seeing Miss Amy (Love) every week.”
Rhyme, rhythm and song
Kyle is not the only patient who has fallen for Love. She makes her rounds, guitar strapped to her back, pushcart in tow, piled with drums and ukuleles; little xylophones and jingly bells on bracelets; even a cylinder that, when shaken, sounds like a thunderstorm. Love’s ever-present electronic tablet contains song lists.
As she passes through the corridors, children grin, parents nod and, by the dozens, she calls them by name.
Entering a patient’s room, she greets a dour little face and gently announces, “I’m glad to be with you today, and I’m really glad for all the music we will play.”
A silent boy reaches out a slim arm for the drum she holds, the mallets and noisemakers she offers.
“Which song would you like today?”
Voices and choices
Love says she enjoys offering choices to children who may not feel that they have control over other aspects of their life.
“Music is a way of releasing a lot of tension in your body. People sing at weddings, funerals, graduations, on the radio, so why not in the hospital? You should have access to ways to express yourself—a music voice,” Love says.
The boy in the bed chooses the drum, the song, and, as it turns out, the meter.
“Kids aren’t always feeling well, but sometimes they have a lot of energy they have to get out of their bodies,” Love says.
As she sings, the boy beats out the rhythm—moderate, then slow; fast, then ridiculously fast; ridiculously slow, and back and forth. The patient grins at his own mischief with music. And the two musicians laugh together.
Heart, mind, spirit
“Sometimes we use music therapy to promote physical goals,” Love explains. “You can use a steady pulse of music as a rhythmic cue for walking a specific pace or for learning a certain phrase with intonation, because the neuro-pathway for music is different than the one for speech.
“I may go into a patient’s room and the child is anxious,” Love continues. “I match the tempo of my guitar picking to the child’s heart rate. As I slow the tempo, the child’s oxygen saturation may increase and the blood pressure may decrease.”
Music, she says, also has a place in legacy building.
“We’re rolling out heartbeat therapy,” Love says. “We can put a microphone in a stethoscope, record the child’s heartbeat and create and perform a song over it, making that heartbeat into a beautiful memory.”
At regular sing- and play-a-longs in the Kay Kafe lobby for kids and adults who happen by, Love is prepared when a little girl begins to cry: Another child has the instrument she wants. Love pulls out jingly bell bracelets, and harmony is restored.
Harmony of spirit. Harmony of sound. Budding pianist Kyle Watson understands.
“I love all the harmonies,” Kyle says. “When I watch a movie or listen to music, I notice the harmonies. I notice when the singing starts. I can pick out the instruments, especially the piano.
“You know, I’m having a recital in the auditorium. Would you like to come? I’m playing three songs: ‘Swans on the Lake,’ ‘Jesus Loves Me’ and ‘Let It Go.’ I can’t wait.”
What is music therapy?
A clinical and evidence-based practice, music therapy can be used to achieve both musical and non-musical goals. One musical goal for a patient such as Kyle Watson might be learning to play piano. A non-musical goal might be using drums to improve motor skills. Music therapist Amy Love also helps patients attain emotional goals, such as learning to express themselves by writing and performing songs and discussing song lyrics. Creativity also helps patients cope with disease and its treatment.
Abridged from Promise, Autumn 2014