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Musicians on Call
For hospital-bound patients—and the clinicians who serve them—the gift of music is proving a spirit-lifting balm.
Photo by Keith Weller
Peabody Conservatory student Misael Tambuwun performs for Stephanie Battles, a kidney recipient, and her husband, Joseph McDonald.
“Some patients who are here for a long time start to get stir-crazy. But the music helps with their anxiety.”
clinical customer service coordinator
Clad in a yellow isolation gown in a hospital room at The Johns Hopkins Hospital, pianist Misael Tambuwun plays Beethoven’s Für Elise on his keyboard. When he finishes, he leans over and asks for requests.
“How about some Mozart?” says Stephanie Battles, a kidney recipient and Tambuwun’s primary audience.
So Tambuwun, a student at Johns Hopkins’ Peabody Conservatory, launches into Mozart’s Turkish March, and Battles, who has just finished today’s dialysis, is all ears. She perks up in her hospital chair as the young pianist performs. Nurses come around the corner and give the thumbs-up from the hall. Battles’ husband, Joseph McDonald, sits next to her, also enjoying the concert.
Battles has been admitted to the hospital six times in 2018, facing complications after her kidney transplant. “I wish they gave frequent flyer miles,” she jokes. But she’s grateful for the live music that she and her husband have been able to enjoy during her stays—one antidote to the frustration of spending so much time in the hospital.
Tambuwun has been performing once a week at the comprehensive transplant unit since April as part of the Musicians on Call pilot program. He wheels a Yamaha keyboard to rooms with patients who have requested music and plays a short program pairing pieces he’s selected with patient favorites.
This program, launched with Tambuwun and Peabody oboist Sophia Lou, is one of several initiatives born of the Center for Music and Medicine, a collaboration between Peabody Institute and Johns Hopkins Medicine that uses music in medical and therapeutic settings.
“The timing is ripe for this [center], and the place to do it is Hopkins,” says neurologist Alex Pantelyat, a co-director of the center, where researchers are investigating how music can benefit Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s patients, stroke victims, postoperative patients and many others.
“This is being done in a true collaborative spirit across schools and divisions,” he says.
The idea for the Musicians on Call partnership came from former patient Melissa Grant. When her water broke early in pregnancy, she was admitted to the hospital and stayed for two months—plus another month once her son was born. “For 91 days, I didn’t leave the hospital,” she says. “I received wonderful care, but it’s a tumultuous time.”
Feeling compelled to address the emotional needs of long-term patients, she joined the hospital’s Patient and Family Advisory Council. “You can be very grateful for the care you’re receiving, but at the same time, you’re away from your home, your family, your work, and anxiety and depression can become prevalent,” she says. To lift patients’ spirits, one of the offerings that she and Peabody leader and center co-director Sarah Hoover came up with was Musicians on Call.
Staff members in the transplant unit say they’ve seen immediate benefits to patients resulting from the hospital room concerts. “Some patients who are here for a long time start to get stir-crazy. But the music helps with their anxiety,” notes Guy Chapman, the clinical customer service coordinator for the unit.
Tambuwun, who has also performed in the maternity inpatient unit, recalls a memorable performance there: One of the patients broke out in song, accompanying his keyboard performance by singing the lyrics to the opera aria “O Mio Babbino Caro,” while a small crowd of other expectant mothers listened and applauded.
Hospital staff members say they always look forward to his visits. “When I see him coming, I just feel happy,” says Apolonia Chukwu, a technician on the transplant unit. “I love it. I want him to come all the time. Some days are really stressful, and this helps.”
Peabody’s Hoover notes that the pilot of Musicians on Call has been so successful that the program will expand this fall, with additional student musicians.
Pantelyat’s reaction? “That’s music to my ears.”
Watch a video about Alex Pentelyat and his work with the Johns Hopkins Center for Music and Medicine.