Musical Medicine

Dave Falcone, Musicians on CallPhoto credit: Mark Stehle

Here’s a typical day for Matt Lenz: A lot of time in bed. Some television. Meeting with his doctors. Taking some meds. Maybe a short walk around the halls, just to get up and around.

But that’s about it.

Such is life when you’re battling cancer.

“I usually sit in my room a lot,” says Lenz, a 24-year-old cancer patient at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. “I’ll go for walks around the floor. There’s really nothing more exciting than that, other than sitting here eating food I don’t like, and then ending up ordering out.”

Suffice to say, Lenz’s days can drag a bit. One is an awful lot like the next.

So it’s easy to understand the wide smile that filled his face on a recent Tuesday evening, when, after another long day, he got an unexpected visitor: Local musician Dave Falcone, guitar in hand, asking Lenz if he’d like to hear some music.

“It was the highlight of my day,” Lenz says.

And maybe Falcone’s, too.

As one of the volunteer musicians in the Musicians On Call program—an initiative of WXPN, Penn’s award-winning FM radio station—Falcone makes about three hospital visits each month, visiting patients and bringing a little bit of music, a little bit of peace, and a short but welcome break from the monotony of hospital life.

“I shouldn’t say it’s been wonderful, because that’s not the right way to think about it, but it’s absolutely been rewarding,” says Falcone. “It’s about the music. There’s a place for music here. And it’s working. The program is a wonderful thing.”

Launched in 2004 and modeled after a similar program in New York City, WXPN’s Musicians On Call program has proved to be an enormous success. After starting out in just HUP and the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, the program now serves four hospitals in the Philadelphia area, each of which hosts its musicians once a week. The program has drawn the support of dozens of volunteers, including a roster of about 30 musicians.

WXPN also just hosted its fifth annual Musicians on Call Benefit concert, featuring Rachael Yamagata, Matt Duke and Andrew Lipke, to raise money for a program that has now entertained more than 15,000 patients in the Delaware Valley.

“It just seemed to make a lot of sense,” says XPN marketing manager and program leader Kim Winnick. “We had this amazing local music community we’re affiliated with and we knew we had a few hundred volunteers that we could call upon to serve as guides. It made sense that we could do it, and keep the program going week in and week out.”

The station’s ability to do so relies not only on the generosity of musicians like Falcone, but also “guides” such as Sue Berkowitz. Before Falcone enters any room, it’s up to Berkowitz to check in on each patient and see if they’re up for the visit.

Most of the time, Berkowitz says, they are.

“It’s a good thing for them—a very positive experience,” she says. “Some of the patients are just too sick, or too tired. But most of them welcome us in. They’ll engage us. They’ll ask for requests.”

The experience may be more than just a pleasant surprise, though: Listening to the music may actually help them feel better.

Dr. Lynn Schuchter, chief of hematology at HUP, says there’s a growing body of evidence that suggests that while music therapy may not exactly help cure cancer, it certainly can alleviate some of the disease’s more terrible symptoms. Studies show music reduces stress, alleviates pain and even suppresses nausea and vomiting.

Schuchter says the music has helped her patients open up emotionally, confront their fears, and finally talk about things that they hadn’t wanted to before.

“I think it really unlocks entry into a lot of things that they’ve been thinking about,” Schuchter says. “It enhances their experience. Obviously, it’s something unexpected in a hospital that’s as big as this. And it allows them to often talk about things that maybe they had not been able to talk about. It helps with the healing process. It helps create a healing environment. It’s really remarkable.”

Adds Falcone: “There’s been parties in some rooms we’ve walked into. Some of it is pretty profound. We’ve had people who haven’t moved in weeks tapping their foot. Now that’s not an everyday experience. But then again, it’s about the music, it really is.”

On this night, the patients seemed to agree. In one room, Falcone gets a hearty round of applause from patient Judy Peter and her family. In the next, James Judge, battling leukemia, hoists himself up to better see Falcone’s fingers fly up and down his guitar. And Lenz simply lays back, smile on his face, and enjoys a short, welcome break from the monotony of another day.

The smile stays on his face even after Falcone has moved on to the next room.

“I’m feeling good,” Lenz says. “Just trying to keep positive. And I’m going to beat this thing.”

For more information about Musicians On Call, and to find out how you can help, visit www.xpn.org/moc.

Originally published Jan. 22, 2009

Originally published on January 22, 2009