Sounds of Solace

n a small suite inside the Community Hospice House in Merrimack, Linda Chadbourne sits in a straight-back chair, cradling a cherry-and-redwood mountain dulcimer and gazing into Eleanor Wentworth’s eyes.

Wentworth, a patient, sits in a wheelchair in her stocking feet, her eyes alert and expectant.

Chadbourne is giving a personal concert. But while she gently plucks the strings of her instrument, she focuses on Wentworth, taking stock of the hospice patient’s breathing and facial expression, choosing melodies as soothing and heartfelt as a mother’s lullaby.

Wentworth closes her eyes, resting an elbow on an arm of the wheelchair and her head on her hand. Her chest gently rises and falls, following the rhythm of the music.

“The river is wide,” Chadbourne sings in a soft voice.

Wentworth shifts her position, lightly holding the arms of the wheelchair. She doesn’t open her eyes.

Healing music

Chadbourne, 49, a piano teacher in Merrimack for 15 years, is one of seven interns in the Music for Healing and Transition Program at Elliot Hospital in Manchester, the regional center for a national program that trains musicians to attend to the critically ill at every stage of life.

Practitioners use their music to relax patients before surgery and to soothe them afterward, to comfort babies in intensive care, to cheer children recovering in hospitals, to relax cancer patients before treatments and to assist the dying in making the transition from life to death.

They train for up to three years for certification, earning credentials after completing a 45-hour volunteer internship and weekend courses in medicine, psychology, music and more. They are also required to produce a performance tape.

The program is based on scientific evidence demonstrating that music promotes relaxation, comfort and healing – no matter a patient’s condition or prognosis. Practitioners learn that music is capable of affecting heartbeat, pulse and respiration; that it reduces muscle tension, affects body temperature, increases endorphin levels and regulates stress hormones. They also discover that music boosts the immune system, stimulates digestion and encourages feelings of well-being.

The benefits don’t depend on interaction between patient and practitioner. Even a deaf patient or one in a coma is capable of responding to musical vibrations.

Finding a connection

Practitioners aren’t music therapists. They don’t use their music to help a patient work through emotional issues or change behaviors. Nor do they set goals or instruct the patient to play an instrument or sing.

Instead, they use their art to heal, wordlessly deepening human and spiritual connections. What the musician plays and how he or she plays it, moreover, depends entirely on the patient’s need.

If a person is semi-conscious and near the end of life, for example, the musician will play notes without rhythm, intent on accompanying the patient’s respiration and heartbeat. If a patient is anxious or struggling, on the other hand, the musician matches the tempo of the music to the patient’s quickened pulse and rapid breathing, gradually slowing the piece as the patient begins to relax.

“The human connection is really vital,” Chadbourne said. “You need the live, one-to-one (contact) to react immediately to the needs of the patient.”

Chadbourne said she was pursuing a volunteer position with the local hospice when she learned about the music practitioner program. But she traces her interest to an experience she had years earlier while visiting her grandmother in a Massachusetts nursing home.

“I was playing (piano) for my grandmother at the nursing home and another patient came with her son and started singing every word to every song,” Chadbourne recalls. “Her son had tears in his eyes. He told me his mother had Alzheimer’s disease and she hadn’t known him for three years. (When she sang), he had a glimpse of the mother he used to know.”

Later, Chadbourne’s grandmother told her, “God gave you a gift. You have to give it back.”

It wasn’t until two years ago, however, after Chadbourne’s father died in a Florida hospice and the musician was attending the last in a 10-week hospice volunteer training program, that she learned about the Music for Healing and Transition Program.

“It all clicked. That’s what I’m going to do,” Chadbourne thought after hearing a presentation by certified music practitioner Pat Gage, a Nashua resident. “Community service and music. I could put the two loves into one. It was a perfect fit.”

Bringing sunshine

On a Thursday morning as she sits opposite Wentworth, Chadbourne smiles, watching Wentworth’s face while she cradles the dulcimer on her lap.

“Do you know anything about this instrument?” she asks.

Wentworth says she once saw a dulcimer on television, and Chadbourne tells her that John Boy on “The Waltons” used to play the dulcimer.

“The dulcimer came from Scotland and Ireland,” Chadbourne says, explaining why the instrument produces a sound reminiscent of bagpipes and is commonly played in Appalachia where the Irish and Scots settled.

Then Chadbourne begins her concert.

She plays “The Gift to be Simple,” “Oh, Shenandoah,” “The River is Wide” and “Daisy, Daisy.” She also plays “Sidewalks of New York.”

“I used to play that with one hand on the piano and drive my mother crazy,” Wentworth remembers when she hears “Sidewalks of New York.”

She sings along in a low voice.

After about an hour, Chadbourne finishes her repertoire with “You Are My Sunshine,” and spends a few minutes more visiting with the patient. She admires Wentworth’s brightly decorated and lighted artificial Christmas tree and compliments her on how well she recalls the words to the songs.

Afterward, sitting in a common area of the hospice house, Chadbourne says the patients are indeed her sunshine.

“We don’t know these people,” she says. “We come in and see them and end up loving them.”