March 06, 2014

Nancy Solomon

SLU Cancer Center Patients Find Voice through Therapeutic Songwriting

Music Therapists to Teach Expressive Technique at Community Grand Rounds

Event Details: 3:00 p.m. - 5:00 p.m., April 09, Il Monastero, 3050 Olive Street

Saint Louis University Cancer Center patients are writing songs. Unlike lyricists who set their sights on composing a song that is commercially marketable, these writers see their music in a different light. Creating a song brings them peace, healing and a way to express their feelings about the cancer that consumes their lives.

Patient Zachary Stearns and SLU Cancer Center music therapist Andrew Dwiggins connect during a therapeutic songwriting session.

Songwriting empowers the cancer patients, says Crystal Weaver, senior music therapist at SLU Cancer Center, allowing them some semblance of control and self-expression during an extremely turbulent time.

"There are a lot of things involved with their cancer treatment that they can't control and have to do within a certain time frame. For instance, they have to take their medication and come into chemotherapy at a certain time. Their activities might be restricted," Weaver said.

"In contrast, a music therapy session is something they can control. Patients choose the genre of music they want to compose — country, rock, folk, something from the big band era, for instance. They don't have to know anything about music. As music therapists, we help them fit their words to a melody and chord structure to make a song."

The sessions start simply, and the process is more important than the final product, which often is composed in under an hour. A music therapist with a guitar and iPad runs the session, which starts with a few friendly questions.

What's on your mind? How are you doing? How do you feel?

"Our goal is to give them an appropriate way to express their emotions and the skills to cope during a very difficult time," Weaver said. "We try to get rid of as many limitations as possible so they can guide us through the process rather than a music therapist guiding them. Songwriting gives them a way to maintain their personal identity and a medium to articulate to others what they are experiencing."

Therapists ask their patients, if you were going to write a song, what would it be about? Some patients know exactly what they want to say, while for others, the answer can lie hidden in a mélange of fear, disappointment and sadness. Music therapists help them find their voice.

"Sometime we get the lyrical content by having a conversation with them. Sometimes it's as easy as having an open dialogue, and we can pull a phrase or concept directly from their words."

The experience is powerful therapy, Weaver said.

"Patients come away changed. They have a song that is tangible, something they can listen to and share with their families, who will have it for years to come. One patient who was in hospice recorded his song on YouTube and his family was so grateful they'd have something they could keep from him, something they could hold onto."

Saint Louis University Cancer Center, which is the region's only cancer center with a dedicated music therapist, is hosting a free session on therapeutic songwriting from 3 to 5 p.m. Wednesday, April 9 at Il Monastero, 3050 Olive Street.

Weaver; Andrew Dwiggins, SLU Cancer Center music therapist; and Tracie Sandheinrich, a music therapist with Maryville University's Kids Rock Cancer program, will teach the class.

Continuing education credits are available to board certified music therapists for the session, which is open to anyone in the community including music therapists, occupational therapists, physical therapists and students.

Registration is free and textbooks, donated by the Saint Louis University Hospital Auxiliary, are free to the first 75 attendees. To reserve a spot, contact Crystal Weaver, 314-268-7048 and

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