The Difference Music Makes
“It can be really hard,” said Kathleen Esbensen Summers ’11, ’13 M.A. “But I look at it like it’s something positive I can do.” She provides music therapy services at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), working with a range of patients, including infants in intensive care, children awaiting heart transplants, and teenagers undergoing dialysis.
“I can’t change much about the situation that some of my patients are in, but I can be here in the moment, and I can provide this positive experience of the music, which I’m so passionate about. And it really feels like a gift to be able to do that.”
While studying at Immaculata, Summers received that gift herself through role-playing exercises in her classes, where she experienced what it might be like to receive music therapy. When she interned at CHOP, she was able to empathize with her patients, and she found it rewarding to see what a difference music made for them.
In her current job at CHOP, she uses voice, guitar, percussion, and piano to establish a relationship with her patients, to provide a more calming environment for them, and to help some of them make music of their own. She often uses improvisation to engage with patients, adapting the way she plays to respond to their needs and meet them wherever they are.
Sessions look different depending on the age and condition of the patient, Summers said. Teenagers with chronic illnesses sometimes see themselves as different compared to their peers, so Summers does songwriting and lyric analysis with them “to help them form a sense of their own identity within this musical interaction and therapeutic relationship.” She knows younger children enjoy call-and-response or fill-in-the-blank songs. “For that moment, they’re forgetting they’re in the hospital, they’re just being a kid, and having fun.”
A study of music therapy’s effect on premature infants has influenced Summers’ work with babies and parents. Researchers found that live music can improve bonding, reduce stress for parents, and help regulate babies’ heart rate, breathing, sleep, and feeding behaviors.
“When I’m singing to a baby, I’m really paying attention to their cues,” Summers said. She looks for any signs of agitation or disengagement, such as turning away from the sound or an increased heart rate. She often plays lullabies with a “rocking feel” to provide a calming environment and to promote parent-infant bonding.
“The infant is connected to the parent so much at this stage of life, so working with the family really is helping the infant as well,” she said. If a mother holding her baby can relax as Summers creates a soothing musical experience, the baby’s heart rate may decrease to match the mother’s. “I always encourage the parents to sing themselves,” Summers added. “It’s something they can do for their baby at this time when they really don’t have much control.”
For her own relaxation, Summers enjoys listening to a range of different music, especially Mumford and Sons, Norah Jones, and Coldplay. She also tries to take care of herself by doing things she enjoys—yoga, singing, and catching up with friends. “I would like to do more creative things just for myself, for my own well-being … to sort of express my own emotional experience working here,” she said.
Summers’ experience with music therapy, both at Immaculata and at CHOP, has been rewarding. “It’s sort of a musical conversation, an interaction that doesn’t require words, a way to connect with somebody through music.”