My Experience as the Music Volunteer at Penn

From the time I started my graduate degree in Music therapy, I knew I wanted to do work within the medical setting. The very first class I ever took was based on methods in medical music therapy and immediately something clicked for me. I realized I wanted to be the person who brought music to the medical setting, and I wanted to do this as soon as possible. Fast forward to year into my degree, I received the incredible opportunity to become a volunteer for the Radiation Oncology department at Penn Medicine in Philadelphia. After meeting with the team there, I felt completely inspired. I was ready to bring music to both patients and caregivers, and our “Musical Expressions” program was born.  

When I think about the time I have spent with the incredible patients and caregivers, the first word I think of is strength. Each person I have met has had a remarkable journey, and the strength they display is incomparable. I’m nothing short of inspired when I hear somebody’s story, and the optimism that shines through despite their seemingly unbearable hardships. I treasure the moments I spend in the studio and waiting area with these people, all of whom touched my heart.

Twice a week, I find myself in the waiting area, learning new names and new stories. I often find it difficult to explain all that music can offer to them in that moment, so I typically ask people, “what do you need right now.” More often than not, people respond that they feel they just need to relax. As a result, I have guided a lot of relaxation exercises based on breathing and using my guitar as a cue. Once the relaxation is over, most people say they wish it didn’t end. This has happened both individually and collectively. I have witnessed tension become immediately released for patients and their families. In those moments, I am just so happy they were able to find their peace and it was the use of music that helped to bring them there. Additionally, patients have asked to play my guitar, and some have even brought their own instruments when they knew they would be seeing me that day. In those moments, we escaped the hospital setting by having our own jam sessions. When there is a delay on the treatment machines, and the waiting area is more crowded than normal, I have had groups come into the studio room to sing and clap along to familiar songs. Throughout all of these moments, and many more, people have connected with each other through one thing: the music.

Music is an impetus of connectivity; it gives us the ability to connect without needing to use words and normalizes interactions. Music is accessible to all people. However, I have received the gift of being a witness to the beauty of authentic connection in one of the most unlikely places: a waiting room in a hospital.

Now, nearly two years into my graduate degree and almost one year as a volunteer at Penn, I can testify to the power of music within this setting. One of my favorite quotes is by playwright John Logan, “Music is the medicine of the mind.” By having music available for these patients and their caregivers, we are giving them medicine for their minds. As I continue my studies and eventually become a board-certified music therapist, I look to the incredible interactions I have had thus far as a part of the care team. The wonderful people I have met often thank me for sharing music with them, but the real thanks is owed to them. They have taught me more about strength, perseverance and connectivity (amongst many other things) through music more than any class ever could.

Allie McCrea has been involved with music for most of her life. After completing her Bachelor of Music degree in Washington D.C., she moved back to Philadelphia to pursue a master’s degree in Music Therapy at Temple University. She is finishing up her second year as a graduate student, spending most of her days helping people use music in many ways, especially for self-care. Allie fully believes in the words of playwright John Logan, who writes, “Music is the Medicine of the Mind” and hopes to share the power of music to both patients and their caregivers.

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