Duke guitarist uses music as a therapy device

Wherever music therapist Tray Batson and his guitar go, the healing effects follow.

Batson has been playing for patients at the Duke Children’s Hospital and Health Center for two and a half years, offering the mellow sounds of his guitar to soothe many a frightened child—without using medications or producing side effects. Although no formal music therapy program currently exists at Duke, Batson has been hired on an ad hoc basis through grants and other types of philanthropic support, Dr. Joanne Kurtzberg, professor of pediatrics and pathology, wrote in an email Feb. 9. The hospital also provides for musical healing through the collaborative Health Arts Network at Duke program, which engages multidisciplinary artistic talents on behalf of the patients.

“Music therapy is a great way to help children relax and to forget about the hospital and their illness,” Kurtzberg said. “It decreases anxiety for children going through uncomfortable, painful or boring procedures and lessens the need for sedation or pain medications.”

Batson works approximately 20 hours per week, bringing his acoustic children’s songs to both long-term and short-term patients, especially those who are receiving cell therapies or who are hospitalized in the pediatric blood and marrow transplant unit.

Many pediatric patients and their families have responded with enthusiasm to Batson.

“The parents love him because their kids have a much easier time undergoing treatments,” Kurtzberg said. “The kids have varying reactions—[though] most are sorry when he has to leave—and the babies are actually distracted from pain by his singing.”

Although patients may appreciate Batson’s work, a grant set to run out this month may cause Batson’s hours to be cut down to 10 hours per week if new sources of funding are not secured, according to an ABC 11 report last month.

Kurtzberg noted that the initial concept was quite simple—bring in a music therapist for the youngest patients undergoing treatments. The pediatrics department then began raising money through various forms of philanthropic support to bring in Batson and his guitar. Kurtzberg noted, however, that the program operates on a month-to-month basis—the music therapist is not officially a University employee and only works as many hours as the raised funds can afford.

“It’s been hard to raise funds lately because the economy hasn’t been very good,” she said.

Despite reports indicating funding insecurity for the program, Chair of the Department of Pediatrics Dr. Joseph St. Geme wrote in an email Feb. 7 that there is no anticipated decrease in funding for the program.

Music therapy may still be in its fledgling stages at the moment, but Kurtzberg already has long-term plans for the program.

“There are many other children who are patients in Duke Hospital who could benefit from music therapy,” she said. “We hope to see a [formal] program developed over the next year, but additional funding is needed to enable this to occur.”

At Duke Hospital, though, music does not just permeate the pediatric wards.

Sophomores Wenjia Xu and Diana Christensen, both music majors, volunteer every other Saturday at the hospital, together filling rooms with Vivaldi duets and solo Bach. Through HAND, other Duke undergraduates, staff members and outside artists can help integrate performance, visual and literary art forms in the hospital setting in order to assist the healing process.

“Music has the ability to both capture and trigger emotions,” Xu said. “It inspires, soothes, comforts and impacts everyone.”

Although some patients and their families welcome the music, Xu said, other patients can be more sensitive to sound, and many simply prefer silence. Still, he characterizes his experiences as positive, even from a personal perspective.

“When I play violin, I do not only play from the movements of my hands, but [also] from my heart,” he said. “That’s a bit cliché, but every bit of it is true.”


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