As a doctor in the hospital medicine unit at Massachusetts General Hospital, Kathy May Tran has been taking care of COVID-19 patients throughout the pandemic, overseeing their care from the moment they’re admitted to the facility. It’s grueling and hazardous work with a high potential for burnout. But a new initiative has helped to pull Tran and some of her colleagues back from the brink.
In a six-week pilot collaboration between New England Conservatory and MGH this fall, the Boston Hope Music Teaching Project connected teaching fellows from NEC with frontline health care workers for weekly private music lessons. The goal wasn’t to teach them skill or technique, but to provide a refuge from day-to-day life on the COVID ward, said Boston Hope Music codirector Dr. Lisa Wong in a phone interview.
“The expectation for them is not that they get to be on the Carnegie Hall stage. The expectation is for them to have an instrument, and to learn to heal through it, and to express themselves,” said Wong, a pediatrician who codirects the Arts and Humanities Initiative at Harvard Medical School and formerly served as the president of the Longwood Symphony Orchestra.
The pilot program was an encouraging success; the vast majority of health care workers will be returning for more lessons in the spring, and more slots will be opening for additional participants. All the teaching fellows will also continue with the program.
“In the medical world, we have this term ‘trauma informed care.’ It’s acknowledging the hurts and the stressors of life while providing support. I think that these music lessons are that,” said Tran, who chairs MGH’s Happiness Committee (a wellness initiative) and worked alongside NEC dean of community engagement Tanya Maggi to help the Boston Hope Music team develop the project.
“I had been looking for ways to support our NEC students who are casting around for ways to make a difference and be relevant in this period of time, and it was a perfect match,” said Maggi. Students wanted their music to be relevant outside the practice room, to make a difference during the crisis, she said. On the flip side, medical professionals needed an escape, and they wanted to learn music.
Trauma informed care is typically directed at patients, not practitioners. And in its initial phase, Boston Hope Music was focused on patients, chiefly those at the 1,000-bed temporary Boston Hope field hospital this spring. A handful of musicians, including some from NEC, donated recordings. These were then compiled into playlists and put on tablets for patients to watch and listen. “We were seeing that patients needed more than straight medical care to heal,” said Wong.
However, the patients weren’t the only ones who benefited from the music therapy; it touched the doctors and nurses as well. So when Boston Hope closed down as the spring surge receded, Boston Hope Music devoted some attention to caring for the caregivers.
You might not think that a doctor working on a COVID ward would have time or energy for anything besides work and recovering from work. When New England Conservatory master’s student Jessica Ding signed up as a teaching artist, she wasn’t sure how much her students would engage with the lessons. But her experience with her piano students was “unexpectedly rewarding,” she said in a phone interview.
“My students are coming off of overnight shifts, and they have really crazy schedules, and they still come in and give so much energy to this music lesson that’s not required at all,” said Ding, a Harvard-NEC dual-degree student and aspiring oncologist who plans to go to medical school after she obtains her degree in harp performance this spring.
Wong has seen this same phenomenon at work in the Longwood Symphony, where most of the players are medical professionals. “People come out of the emergency room or the O.R. completely exhausted ... then by 10 o’clock when the rehearsal’s over there’s a spring in their step,” she said.
It followed that frontline clinicians could benefit from that same kind of study right now, said Wong. “The active use of your hands and your heart and your head ... all of that engages the person in a different way. And it’s more therapeutic in many ways than just passively listening.”
Wong has found that most medical professionals have musical training even if they don’t call themselves “musicians.” But once they get to medical school or residency, they tend to stash their cases in the closet. In her role at Harvard Medical School she tries to encourage medical students to stay engaged with the arts. “We know it makes them better doctors. They listen better. They communicate better,” she said.
Even without those potential benefits to future patients and co-workers, both the teaching fellows and medical professionals in the Boston Hope pilot are finding plenty of gifts in the program. “There’s such a sense of growth all around. ... There’s this beautiful camaraderie that’s developed and a sense of shared purpose. It’s really magical, the way it’s all taken shape,” said Maggi.
“It’s not a teacher-student one-way dynamic. These lessons have been really interactive. It’s very much about what they want to take from it,” said Ding.
Perhaps best of all, the program “broke down a barrier that we didn’t know we could breach,” said Wong. In the past, live musicians had been able to play bedside for cancer patients, she said. Now even those hospitalized for infectious diseases such as COVID-19 can join family members on Zoom to watch a livestreamed concert. And busy health care workers can slot lessons into their schedules whenever it suits them — wherever they may be.
Tran, who plays violin and viola, has taken online lessons with her teacher from home; she’s also brought her instrument to her office, an on-call room, and the hospital’s famous Ether Dome.
“We don’t want this project to be burdensome,” said Tran. “We tell our students very explicitly, the music lessons are a time for you to enjoy. If you don’t get to practice that’s OK — we know you’re busy. But our teaching fellows say that the MGH students actually practice more than their other students. I think that shows the excitement for this project.”
Zoë Madonna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.