I might be in my seventh decade with gray hair and sagging jowls, and I might be riddled with discomfort, plagued by joint pain, and not as perky as I once was, but on Thursday afternoons, I’m young, vibrant, and glowing.
Dressed in comfortable clothes, shoes, and a polyester volunteer jacket with identification tags, I strap my guitar on my back and walk to the nearby hospital. I sign in and start my rounds. My job is to go from room to room, introducing myself as a volunteer and offering to sing. If patients look at me skeptically, I tell them I have a graduate degree in voice. Then I give them a dose of “music as medicine.”
Four years ago, a mammogram technician told me, “Oh, honey, that doesn’t look good.” It was a lump; I started crying. Later, I had chemo and a bilateral mastectomy. I’m finished with treatment, but my skin will always be mottled from radiation, and I still have more than two years of miserable side effects from the aromatase inhibitor.
After treatment, we moved into an apartment five blocks from St. Joseph Hospital in Chicago. One day nearly three years ago, I walked over and signed up for volunteer training. I wanted to help other cancer patients, but there were more than enough volunteers in the cancer center. The volunteer coordinator, who wanted to build a “Music as Medicine” program, asked if anyone in the group had any musical skills, so without thinking, I raised my hand. Years ago, I’d earned a bachelor’s. in piano and psychology from Indiana University Jacobs School of Music and a master’s in voice from the New England Conservatory. I’d worked as both a cantor and a high school music teacher, but up until recently I had only played music for fun.
I own several guitars, and it was hard to play at first because of chemotherapy-related neuropathy in my fingers. I couldn’t play either of my steel string guitars (and I still can’t), but I could play my old nylon-stringed guitar because of its softer strings.
Since I began volunteering nearly three years ago, I’ve built a repertoire of hospital-worthy songs, trying to memorize a new one every week. Hospital-worthy songs don’t have lyrics glorifying sex, death, pain, drugs, or alcohol. They’re sweet and universal, the kinds of songs that make you smile, or remind you of a time in your life when your biggest problem was worrying what to do on a Saturday night.
When I walk into your room, if you’re in your nineties, I’ll sing something like “Young at Heart,” or “Autumn Leaves.” If your spouse is holding your hand, I’ll sing “Dream a Little Dream of Me.” If you speak Spanish, I’ll sing “Besame Mucho” or “Quizas.” If you’re my age, I’ll sing Carole King, Paul Simon, or Bob Dylan.
If you’re young and hip, I’ll sing Jason Mraz or Ed Sheeran. Springsteen? I’ve got it covered. If you’re a country buff, I’ll do Lady Antebellum or Rascal Flatts. If you have friends visiting, I’ll sing Bruno Mars’ “Count on Me.” Middle-aged women love classics like “Say a Little Prayer,” and even the sickest patients smile at “Feeling Good,” made famous by Nina Simone.
I’ve made some mistakes. “Killing Me Softly” is not the right thing to sing to someone in the hospital. And forget about any song that mentions alcohol or drugs; many patients are recovering from addictions. Sometimes patients yell, “No, I don’t want a friggin’ song. I want to go home!” I say, “feel better” on my way out. I’ve developed a pretty thick skin.
When I sing a jazz standard, the patients sometimes say, “You’ve got what it takes,” without noticing the tremor in my hands, the bags under my eyes, or the tiny veins around my nose. Apparently, I look pretty good to sick old guys. They ask where I’m performing and tell me I should make a recording.
I don’t think about my aches and pains on Thursdays. Singing brings a little joy to people who are scared and in pain, including myself. I hope I can sing until I’m a shrunken little old lady in a hospital bed. When that comes, I sure hope some sixty-year-old volunteer sings to me. I’ll admire her vibrant skin, clear eyes, and beautiful posture. I’ll say, “Wow, where else do you perform? You should make a recording!”