"Woman Promotes A Healthy Dose Of Music"
by Kristen Peterson
Las Vegas Sun, Nevada
August 12, 2000
She's a portable peacemaker.
Each week Judith Pinkerton piles her boxy suitcases filled with her percussion instruments, tapes and compact discs into her van and travels across town to meet with hospice patients.
On Tuesdays she makes a stop at Regina Hall, an adolescent group home in Henderson that serves at-risk girls ages 10 to 17.
Using drums, guitars and recorded music, she works to heal her patients, whether they suffer from physical pain, fear of dying or years of physical, mental or sexual abuse.
By matching songs to moods her patients may be repressing, she hopes to calm them or to find the source of their struggles.
"The whole idea is to have a catharsis," Pinkerton said. "Once you go deep inside and get rid of emotions that are guarding (people), then you bring out their natural desire to be at peace, to be happy and express anger in a healthy way."
For thousands of years music has been used to heal. Since becoming a profession in the 1950s, music therapy has gained popularity in hospitals, nursing homes and psychiatric facilities, which use music to reduce stress and alleviate pain. Nearly 70 colleges and universities in the country offer degree programs in music therapy.
Pinkerton, a musician since age 7, began using music to heal 14 years ago, when she played violin music to her husband after his back surgery, an effort that reduced his blood pressure.
Four years later she founded the Center for Creative Therapeutic Arts.
Her work with New Hope Hospice began this year through a grant in the name of Hellen Cooke Warner, a Henderson resident whose hospice care allowed her to stay at home the last few months of her life.
"It helps most of our patients," said Donna Ogilvie, executive director of the hospice. "It's able to calm them down. We're using less pain medication."
Ogilvie said many patients are reluctant to take medication, because they are afraid it will cause them to lose control. Many fear addiction, even in the last few months of their lives.
"One man was in constant pain, and no matter what, he wouldn't take medication," she said.
When asked what helps him relax, the man said he liked to listen to music. Tapes of relaxing music seemed to lessen his pain, she said.
One woman was afraid to die. "She felt she had been bad all her life and God was going to punish her," Ogilvie said. Hospice staff members had unsuccessfully worked with the woman for three months, then Pinkerton was brought in.
"Little by little she was listening to music," Ogilvie said. At the end she was "still afraid to die, but there was a bit of a breakthrough. She was less agitated, more open. She started to reach out.
"I wish we would have had music therapy longer with her. It's not so much death they fear, it's that transition. They don't know what to expect."
Although troubled, not all of the hospice patients are initially receptive to the program or receiving help of any kind.
During her initial assessments with adamant hospice patients, Pinkerton might play music that subconsciously agitates them as a way to get them talking about their fears and frustrations. She then selects music that will calm them.
The process is part of her music medicine program, called MEE Concert - Music Exercising Emotions. The program uses a method that takes patients through three stages, "unsettledness," "soothing" and "energizing." It is designed to take patients from anxiety and fear to depression to love, then to joy.
She begins assessing teenagers by playing the song "So Many Tears" by the late rap artist Tupac Shakur. Their reaction to the song lets her know where they are emotionally.
"A normal person would be depressed when hearing that song," she said. "Rap music is unsettling. The beat works against the body on a third beat, not on the heart beat."
The girls at Regina Hall have a history of physical or sexual abuse, abandonment or death of a family member. "There's always something extreme (in their background), and they're only between 10 and 17 years old."
Continuing the assessment, she plays a classical piece by Shostakovich that normally would make a person irritable, then a rhythm and blues tune sung by Aretha Franklin that is used to soothe. She ends the assessment, she said, with an energizing piece from "Mystere." After listening twice daily to a specially designed tape made for her, a 15-year-old at Regina Hall who has already been through drug and alcohol counseling and visits her mother in prison, said that she now knows to talk out her feelings, rather than "stuffing them."
"When I was feeling angry or sad, I'd run or drink," she said. "I drank so I wouldn't have to feel anymore, but the MEE tape brought the emotions out. I did a lot of crying."
Group drumming sessions are also used to bring out emotions and teach lessons. With drumming, Pinkerton tries to mirror real-life situations. During a communal rhythm with the girls, she will throw in "angry accents."
Group members follow suit, until the rhythm is no longer cohesive and falls apart.
"It's interesting the kind of dynamics that occur when you get them in music groups," she said.
The drumming helps the girls develop social skills they can take into their day-to-day lives, she said.
Drumming also was introduced to a bed-bound hospice patient who was diagnosed with debility and dementia. The woman has limited verbal abilities and becomes very agitated. With a pie pan and a padded drumstick, she now bangs out her frustrations.
"When she's very angry, she bangs on that little pie pan," said Debbie Sitton, a registered nurse who works with the patient. "It's very beneficial, because she can express her anger. Part of it is frustration, not able to express herself. Part of it is confusion."
This helps calm her, she said. "It makes a big difference in her demeanor."
Other patients listen to CD mixes Pinkerton created. The CDs contain classical music and familiar big band hits, including favorites by Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey and can be used for energizing or soothing.
Knowing which music to select for calming patients is important, Pinkerton said. Physiologically the music can make people breathe slower and bring on a slower heartbeat, she said. Ultimately it affects their emotional reactions. But music that appears soothing could have one element that could actually work against them, Pinkerton said.
One hospice patient, described as angry, volatile and frustrated, hated the group home she was living at.
Through an initial assessment, Pinkerton found that the woman felt compassion for another woman at the home who was stealing her things - but she also felt anxiety and fear about protecting her property.
The woman was given a CD of big band songs, which brought on unwelcomed nostalgia. She told Pinkerton on their next visit that she no longer wanted music therapy.
The woman agreed to listen to a few classical songs. Fifteen minutes later her mood had changed and she talked about the home's amusing staff members. Tucked beside her in her wheelchair was a small tape recorder playing selections of Pachelbel, Bach and Handel.
"Tempo and rhythm will do it," Pinkerton said.