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Playing Music to the Dying

Therese Schroeder-Sheker on the harpThe dying man had one final request. Summoning up all the strength he had, he looked his son in the eye and uttered a single word: “Sing.”

“It was the last word my father said. And I knew what he wanted. He wanted me to sing ‘Amazing Grace,’ ” says Tim Ballard, a graduate student in musicology at CUA’s Benjamin T. Rome School of Music. So Ballard sang “Amazing Grace” as his father slipped into the coma from which he never awoke.

That was six years ago, but when Ballard heard that music-thanatologist Therese Schroeder-Sheker would lecture at the music school in October 2004, he made a point to be at her presentation.

Music-thanatology is the physical and spiritual care of the dying through “prescriptive” music (“thanatology” literally means the study of death), and Schroeder-Sheker is its foremost pioneer. As a musician, educator and clinician, she has sung and played her harp at thousands of bedsides. Through the Chalice of Repose Project she founded in 1972, Schroeder-Sheker has trained scores of music-thanatologists who work in the United States, Canada, the Netherlands, Israel and Japan.

Over the past three years, Schroeder-Sheker has also been an artist- and clinician-in-residence at CUA, making five weeklong trips to campus to lecture at the music school, the National Catholic School of Social Service, and the School of Nursing. The interdisciplinary nature of her work transcends departmental boundaries — she is as comfortable speaking to students of music as to students of nursing or social work.

The First Vigil
Ballard heard Schroeder-Sheker perform and lecture in Associate Professor Grayson Wagstaff’s graduate-level Research Methodology class in the music school. The music-thanatologist played her four-octave harp, an instrument she uses because it’s polyphonic (provides a full range of musical sounds), is portable (can be brought to the hospital bedside), and has a rich, resonant tone that is physically and emotionally noninvasive for sick and dying patients.

What most affected Ballard — with the memory of his father’s death in his mind — was hearing Schroeder-Sheker describe her first vigil at the bedside of a dying patient. She was an undergraduate music student in Colorado, earning money as an orderly in a nursing home. When she entered the room where a lonely, combative old man lay frightened and dying, his last breaths rattling in his chest, she was moved to make the man’s death a blessed one. She said his name, held him and sang the Latin hymns “Adoro te devote” and “Salve Regina” in her clear soprano voice. And then, she recalled, “The desperate thrashing stopped. The rattle quieted. This man, who had a history of pushing everyone away, actually trusted me, rested into me, and slowly, because of the quiet singing, we began to breathe together. When I walked home that night, after he died, I understood his passage as a kind of birth.

“Music-thanatology is both an art and a science,” Schroeder-Sheker explains. As a science it is a subspecialty of palliative medicine that reduces both physiological pain and mental, emotional or spiritual suffering. As an art, it does not seek to cure, entertain or distract, but to ease the interior suffering that can attend the end of life — both for the dying and their loved ones.

Schroeder-Sheker’s experience “gives her a breadth of knowledge in the field second to none,” writes University of Chicago Professor Bernard McGinn. He says her book Transitus: A Blessed Death in the Modern World “will instruct and inspire anyone who has ever pondered the mystery of dying.”

A Real Woman, Not an Angel
At a School of Nursing presentation last October, Schroeder-Sheker described how a trained music-thanatologist can decrease a patient’s pulse and heart rate, stabilize breathing, change body temperature and help the patient achieve deep, restorative sleep.

She explained how she established a music-thanatology clinical practice in Missoula, Mont., and supervised it for 10 years. (The program has since moved to Mt. Angel, Ore.)

“I urge you to start small, to light a clear flame [of music] on even one floor of one wing of one hospital or hospice, or in a parish setting,” Schroeder-Sheker challenged the students. “If even a few doctors and nurses champion you, the program will spread like wildfire.”

In the audience that day, nursing student Billie Tyler was so moved by the presentation that she is now considering hospice work after she graduates. She had come to the lecture to tell Schroeder-Sheker this story: When Tyler’s friend, Henry Arnold, was dying of cancer and wouldn’t eat anything, he one day surprised Tyler by asking for a chili cheeseburger, fries and a strawberry shake. She brought him the food, which he gobbled, then she asked him what had happened: Why was he so much better? Was he on a new medication? No, he said, a woman had come to his bedside and played the harp. He had fallen into a deep, restful sleep. When he woke up, the woman was gone and he was hungry for the first time in weeks.

Tyler was convinced her friend was seeing things, but a hospital nurse confirmed that a very real woman, not an angel, had come to this man’s bedside and played for him. The woman had been trained by Schroeder-Sheker.

After Schroeder-Sheker went on to present her work in the social work class Theory and Models of Healthcare, graduate student Kim Dutton says she came away thinking “how exciting it is to apply an artistic genre to social work. I’m an artist myself. I paint murals and do oil paintings, and I’d love to tie in the artistic with health care.”

Interdisciplinary Role Model
Schroeder-Sheker is multifaceted enough to be a role model for CUA students studying music, nursing or social work. An accomplished musician, she made her Carnegie Hall debut in 1980, has recorded CDs for major record labels and composes extensively for harp, string quartets and choral ensembles. At CUA, however, she exposes music students to a different sort of musical career. Practitioners of that career — music-thanatologists — work with patients who have six months or less to live, including those for whom death is imminent or who die during the session. While music-thanatologists are usually paid by the hospital or hospice that has contracted their services, individuals may hire them on their own.

For nursing students, Schroeder-Sheker offers a broader interpretation of healing. “Students sometimes come up to me and say they’ve been in situations where they wanted to sing for patients and hadn’t even known there was a theoretical framework or precedent for this kind of intimate response to suffering,” she says.

Schroeder-Sheker hopes someday to collaborate with Catholic University’s schools of music, nursing and social service to establish a master’s degree program in music-thanatology at CUA. “We have discussed the possibility of a two-year combination distance-learning/intensive residency program,” she says. “If it comes to fruition it will be the only graduate-level music-thanatology program in an American university.”

Although Schroeder-Sheker lectures and performs frequently in this country and abroad, she says she especially enjoys visiting CUA: “Here, more than anywhere, I have been able to work on an interdisciplinary basis and have been ‘shared’ between the three schools. Some of the most meaningful moments have occurred when a student saw that the kind of work we’re speaking about — in the clinical and pastoral care of the dying and in the orientation to music that is called contemplative musicianship — has relevance in our immediate lives, and isn’t something abstract or theoretical to be applied at a later phase of our professions. This is the possibility that moves me the most.”

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Revised: August 2005

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