Music Program Makes for a Peaceful End of Life

Oct 22, 2013

Kate Tamarkin
Credit Cole Geddy/UVA

In western culture, the afterlife is often depicted as a place where angels rest on clouds and harps play soothing music. 

Here in Virginia, some people hear that music even before death.  A program called Music by the Bedside is making for a peaceful passing.

It’s a sunny afternoon in an old Victorian house near downtown Charlottesville, and Kate Tamarkin, conductor of the Charlottesville and University Symphony Orchestra – is using her spare time to play the harp at Hospice of the Piedmont. 

“In many cultures they play someone out, they sing someone out, they chant someone out.  There’s some sort of ritual.”

Tamarkin oversees the program -- scheduling seven skilled musicians to play at hospitals, nursing homes, private homes and hospice, for people at the end of life.

“We try to watch the patients’ breathing to read all those non-verbal and verbal signals that we can receive and then match the music to the condition the patient is in, and then hopefully help them to relax – to get into a place where the whole experience is easier. 6 – Because a lot of the suffering of passing is the tension of holding.” 

Usually, she provides entertainment -- conducting for a large audience, but she says playing one-on-one is different – a very personal form of communication.

“If I were to walk in and see a person who looked obviously very depressed, I actually would try to meet them where they were and probably play a song not too fast, in a minor key, to sort of say to them through music, this is where you’re at.  I know what this feels like.”

When she senses the patient is more relaxed, she might transition to something more cheerful. Studies suggest this musical service does as much for certain conditions as powerful medications.

“I once saw a woman play for a gentleman in a coma whose blood pressure over 20 minutes actually went down almost 100 points. It can stabilize the heart rate.  It can soothe the respiration so that people’s breathing becomes calmer.  It seems to help pain.”

All of this at no cost, but Tamarkin would like to have some money to assure that patients always get prompt service from properly trained musicians.

"Volunteering is a beautiful thing, but I want to be able to pick up the phone and call people and to compensate them for their skill and their dedication," she said.

So she’s organized a fundraising concert on November 9.  Christine Wright, House Manager for Hospice of the Piedmont, is delighted. More than 600 people have passed through this house since it opened in 2004, and Wright says all of them could benefit from music.

"It’s very calming, very soothing to the patients, and that’s one of the last things that they’re connected to is the sounds."

Music by the Bedside has also helped grieving friends and family members.   Tamarkin recalls a three-year-old girl visiting her dying grandfather.  When she first saw him, unconscious and pale, she began to cry, but Tamarkin stepped in with her harp.

"I played the Itsy, Bitsy Spider.  The little girl was surprised.  She stopped and her mother says, “Shall we sing for Grandpa?” and we went through our repertoire of the Itsy Bitsy Spider, Twinkle Twinkle and a few others, and she twirled and skipped out of the room, and he died shortly thereafter."

While she’d like to pay musicians, Tamarkin notes that playing for the dying  brings other rewards.  This work teaches people to be in the moment, she explains, to consciously meet whatever comes our way, and we have the privilege of embracing the mystery.  You will feel more alive than ever. 

Tamarkin and her colleagues will play for the public Saturday, November 9th at 7 in Charlottesville’s First Presbyterian Church.