Living with HIV, I’ve sniffed lemons for nausea and performed Tibetan prostrations for nerve damage. But when I heard of music therapy, I was skeptical. So I called Fred Hersch, a world-class pianist who has lived half his life with HIV. “Music has an undeniable power,” said Hersch, 50, who had recently completed a weeklong, critically acclaimed solo engagement at New York City’s Village Vanguard. It was a great achievement, considering that as Hersch sat at his piano each night, he struggled with new meds, a sinus infection and unruly antibiotics. Music helps, he says, because “the more you listen to music, the more you are listening to yourself and not running away.”

Next, I called Kristen Stewart, clinical director of the music therapy program at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City. Founded in 1994 with a grant from the Louis Armstrong Foundation, the program is now thoroughly integrated into patient care. “Is music prescribed like meds?” I asked Stewart. “No,” she said, adding that she would show me how this therapy works. It was all good until she mentioned “finding my musical child.”

The union of medicine and music is as old as human history: Picture a shaman with a drum. The contemporary practice of music therapy began during World War II when doctors noticed that wounded soldiers who listened to music recovered faster. Over time, research suggested that music has a positive effect on blood pressure, respiration, pain and anxiety.

I wasn’t anxious when I arrived for my music therapy session, but I had a bad attitude and a sore leg. The attitude sweetened when I saw three types of guitars, five kinds of drums, three different xylophones, two gongs, a piano and a collection of objects that go hoot, bing and tong. Humbled, I found my musical child. To start, Stewart gave me the musical equivalent of a box of assorted candy. Inside I found a five-keyed glockenspiel. No matter what combination of notes I struck, music emerged. I felt pleasantly in control. Stewart said that’s important because pain causes us to feel out of control, which produces anxiety and more pain. “Playing music,” she said, “can break the cycle of pain.” My leg did feel better.

The next day, I followed music therapist Marcela Lichtensztejn and her keyboard on wheels on rounds with HIV positive hospital patients. This took me back to 2001 and my own hospitalization with 50 T cells, a 103.8° fever and an end-stage infection. So I was already unhinged when we entered “P”’s room. It was clear that P’s life had not been easy; judging by her labored breathing, it didn’t seem to be getting easier. Lichtensztejn swung her keyboard up to the bed and asked P if she wanted to play music or listen. “Listen,” P said. Then Lichtensztejn asked for requests. P smiled and requested Luther Vandross. Lichtensztejn didn’t know any Luther, so we sang the upbeat spiritual “This Little Light o’ Mine” instead.

As we sang, I watched P lying where I had once lain. She looked as terrified by her situation as I felt standing there. Yet I didn’t run; I sang, and P smiled. “I got it!” I told Lichtensztejn afterward. “Music therapy is about opening the door to the possibility of wellness.” Yes, Lichtensztejn said, because “the musical part is the healthy part of us.” A bit philosophical, we agreed, but a philosophy that seems to heal.     

For a list of board-certified musical therapists and help with insurance reimbursement, contact the American Music Therapy Association. E-mail or call 301.589.3300.

Listen up
Grammy-nominated jazz pianist Fred Hersch shares his own sonic combo: meditation with instrumental music to soothe your soul.

  • Find a quiet place and time to meditate.
  • Select music you don’t know well, that’s a little challenging.
  • Turn music on and just listen.
  • Don’t have a goal.
  • Don’t try to understand, just experience.