Arts and Culture

Bonding Over Music


Making chemotherapy treatment better for patients

By Jen Kulju (M'04)

JMU students John Riley and Mark Thress, creators of ipad music therapy programMark Thress and John Riley

James Madison University students are helping oncology patients at the Hahn Cancer Center at Sentara RMH Medical Center through a new "iPad music as therapy" program established as part of the JMU-RMH Collaborative.

'[Patients] have all the music they like to listen to, the games that they like to play, and the videos they like to watch.'

The program, funded by the RMH Foundation, is the brainchild of School of Music faculty member Dr. David Stringham, whose chance meeting with former music therapist Paul Ackerman resulted in the creation of a Music and Human Services course at JMU. Ackerman is a retired National Institute for Research scientist and practicing jazz musician.

A practicum beyond traditional performance

Taken for academic credit, the MUS 498 course allows students to select an off-site practicum for music outreach. Sophomore John Riley and senior Mark Thress "wanted to do the RMH practicum very badly," says Ackerman.

Riley, a music education major who aspires to teach in a public school one day, thought he could make chemotherapy treatment "a bit better for some patients" because several close family members had been affected by cancer. Additionally, he was interested in the ways music could be expressed beyond traditional performance. "The iPad provides the perfect avenue for performance, creativity and entertainment," says Riley.

Thress, a senior majoring in vocal performance and minoring in communication sciences and disorders, said that he and Riley program the iPads so that patients "have all the music they like to listen to, the games that they like to play, and the videos they like to watch." Both students find the sessions extremely gratifying. Riley claims it is one of the most rewarding experiences he has been a part of, and Thress says that seeing the effect that music has on the patients he works with is unlike anything he has experienced before.

JMU senior Mark Thress and Dick PhillippiPhoto courtesy of Lexie Thrash ('16)

A positive experience

Thress has conducted iPad therapy sessions with long-time patient Dick Phillippi, who has been undergoing chemotherapy at RMH for 11 years for leukemia contracted 40 years after exposure to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. Despite more than 100 treatments over the years, Phillippi says he "wouldn't change the experience for anything in the world."

'iPad music as therapy' is one of many programs established by the JMU-RMH Collaborative

In a recent session, Thress taught Phillippi how to use TunePad, Soundrop and GarageBand for the iPad in addition to engaging Phillippi in conversation about his interests and past.

Phillippi shared details about his childhood, when he played the steel guitar, and his love for woodcutting caricatures, animals and walking sticks. He says he has crafted walking or "story" sticks for "every one of my children for graduation." His creations depict 20 to 25 activities his children have been involved in throughout life.

Phillippi also teaches a woodcutting class at Bridgewater Retirement Community, where he worked as a maintenance supervisor. Doctors say that Phillippi can continue classes and woodcutting as long as his platelet count is not low.

JMU students John Riley and Mark Thress, creators of ipad music therapy program

Opportunity for growth

Janet Macarthur, Director of Oncology, Hospice and Palliative Care at RMH, speaks positively about the program. "It really helps our patients to entertain themselves when they're in the chair for a long time. We'd love to see it grow and continue."

Riley and Thress are continuing to work with patients this spring, and Riley is applying for a scholarship in hopes of conducting research on the impact of iPad music as therapy on patients.

Stringham would like to take the research one step further. "I'd like to explore what it's like at 19 to sit next to someone who is 64 (like Phillippi) who has a life-threatening illness and bond over music."

To learn more about JMU's School of Music:

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Published: Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Last Updated: Monday, April 29, 2019

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