Good Medicine: Music Professor, Symphony Director Takes Talents to Patients’ Bedsides

December 18, 2012

Kate Tamarkin has enjoyed a long and successful career as a symphony conductor, musician and teacher, but one of her most fulfilling musical moments came in an unlikely place: the pediatric unit at a local hospital.

Her audience in this case was a baby who had been born prematurely, and Tamarkin’s role wasn’t as a conductor or professor, but as a therapeutic musician playing the Celtic harp. “As I was playing, the nurse brought other nurses in to look, because the baby’s blood pressure was going down and her oxygenation level was going up,” Tamarkin recalled. “The nurse was pointing at the monitors and saying ‘Look, the music is helping this to happen.’”

That moment was one of many Tamarkin has enjoyed as a therapeutic musician, a relatively new role for her that has brought her and her harp into local hospitals and hospices – and even a veterinarian’s office – to play at the bedsides of patients ranging from infants to the elderly.

In May, Tamarkin, a music professor in the in the University of Virginia’s College of Arts & Sciences and music director of the Charlottesville & University Symphony Orchestra, was certified as a therapeutic musician through the Music for Healing & Transition Program, a nonprofit training program that requires 80 hours of study, a 45-hour intensive internship and other training.

Though Tamarkin has played many concerts as a French horn performer and conductor – she’s a former associate conductor of the Dallas Symphony, and has served as music director and conductor at several other symphonies – the role of a therapeutic musician has given her a new appreciation for the role music can play in a person’s life.  

“Being a conductor requires a person to be very extroverted  and oriented toward the public,” she said. “Often, you’re trying to coach students or the orchestra to a musical outcome.

“This kind of playing is so different. To sit in a dark room, one-on-one with a person who has no idea who you are, and to play for them is one of the most fulfilling experiences you can imagine. I just try to be present, to offer a loving presence. Music is no longer a performance in that context. It’s a service.”

Therapeutic music is very different from the music therapy prescribed by medical professionals, she said.

“A music therapist certification requires a four-year degree, and they work with patients at the bedside using music to help achieve a medical outcome,” Tamarkin said. With therapeutic music, “the patient can be passive. We can work with people in comas, or with premature babies. Comparing the two is a bit like comparing a physical therapist – the music therapist – to a massage therapist, which is comparable to a therapeutic musician.”

During the training process, Tamarkin learned to adjust the music to the specific condition of the patient. She deals with every musical parameter from the choice of melody to tempo, and includes improvisation when appropriate.

“You can take a tune and play it differently for different patients,” she said. “And like anything, there’s as much of an art to it as there is a craft. If something isn’t working, you try something else.”

Tamarkin first was drawn to the Celtic harp after she saw a performance on it about four years ago. She began taking lessons, and has found that the instrument’s soothing tone is uniquely suited to therapeutic music.

Since completing her training, Tamarkin has become one of several musicians in residence at the U.Va. Medical Center, as well as a regular volunteer at the local Hospice of the Piedmont. She even took her harp in a few times to play at her veterinarian’s office.

“I remember this big old sloppy dog comes in, and it turns out this dog had to come in every week for a shot,” she said. “After five minutes of music, the dog was laying on the floor with her tongue hanging out. The third time I was there, the dog’s owner said,, ‘Oh it’s the harp lady. Smokey loves the harp lady.’”

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Rob Seal

Director of Media Management and Managing Editor, UVA Today Office of University Communications