If you haven’t heard the new Taylor Swift song titled, “It’s Nice to Have a Friend,” then I recommend it. Throughout the song Swift gently reminds us that our emotions are affected by the simplicity of connection. The little ways we can reach out and be present impacts another’s ability to feel loved, to feel more human. In fact, social interaction is one of the most basic human needs next to food, water, and shelter. Overall, reflecting on this song has taught me more about the value of therapeutic presence in the context of holistic care for the body, mind, and spirit. A patient I worked with on the intensive care unit recently displayed for me the importance of therapeutic presence.
Music therapy was consulted to evaluate and treat an adolescent patient who required a breathing tube and could not move most of his body. Despite movement challenges, this young man could communicate, comprehend, and attend to his surroundings. He agreed to engage in live music listening by nodding, and he shared that he did not mind the song selected. Throughout the session his vital signs remained consistent, even slightly calmer than before the intervention. The body parts that he could move remained relaxed as well. After the first song I asked him if he was done and if I could return another time. He shook his head, and I asked, “do you want me to stay?” He nodded. After the next song, he agreed to another one. By the session’s end, I had played about five, age-appropriate songs with hopeful lyrics in a soft and slow manner to which he seemed to respond appropriately (e.g., consistent vital signs, relaxed behavioral state, and self-report).
As I was facilitating the therapy, I realized that while the music was calming for him, the music was enhanced by my presence. The music, though clearly relaxing, was only half of the therapy. Without the therapist, without the observant presence of someone trained to understand the human responses to music, the music could only do a part of the job. My presence, my focus on him, giving him opportunities to choose, communicating with him like a teenager, and using a familiar modality (music) which was also accessible to him in his new medical state, was valuable to him.
As I observed his positive response, the phrase that came to mind was, “it’s nice to have a friend.” This young man had a mind, emotions, and preferences, however, his ability to express these attributes in a bodily way like he did previously was difficult. The therapy did more than relax him, it served to remind him that he is still able to connect and enjoy connection. He can still experience friendship, and that’s essential for the rehabilitation of his body, mind, and spirit. While listening to preferred music is a pleasurable activity, music interventions facilitated by a board-certified music therapist is a therapeutic experience that can strengthen the brain and modify behavior. It’s nice to have a music therapist.