Armed with a piano, guitar, ukulele and their voices, six members of The Play It Forward Project struck a chord with visitors and patients at the Stony Brook University Hospital Lobby on Sept. 25.
As the group ended the performance with “Hey Jude,” two visitors stopped to listen.
“The lady grabbed her spouse and said this is this person’s—the person they were visiting—favorite song,” Chynna Rios, the vice president of The Play It Forward Project and a senior biology major, said. “He’s going to get better because we just heard this song today. I was like, please tell me [the viewers] heard that on the livestream.”
Experiences like the one Rios mentioned are what The Play It Forward Project aims to create.
Though not music therapists themselves, the club advocates music therapy’s importance to mental and physical health through hospital and bedside performances.
Musical talent isn’t required to participate in the project. For instance, the club’s secretary and senior biology major, Rahul Kulkarni, compares his singing to “a horse that has the influenza.”
“People at the [involvement] fair were saying they can’t play an instrument,” Allison VanCott-McEntee, president and junior multidisciplinary major with concentrations in music and sociology, said. “And we’re like, no, no, that’s not what this is about.”
The Play It Forward Project uses group singing to build bonds between members. Strangers, like at last week’s lobby performance, also jump in. Group singing releases endorphins and oxytocin, a chemical known to appear in positive social bonding.
Music therapy formally began in the early 20th century to treat World War I and II veterans. Today, music therapy is performed in over 85,000 facilities in the United States according to the American Music Therapy Association, a 200% increase since 2012.
“Music therapy has the ability to assist people in both accessing difficult emotions, and processing them,” Hannah Bronson, a board-certified music therapist, said in an email. Music therapy “compliments and accelerates” what is accomplished in talk therapy, according to Bronson.
VanCott-McEntee, founded the non-profit club in 2018, two years after two major surgeries forced her to withdraw from school.
During that time, VanCott-McEntee, a former piano tutor for 35 years, became curious in music therapy. VanCott-McEntee remembered visiting her mother-in-law, who had Alzheimer’s disease. She didn’t know who VanCott-McEntee or her son were, but “remembered every single verse” of Van Morrison’s songs, including different versions of them.
“How does she know this, but not know who we are?” VanCott-McEntee asked.
VanCott-McEntee researched music therapy tirelessly during her two-year break. This research led her to the Alive Inside organization, which seeks to improve the quality of life for Alzheimer’s patients with music. She is now a youth advocate for the group.
Within the tanned walls of the Stony Brook Children’s Hospital, the Play It Forward Project moved onto their bedside performances at around 1 p.m. That day, they were visiting the pediatric oncology patients.
Rios, who had once been in a similar music therapy bedside situation, had one boy they visited stuck on her mind.
“We were singing ‘A Whole New World’,” Rios said. “And he was just mouthing the words and looking at me. When we walked in he looked like he was okay. But when we left, it looked like we had made his whole day.”
This article has been updated from the print version published Oct. 7 to clarify that though Play it Forward Project members advocate music therapy, they are not music therapists.