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Hospital music 'a reminder that there's life'

Monday, February 12, 2018
By Amaya Sanyal
William Dawson

When William Dawson took over the Performing Arts program at Duke Hospital, he became the first full-time staff Musician in Residence and Semans/Byrd Performing Arts Coordinator. As a teacher, band director and international performer, Dawson understood the effect music could have on one’s mood and emotions. Still, he had a challenging task ahead of him – Dawson had to prove that music could make an impact in a hospital setting. 

In the spring of 2014, as part of the larger Arts & Health program at Duke Hospital, the department administered a survey. Staff had the opportunity to reflect on what programs had improved their hospital experience. As it turned out, live music was one of the top patient satisfiers. Armed with the information, Arts & Health chose to expand the Performing Arts program.

The Performing Arts program differs from music therapy, where board certified professionals work one-on-one or in small groups to achieve a personalized goal. Instead, it is composed of Artists in Residence, Performing Arts Volunteers and Hospital Concerts. Throughout the week, professional musicians are assigned to hospital units to visit patients at the bedside. The professional musicians play for relaxation, company, religious services, and special events including birthdays, weddings, anniversaries and the final moments of life.

Performing Arts Volunteers are students and community members who perform in hospital lobbies and concourses. To assess the musicians’ audience, Dawson used a handheld tally counter and noted that on average, 600-800 people pass through the hospital’s heavily trafficked areas per hour. The instrumental music provides an opportunity for a shared connection, he said. 

“It’s like a magic trick,” Dawson said. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been playing piano there, and a person has cried. It’s beautiful – it’s a reminder that there’s life.” 

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