When assistant professor of music therapy Xueli Tan was at a professional conference last November, something a fellow music therapist said really struck a chord.
“A close relative of hers had taken the results of his blood work and mapped it to an online computer algorithm to compose three pieces of music depicting his red blood counts, white blood counts and platelets,” Dr. Tan says.
The relative’s leukemia, which was treated at Dana Farber Cancer Institute, is now in remission. He contacted Tan, explaining that his purpose behind the music mapping was “to show the health care professionals and his family that he is more than the numbers on the lab reports — that he is still a human being.”
With the man’s permission, Tan shared the patient’s bloodborne musical score with the students in her course Arts & Medicine. Her students then worked off the patient's material, as well as an interview, to compose original music of their own. They performed the music when the patient Skyped into the class.
“They created music algorithms to trace the progression of the crest and falls of his white blood counts over the past four years,” Tan says. “More importantly, they used musical timbres, such as the mechanical sounds of an electronic keyboard, the pulse of a djembe drum, and the sensitivity of the human voice to document the sojourn from feeling like a machine when first diagnosed, to his return to his sense of self as a human being once the treatments were over.
“The students also turned what he shared during the interview into the lyrics: ‘You will be amazed at how beautiful your body is. Even when it is failing, you will be amazed.’”
In another way to tell the patient's story, Lesley art therapy students used his red blood counts, assigning colors to the various values, then made colorful beads and strung them into four strands to represent the four years of the patient’s treatment. At the same time, dance therapy students created movement and choreography to represent the ebb and flow of the patient’s platelet counts, showing how they were reacting to each blood transfusion.
“The far-reaching impact of this project had morphed into something that I had not predicted nor imagined,” Tan says. “When the students were presenting the final product to him, he kept saying, ‘You got it. You got me.’ He shared later that he felt like he got virtual hugs from the 18 students when he Skyped in the second time.
“Empowerment comes from being heard, embodied, validated, and represented in the most beautiful art forms.”