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Music used to heal in places across Western New York

Piano teacher Victoria Stearns takes a short walk from her home every Monday morning to fill the lobby of Kenmore Mercy Hospital with the sounds of Broadway show tunes, Gershwin and other golden oldies.

“It calms people down,” Stearns said. “The volunteers at the front desk say people are friendlier when there’s music going on.”

Music holds the power to comfort. To heal. To help some people remember. To help others forget.

“People know this instinctively,” Stearns said. “They can feel it.”

Such power helps explain why music has become a growing force in Western New York health and wellness circles, and why Kenmore Mercy has joined the ranks of places where music can often be needed the most: medical settings, hospices, mental health complexes – even airports.

“There’s a growing body of evidence that music therapy is more than just a perk for people,” said Dr. Victor Filadora, chief of clinical services at Roswell Park Cancer Institute, which has a robust music program. “Researchers are looking at how it’s improving outcomes and quality of life.”

Controlled trials have suggested music can reduce anxiety and the need for as much sedation during colonoscopies, some heart-related procedures and knee surgeries, said Filadora, an anesthesiologist. “Some research shows that if you’re listening to music in the recovery area, you might decrease the need for narcotics,” he said. It also appears to tamp down worry for those in cancer treatment, as well as the nausea and vomiting that can come with chemotherapy.

“It’s really a great non-invasive way to help our patients,” Filadora said.


Elyse Kochmanski, a board-certified music therapist and owner of Buffalo Niagara Music Therapy Services in the Town of Tonawanda, works with children and expectant mothers, among other clients. (Luke Kochmanski/Special to The News)

Researchers have determined that music has the power to push dopamine into the brain, improving mood while reducing stress, blood pressure and heart rate. Studies also suggest that “exposure to pro-social lyrics increases positive thought, empathy, and helping behavior,” clinical psychologist Mike Friedman of Manhattan wrote in "Psychology Today."

The power of music has been used to help those struggling with mental illness, undergoing medical testing or recovering from a stroke. Dementia patients have benefited from the ability of familiar songs to stir brain activity. It is sometimes used to ease painful health conditions and addiction.

“Music therapy is even being used in childbirth now,” said Elyse Kochmanski, a board-certified music therapist and owner of Buffalo Niagara Music Therapy Services in the Town of Tonawanda. “I’m taking a continuing education class that’s teaching about perinatal therapy, even for use in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.”

Kochmanski focuses most of her practice helping children with special needs, particularly those who fall on the autism spectrum. Music therapy helps her young clients work on social skills and speech communication to meet goals in Individualized Educational Plans, as well as help improve fine motor skills, she said.

Kochmanski, who also teaches adaptive music lessons, has played viola since third grade. As she pursued her bachelor’s degree in music therapy at Nazareth College in Rochester, she took piano, guitar and voice lessons. She uses that repertoire, as well as percussion, in her work.

Other music therapists in the region work at the Buffalo Psychiatric Center, Hospice Buffalo, the Buffalo Public Schools and nursing homes.


One needs no musical ability to find relief through music – and all musical stylings can help, according to the American Music Therapy Association. “The music therapist assesses the client or patients’ preferences, circumstances, need for treatment, and goals. Types of music to be used are then determined as a part of the therapeutic process based on this assessment,” the association reports on its website.

Music need not be administered by a therapist.

“Music plays a huge role in most of our patients’ lives,” said McKenzie Mattison, manager of volunteer and family services at Women & Children’s Hospital. “Any way we can bring that normalization to them – whether it’s a performer who’s going to come in, or their own musical interests – we are as accommodating as possible.”

Children are encouraged to listen to music while undergoing MRIs or preparing for procedures, Mattison said. Musician Medics, a group of local musicians and Greg Barresi, with the University at Buffalo Artists-in-Residence program, regularly perform in the lobby, patient rooms and waiting areas. Dr. Pierre Williot, a pediatric urologist with an office in the hospital, plays the sax for patients, family and staff, mostly during the holidays.

Kaleida Health also has launched a Healing Arts Initiative for the its John R. Oishei Children’s Hospital, which will open later this year on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus. Part of that effort will expand the music program, Mattison said.

Musical performances also have become more common in clinical and community spaces at the five hospitals and four long-term care settings run by Catholic Health, said Heide M. Cornell, director of volunteer services with the health system.

“As we move into more holistic care in the acute-care setting, we’re borrowing from the approach we’ve taken in long-term care,” Cornell said. “We’re trying to get more into the live performances because there’s often more of a connection when a human being is in front of you.”

Rocks such as this one in the John M. Repetski Healing Garden at Kenmore Mercy Hospital, contain speakers that play meditative music. (Scott Scanlon/Buffalo News)

Last year at Roswell, more than 135 singers, musicians and groups presented nearly 1,400 performances. The hospital also has five UB artists in residence, two of them musically inclined, who perform throughout the hospital.

“Many of our performers are former patients or family members of patients who wanted to give back to Roswell,” said Christine Wesley, volunteer services administrator, who oversees the live music programs.

Recorded music of a patient’s choosing is available in the Roswell radiation and mammography departments, chemotherapy infusion bays and in the surgical suites when requested during the moments before surgery. A new drum circle also has drawn up to 30 people at a time – including patients, family members and staff – to the new Scott Bieler Clinical Sciences Center.

“It’s brought the community together and it’s a bonding agent,” Wesley said. “It breaks down barriers. If you’re sitting next to your surgeon and he’s banging a drum, you develop a whole different relationship.”

Erie County Medical Center incorporates a drum therapy program into its behavioral health department and live musical performances regularly in other parts of the hospital, spokesman Joseph Cirillo said.

Stearns is among those who play at Catholic Health facilities. The health care provider, too, seeks more ways to channel the power of music, including its new John M. Repetski Healing Garden at Kenmore-Mercy. The garden, sandwiched between the north side of the lobby and ambulatory care center, was an evidence-based design built to ease a visitor’s stress, boost mood and improve staff and patient safety. It includes several rock-shaped speakers sprinkled among the foliage and tuned to an online ambient meditation music station.

[RELATED STORY: Healing garden dedicated to a humble millionaire]

“It’s all science in this garden,” said Gary Constantino, corporate director of the Catholic Health Offices of Facility Planning, Design, Construction and Corporate Real Estate.


“It would be a much better world if more people played music,” said Victoria Stearns, a retired librarian who has taught piano lessons for more than a half century. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

To be sure, people need not face hardship to benefit from the positive forces music can provide.

Who among us hasn’t felt that chill when a favorite song or lyric surfaces on our radio, iPhone or computer?

It doesn’t have to stop there.

“It would be a much better world if more people played music,” said Stearns, 72, a retired librarian who has taught piano lessons for 55 years and is the author of “Handbook for Piano Practice.”

Stearns is happiest when playing Mozart, Beethoven and Bach – though she understands that most who visit her local hospital would rather hear pop music. She saves the classical stuff to play on the 1960 Steinway Model L piano in her living room.

“If you’re practicing correctly, you’re not thinking about anything else,” she said. “You’re concentrating on those notes you’re trying to play. You find out you haven’t worried about anything. It’s all the benefits of working a jigsaw puzzle except now you have a piece to play.”

Practice, consistency and persistence are key, she said. “If you practice 10 minutes a day for three months, you will see some very definite progress. It’s a muscle memory thing. It’s similar to physical exercise. You can’t just decide to exercise once a month and see results.”

Age is no barrier, either. “A recent article in the New York Times about 'superagers' suggested learning a musical instrument or foreign language,” Stearns said. “Music is more fun and will keep your brain active and your body calmed at the same time.”

The Amherst Center for Senior Services offers piano and voice lessons; it will start a ukulele singalong this fall.

“Many seniors have always wanted to learn new things but never had the opportunity, time-wise, because of other commitments,” Program Coordinator Melissa Abel said. “Now is their time to do the things they have always wanted to do.”


Musical performers willing to give some of their time in health care settings may reach out to the following:

Catholic Health: Call or email Heide Cornell, director of volunteer services, at 319-8405 or email

ECMC: Contact the hospital foundation at 898-5800 or the Terrace View Long-Term Care Facility Activities Program at 551-7229.

Kaleida Health: Will be in particular need for performers next year in the new John R. Oishei Children’s Hospital; call Sue Mirabella at 878-7681.

Roswell Park Cancer Institute: Contact the Volunteer Services Office at 845-5708.


As a child of the 1960s and ’70s, my musical tastes are dated, but for decades I have turned to music during good times and bad to celebrate, remember and recharge. Here are some songs I recommend to stir the senses:

“No Hurry” – This song from the Zac Brown Band underlines the importance of slowing down to live in the moment. I like to turn to Zac Brown and Jimmy Buffett when it’s time to relax.

“Learn to Be Still” – This song by the Eagles resonates when I’ve hit a roadblock during my busy life. “Peaceful, Easy Feeling” and “Tequila Sunrise,” two other tunes from this SoCal band, provide tonic for the soul.

“Come to Me” – This Goo Goo Dolls’ number gives me great perspective on my romantic relationship.

“Roll With the Changes” – REO Speedwagon’s reminder that resilience always matters.

“Hard Times” – I turn to the James Taylor/Yo-Yo Ma version on YouTube when turbulent times in my life begin to wane. It was written in the 1850s by Stephen Foster, the “father of American music,” and serves as a reminder that hope for better days is a feeling with deep roots.

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