The fabric of Betty Porter’s life is rich with threads of theology, music and service. Her desire to share in these areas recently led Porter, a discovery services librarian at Xavier, to become a certified music practitioner, a recognition gained through the Music for Healing and Transition Program (MHTP). In that role, she works as a volunteer, performing music as a form of palliative care for hospice patients and their families.
Some would view playing music for the dying as an incredible burden. Porter doesn’t see it that way. “It’s a privilege,” she says. “Our society is so scared to talk about death, and I developed a different attitude about it in my certification training. It’s a passage. If you can help someone have a good death, it would be like having what midwives do for birth, making the transition a good one.”
Porter, who plays the flute, the Native American flute, alto flute and tenor recorder, earned her master’s degree in theology from Xavier, and has always been spiritually conscious and intrigued by the overlap theology and service to others presents. As a member of the National Flute Association, Porter saw an ad for music practitioner certification in the association’s journal and thought it would bring together everything she’s dabbled in.
MHTP is composed of five learning modules in which students explore therapeutic music research, build their musical repertoire, and intern at a hospital or hospice facility of their choice to gain experience.
“You don’t want to do anything that interferes with medical procedures in a hospital, so I think being in hospice is much more conducive to this kind of work,” Porter says. “The program was careful of making us aware that we are not music therapists. Music therapy is a four-year degree, often with a master’s, and music therapy has its purpose to try to cure people through music and having the patients do music-related things. That’s not what a music practitioner does. We play live music to bring about healing as opposed to curing. That’s a big distinction.”
The certification program isn’t just for musicians, Porter says. “A lot of people in my class were nurses or nurse practitioners, and they were just learning to play an instrument. There are a wide variety of skills.”
While there seems to be anecdotal evidence that the work of music practitioners has a positive effect, Porter says lack of abundant scientific research has been a limiting factor. MHTP is in the works of gaining legitimacy and support by encouraging practitioners to conduct research and to keep up on current research and observations about therapeutic music.
Music practitioners are more common on the East and West coasts than in the Midwest. The only certification school in Ohio was in Cleveland, meaning that whenever a school weekend approached, Porter got up before 4:00 a.m. to drive to Cleveland and make it in time for the 8:00 a.m. Saturday class. She stayed all day Saturday and Sunday, and drove back Sunday night. In the meantime, between classes, Porter utilized her two-year journey to certification wisely by reading the assigned books and keeping in touch with her local mentor.
Overall, Porter says she gets as much out of playing as the patients do listening. All it takes is a little courage and a lot of compassion to simply walk into the room, introduce yourself, and ask if they want to hear music.
“You just have to go in and ask. It’s usually very positive. I feel good when they fall asleep. They often cry, or they’ll remember something, or they’ll ask about my instrument,” Porter says. “Playing is a huge responsibility because you’d hate to think that you’re messing up somebody’s last moments if they don’t like what you’re playing. I watch the reaction from the patient and the family, because they’re a part of it, and I switch gears fast if I see any agitation or negativity.”
Finding appropriate pieces and being sensitively attuned to listener preferences—from traditional folk music to religious hymns—is a large part of the work. And oftentimes, the talent to improvise and choose from a large repertoire of accumulated music helps Porter build connections with whom she plays for.
“I had a nice experience in hospice when a patient passed away and the whole family had gathered around. It was a big family, a lot of little kids, and they were reminiscing. I was outside the door in the hallway and all the kids came out and sat and listened to me play while the adults were in there. The kids had all these questions and they wanted to try to play. That was a nice moment, and the family appreciated having the music while they were celebrating the life.”