The power of song

- July 21, 2011

Dal student Isabel Lavender with seniors at Veterans Memorial Hospital. (Nick Pearce Photo)
Dal student Isabel Lavender with seniors at Veterans Memorial Hospital. (Nick Pearce Photo)

In a room at the Camp Hill Veteran's Memorial Building in Halifax, the elderly patients shuffle in and assemble in chairs arranged in a circle.

Some seem distressed, some blissfully unaware. They’re each handed an instrument: a tambourine, a triangle, maracas.

But once the music starts and hands start beating out the time, worries slide off slumped shoulders and frowns reverse into smiles. Dal music student Isabel Lavender is always amazed at the transformation—these patients who can’t recall the names of their closest loved ones and yet can sing with gusto all 10 verses of You Are My Sunshine.


“It’s powerful, positive experience,” says Ms. Lavender, 23, who after graduation from Dalhousie in the fall plans on pursuing a degree in music therapy at Capilano University in British Columbia. “All these wonderful positive emotions are stirred up. There’s a connection to the past and to others in the room.”

From Calgary, music has been an important part of her own life since she was little. Since the age of five, she’s sung and played piano. At Dalhousie, she specialized in voice and took part in the Dalhousie Opera Workshop. In her fourth year, she embarked on an internship she arranged herself at Veteran’s Memorial Building and, since its completion, continues to volunteer at the hospital with patients with dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease. She was recently awarded a prize for a paper based on her internship, Music Therapy in Canada and Senior Population. The KimRilda LeBlanc Memorial Award recognizes outstanding interdisciplinary initiatives between the arts and health sciences.

“I love music (but rather than go into performance), my heart has been in using music to achieve nonmusical goals,” says Ms. Lavender, explaining her abiding interest in music therapy.


Music therapy in Canada continues to be a developing field. And yet, there’s something undeniable about the healing effects of music, says Ms. Lavender. That patients can sing, hum and even dance despite the fact that only minutes before they couldn’t speak. That an agitated patient can be calmed by listening and singing the songs of their youth—Amazing Grace, Bicycle Built for Two, Let Me Call You Sweetheart, Moon River.

“People doing research in this area are finding incredible things,” says Ms. Lavender, who teaches music lessons at Long & McQuade. “I’m excited to see where it can go.”


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