Concert Series Brings Healing Effects of Music to Avera Patients

Jan 7, 2019

Geoff Gunderson performs classical guitar during the last Music at the Quarry Cafe winter concert at the Avera Prairie Center in Sioux Falls. The series continues in the spring with a new variety of musical acts.
Credit Jackie Hendry

The emotional and physical benefits of music have gained legitimacy in the medical field over the past twenty years. Music therapy now helps patients facing a wide variety of conditions. At Avera Health’s Prairie Center in Sioux Falls, an ongoing concert series is  an extension of a growing  music therapy program.  

Geoff Gunderson has been a musician  for almost 50 years. He spent his early days touring as lead guitarist for the Sioux Falls-based band Wakefield. Then, he raised a family and worked in insurance, but his love of music never left. Now he teaches classical and contemporary guitar.  

“And I’m able to make a living and pay my mortgage just with my guitar," says Gunderson. "So I give lessons with the kids programs, do a lot of performing, and I’m still enjoying it.”

A few years ago, Gunderson heard about Avera Health’s “Swan Song” Program. Musicians perform for people in hospice care, and Gunderson decided to get involved. He says the unique experience has highlighted the comforting power of music.

“I mean I see firsthand the soothing process. And I think just that--that it takes you above your situation," he explains. "Not necessarily an escape from it, but you’re able to rise above it and just connect with another person on a higher level.”

Gunderson’s involvement with the Swan Song program connected him with Avera music therapist Bianca Hamilton. She says there’s science behind some of  music’s medical benefits.

“It’s one of the few things in this world that accesses both hemispheres of the brain simultaneously,” Hamilton explains. 

Music helps the brain recognize patterns to make information easier to process. For example: many people remember the alphabet through the song we learn as children. Music can also activate parts of the brain associated with memory and mood.

“That’s how it triggers our emotional expression," Hamilton says. "It also helps with relaxation, it helps with--which can help with nausea, right? It’s all connected.”

Hamilton  says music offers  physical benefits: it lowers blood pressure and heart rate. That makes music therapy a possible treatment for many conditions from stress management to relief for chemo patients. 

“And it’s a non-invasive form of treatment, which is very different from the treatment forms you think of in medical care," Hamilton adds. 

Hamilton's current focus is in the Avera Cancer Institute, but she’s also worked in Behavioral Health. She says some forms of music therapy encourage a patient to create their own music. Or, they can just listen.

“Lots of times patients are going through a lot, dealing with a lot. Maybe have low energy, so they choose passive listening," says Hamilton. "Which is the beauty of therapy--giving them that locus of control, focusing on their strengths.”

As an extension of those music therapy opportunities, Hamilton invited Geoff Gunderson and other local musicians to help create a concert series. Patients and hospital staff at Avera’s Prairie Center can visit the  coffee shop and enjoy live performances from a harpist, a bell choir, and a range of musicians.  Geoff Gunderson’s classical guitar concert was the last performance of the winter series.

Both Gunderson and Hamilton know a live performance offers an added sense of connection and community. Hamilton says bringing performances to patients lets more people participate.  

“Lots of our patients, because of a weakened immune system, aren’t able to enjoy community amenities such as entertainers out at the festivals or in the restaurants because there’s too many people around. It could compromise their immune system. So, this was a way to bring a part of the community to them in a place where they feel safe," Hamilton explains.

And the series will continue into 2019 with new variety of acts.

“We’ll have some jazz artists, we’ll have some folk artists," says Hamilton. "We’ll have even some patients that used to be here that’ll be playing for  us and sharing their gift of music, so [we’re] very excited for what we have coming in the spring.”

Geoff Gunderson says seeing the effect of his music on people in a medical setting has given him a different sense of fulfillment.

“It just sort of--it elevates you above maybe the situation that you’re going through. Or you can relate no matter what language you speak. Music is universal, and you can feel what another person’s feeling through music,” he says.

Gunderson plans to continue playing for hospice patients and others at Avera’s medical facilities. He loves seeing the smile on their face as they relax and enjoy the music.