The typical sounds of a hospital — metered beeps and muffled shuffling — do little to ease young patients' anxiety, depression, and discomfort. But a funky change is in the ear at UCSF Children's Hospital, which recently became the first hospital in California to hire a full-time musician-in-residence, UCSF administrators say.
Gabe Turow, 25, started as a volunteer last year, and has been working for the past month at what he dubs the "coolest job in the world." The position was made possible by a grant from North Carolina–based nonprofit Rock Against Cancer, which is covering Turow's salary at the hospital plus that of seven similar performers around the country.
Turow is a percussionist in Oakland's Afro-Groove Connexion and a visiting scholar at Stanford, where he has hosted symposiums about the effects of rhythm on the brain. He edited an anthology on the topic for MIT Press.
While there have been few large-scale studies of the effects of music therapy on pediatric patients, some smaller trials are encouraging. A study published last month by California State University–Sacramento suggests increasing music therapy time as a way to "increase mental and physical well-being in hospitalized children."
Michael Towne, coordinator of the hospital's Child Life Department, hopes to partner with Turow and his music and neuroscience colleagues from Stanford to conduct bigger studies. "He's a perfect combination of everything," Towne says. "He's a talented musician and has worked with kids, including teaching music. But then, to have this whole theoretical command of current thinking about how music and rhythm are neurofunctioning really fits well with the research mission of the medical center and the Children's Hospital."
On his first day of volunteering, Turow already saw results: A terrified 3-year-old covered in tubes and electrodes was lulled to sleep by Turow's mbira, an African thumb piano. "With this little guy, the only option was to let him scream, drug him, or to have some other kind of intervention," he explains. "So the fact that I was able to play, and within 10 minutes he went from being hysterical to being asleep, it was completely unexpected."
As musician in residence, Turow will perform for patients as well as teach them how to play, write, and record music at a studio he's setting up onsite. He hopes the program will expand to the point where patients will be able to leave the hospital with an instrument, on a brighter note.