17-Years with Artists on the Wards

Celebrating Bev, and the amazing therapeutic work of Artists on the Wards

Music has been used for therapeutic purposes across centuries, according to the National Standards Board for Therapeutic Musicians.

Modern forms of music therapy began after the first and second World Wars, when community musicians played for those suffering both physical and mental trauma in veteran’s hospitals. The patients’ positive responses to the music caused musicians to be hired at hospitals, but it was soon clear that caring for patients in this way required specific training. That’s how the field of therapeutic music, to which Bev Ross has dedicated her seventeen-year career with the Arts on the Wards program, began.

“I’ve been a working musician since I was a teenager,” Bev explains over the phone just a few weeks from retirement. “I played in a number of bands; I went to the U of A and Grant MacEwan for music and toured as a singer-songwriter on the folk festival and concert circuit for years. I also composed for theater and film. When my kids were in school, I realized I was really missing the ability to play an acoustic instrument outside of my home. You know, you can’t haul an acoustic piano with you, and in those days, the electric keyboards didn’t have the same sound. The harp is sort of the grandma of the piano, so I started to play the harp.”

“Eventually, I joined a program out of San Diego Hospice (which closed in 2017) in therapeutic harp. I became a certified therapeutic harp practitioner and did some of my practicum as a volunteer with the Artists on the Wards program. Then, in 2007, I got hired to work in the program permanently.”

In the 1980’s, Dr. Ron Price, who had been diagnosed with cerebral palsy, discovered playing his harp kept his neurological symptoms at bay. He credited his improvement to the harp’s engagement of mind and body, and this discovery led him to form a harp program for troubled boys, and later, a performance group of members with physical, neurological and emotional disabilities. Research carried out at San Diego Hospice, where Bev studied, showed how, specifically, harp music helps to create easier breathing and reduces anxiety levels. Newer studies show music can also reduce the effects of pain, and lower both heart rate and blood pressure. The field of therapeutic music has been growing ever since and has expanded to include other instruments as well.

“Therapeutic music is usually a year-long certification, and in my program, I learned how to work inside healthcare facilities of various kinds including hospice and acute care and bring a tool bag of musical approaches with me to the bedside.”

The Artists on the Wards program, which was acquired by the University Hospital Foundation in 2023, is a free service that brings professional artists and a team of skilled volunteers to the adult patients, visitors and healthcare staff at the University of Alberta Hospital and Mazankowski Alberta Heart Institute. The artists work one-on-one at the patient bedside, or in small groups. In addition to music, the program brings together visual and literary arts which have been shown to also decrease heart rates and lower cortisol levels, as well as contribute to a greater sense of well-being, self-confidence and improved spirits.

“I had a visual art colleague who left the program a few years ago, Lorna Bennett. She said it so clearly: ‘We help people remember who they are,” Bev explains. “When you come into hospital, most of your identification is stripped from you. You’re not in your own home, your clothes, not with your loved ones or surrounded by your own things. Someone comes to draw blood. To take you to a test. To change a dressing. Everyone is there for a necessary medical purpose. But with the Artists on the Wards program, we come into the room and we’re the first people you see who aren’t at all interested in what’s wrong with you. We’re looking for what’s right with you. We offer escape, diversion and witnessing. Visual art, music and literary art are like keys that open people up, and stories come out. Sharing stories with us can be very, very healing. It helps people feel seen and supported.”

"Visual art, music and literary art are like keys that open people up, and stories come out."

When asked if she has any anecdotes to share, Bev laughs. “I have a million stories. It’s like that quote from Marshall McLuhan, ‘I wouldn’t have seen it if I hadn’t believed it.’ Just astonishing thing after astonishing thing.”

Bev recalls a time when she entered a room where the patient was curled into a fetal position, rocking back and forth and moaning. “I started to play my harp around the same note that she was moaning, and in time with her rocking. Gradually, I was able to slow the tempo down, and she had entrained with me. That’s a property of physics.” Entrainment, as Bev describes it, is the biomusical synchronization of organisms to an external rhythm. “I slowed the music down, and her rocking slowed down and eventually stopped.”

On another occasion, Bev was playing on a dialysis unit, a large open unit with lots of patients who come for a couple hours a day, sometimes multiple times per week. “There was a woman there, and her two sons heard me playing for another patient. They asked me to come and play for their mom. I noticed she was wearing a hijab, and based on that, I could make some assumptions as to the culture she was familiar with. I was new and shy, so I asked them what she would like me to play. They had no idea, so they said, ‘just play what you were playing for the other patients.’ It might have been Greensleeves or something else, and as I played, I could see the woman’s face hardening a little. Her feet started to move restlessly under the blanket like she wanted to get away. I could tell she didn’t like it! So, I thought, okay, I know the Middle Eastern scale. I just improvised on that scale, and immediately, her face softened. She stopped moving. Her breathing regularized. When I left her a few minutes later, she was snoring a little! It was the music, not me, that brought her something familiar and helped her relax.”

“I think of the staff as well,” Bev continues. “One time, I was playing in the Burns ICU. I was leaning on the wall in the hallway while I played, because patients are in their own isolation rooms. I could see the unit manager walking quickly toward me with a stapler in her hand. She walked very purposefully out of her office and turned in my direction and I thought, ‘Oh no! What have I done?’ but she said, ‘Stay right there. I’m going to staple you to the wall!”

“I’ve told you about the stories from the music side, but there are amazing stories from the visual art and literary sides, too. I have so many great moments where I feel like I made a connection, and moments of intense gratitude for what I’ve learned from people that I’ve been given the opportunity to play for.”

As we wrap up our conversation, Bev emphasises the importance of the Artists on the Wards program and the amazing work they do for patients. “There are more studies all the time beginning to show what I think we’ve known all along: that music makes us feel good, art makes us feel good, stories make us feel good. More and more we are understanding the brain-body connection, that mental health can have a huge effect on our physiological health. I think more hospitals will soon be seeing the beneficial effect of art programs.”

Bev’s last day with the University Hospital Foundation is this week, and we couldn’t be more proud and grateful as a Foundation for her amazing career and her dedication to the Artists on the Wards program. “I feel so blessed to have been able to do this for so long,” she says. “I’m really, really lucky, and very grateful.”

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