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Donese Mayfield: folk harp Donese Mayfield: folk harp


Therapeutic music is the area where I spend most of my time. I play music for "actively dying" hospice patients at their bedside, often in the last few hours or minutes of their life. What I do is not entertainment. Music is provided to ease pain and terminal agitation. It helps to ease the patient into a graceful passage.

I would like to present some information about death and dying in our society, some experiences I have had as a therapeutic musician that demonstrate the power of music, and some thoughts that may enable you to reflect on the end stage of life with new insight and awareness. We can make choices and exercise responsibility in this "middle stage of life" while we are able and while we care that hopefully will help create our own graceful passage.

If you would like more information on this topic, you can see or read a talk I recently gave (April 15, 2007) at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Albuquerque. The video is available as a Windows Media file here, and as an MP4 file here. The text of the talk is available here.


Therapeutic music can be entertainment, comfort, medicine, and prayer. It can create joy and pleasure, ease suffering, and facilitate change. There are three types of work that musicians do in health care settings—programs, comfort visits, and visits to the actively dying. These distinctly different activities require different capabilities and skills.

In order to work with the actively dying, a musician needs therapeutic music certification, very strong music skills, compassion, and a very strong intuition about the situation. At the end of life Donese works directly with the patient at the bedside, matching the patient's breathing, to induce calm, bring comfort, and ease pain. At this time,she seldom plays recognizable songs so as to avoid emotional responses that the patient may have to specific melodies. Instead, she improvises, frequently in the style of the patient's religious tradition. The soothes patient, family, and caregivers, and creates a callm environment in which the patient can peacefully transition out of this life.

In order to do programs or comfort visits, a musician needs marginally adequate music skills and a desire to be of service. Anyone with the right attitude, a "good heart," and a few music skills can do this work. This is an ideal place for musicians with "advanced beginner" or "intermediate" music skills and a desire for service to volunteer. They can provide entertainment and comfort for patients and achieve great satisfaction for themselves without having to acquire the advanced musical skills or specialist training needed to play for the actively dying.


Music is therapy. It soothes the mind; it brings joy to the heart; it delights the body into dance, as it coaxes the soul to soar. Musical programs for seniors encourage mental and physical activity. They bring pleasure, stir memories, and gladden the heart for people whose world has gotten smaller.

Comfort Visits

Music is agreement. Fragments of sound come together to create a harmonious accord, bringing order where there was chaos and clarity where there was confusion. Individual visits to people nearing the end of life can help them deal with the stresses of a body that no longer works. Music can help people face their fears, and friendship eases daily life.

End of Life

Nothing can create a mood, an environment, or spark an emotion like music. The first few notes of an old song can recall a distant memory, otherwise lost in the passage of time. The last few hours of life can be a time of great agitation. Music at the patient's bedside can provide great comfort to both patient and family members, and can ease the coming transition.

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