I spent two years volunteering once a week to play guitar for hospice patients at Alive Hospice here in Nashville.
My time giving musical service at Alive was a profound piece of my development as a musician, and I wanted to share what I learned here in case you’re interested in playing your guitar for people who really need your music, whether in a hospice, a nursing home, a hospital or elsewhere.
First off, giving service in any form can reorient you within the world.
Music is a funny thing–it is one of the purest expressions of the human spirit (Quoth Beethoven: “Music is the mediator between the spiritual and the sensual life.”). And yet, music is also often grabbed by the Ego and used for selfish ends.
If you want to be a better musician–better in the sense of being more aligned with music itself rather than your particular desires and needs–then giving musical service can provide profound guidance as you learn to let go and get out of the way of the music that is flowing through you.
While there are many, many options for ways and places to give musical service, playing guitar for hospice patients is a particularly potent form of musical giving.
Most of us spend the bulk of our time running in the opposite direction from confronting our own mortality.
And when you enter a hospice and play for patients, you are actively engaging with death in a very real, tangible, personal way.
With only a very few exceptions (I had one in my two years of hospice volunteering), every single person you meet will be about to die. Also, and perhaps even more powerfully, those who are still awake and aware will know it. They will know they have only a limited time on earth.
And this will make them very different from your average human being you meet out on the street.
Is Playing In Hospice for Me?
Maybe you’re reading this because you’re curious about playing guitar for hospice patients. Maybe you’re considering it but also have a little fear rippling through your stomach.
If you’re reading this, and if you’re wondering if you really want to get involved with playing guitar in a hospice environment as a way of giving back, then you can definitely do it, and it will make you a better person.
I can’t possibly list all the lessons I learned thanks to my time volunteering at Alive. I learned so much. And I carry that learning with me every moment.
The most potent lesson I learned is that Gratitude is always in order. Every moment above ground is a gift.
Death is a great clarifier. It sloughs off the inessential to bring you into contact with what really matters to you in this lifetime.
Your time is limited here. Every moment you neglect that fact is a moment lived in denial and illusion.
How to Get Started Playing in a Hospice
So let’s say you’re ready to take the plunge and volunteer as a musician giving service at a hospice.
How do you get started?
First off, contact the hospices in your area.
Hospice care comes in all shapes and sizes. There are residential hospices where patients stay in their rooms and the nurses are all on hand to help ease their transition.
Hospices also organize at-home services for some patients, where the patient remains comfortable in their own home and nurses are on call to assist them and mitigate their pain over the course of their journey into death.
Each hospice will be different, so the best thing to do to get started is to call them and ask them about their volunteer program. Ask specifically about giving musical service.
Music is such a profound tool, and patients receive it so gratefully that you’ll most likely find each hospice you contact very interested in receiving your assistance.
Background Checks, TB Tests, Orientation
Hospices will generally require you to pass a background check prior to bringing you onto their staff as a musical volunteer.
This makes sense, doesn’t it? You’ll be participating in one of the most intimate and important experiences in the life of a human being, and you’ll be coming into close contact not only with the patients but with their families as well. These people are so vulnerable, so it makes sense that hospices investigate to make sure their volunteers are trustworthy and safe people to have in such vulnerable spaces.
You’ll also need to take a simple battery of medical tests. I can’t speak for every single hospice out there, but when I signed up to volunteer at Alive, I had to take two TB tests to make sure I didn’t have tuberculosis. These tests were easy and painless, though I did have to go into the hospice four times (once to get the first test, once to have the first test’s results verified. a third time for the second test, and a fourth visit to verify the results of the second test).
Finally, the hospice you volunteer at will most likely also include an orientation procedure of some kind.
I had to attend an in-person orientation with a small group of other new volunteers. We watched a video on the background of hospice care in general and our hospice in specific, and we went over procedures and best practices for how to navigate the specific needs and challenges of volunteering at hospice.
Your First Patient Experience
At some point, it’ll be time for you to dive in and meet your first patient.
I was lucky when I started at Alive–I was able to join up with two other musicians who had been volunteering for a couple years prior to my arrival. I met them, shook hands and off we went down the hall to our first patient room.
The first patient I met as a musical volunteer was named Frank. We walked into Frank’s room, and Frank looked like he was in really bad shape. At the time, I hadn’t yet seen enough to be able to give much in the way of diagnosis about Frank’s condition, but Frank was definitely suffering from terminal lung cancer.
He could barely keep his eyes open. His body had a sickly yellow hue. His skin was sunken and his bones protruded beneath his veiny skin all over.
He looked like he was already dead, basically.
The two ladies I was volunteering with greeted Frank and asked him if he’d like any music.
Frank couldn’t really respond, but he did seem to give us a signal with his eyes that said yes.
So we played. I just sat back and played along as best I could as I watched Frank receive the music and relax in response.
Frank had a friend staying with him that morning, and she came back in while we were playing. She sat next to Frank and held his hand while we played a couple tunes for him.
After a couple songs, it was time for us to go and head on down the hall to the next room. We said goodbye to Frank and exited the room.
We forget that when we don’t meet it face-to-face for long stretches during our seemingly “normal” life. But it’s true–what is more natural than birth and death?
My first few times volunteering found me careening wildly between feeling like meeting all these people on the verge of death was completely normal and unremarkable, and then feeling completely overwhelmed with all the feelings about death that I’d previously kept at bay while I kept death itself at bay.
Often, I’d have to go home and take a nap after volunteering because I felt so drained from my couple hours touring the hospice playing songs for different patients.
How to Play for Patients
The first thing we always did was ask if the patient wanted music.
Remember: this is about them; not you.
Give them music only if they say they would like some. Otherwise, carry right along to the next room without taking anything personally.
Every single room is different, so you’ll have to adapt a different approach to every single patient you meet.
Some patients will be asleep. You can let them keep resting, though sometimes after you’ve met the patients and know which ones really adore the musical service you give, you can also stop and sit by their bedside playing them a few lullabies while they rest.
Which songs you play depends entirely on what the person likes to hear.
In my experience volunteering in a secular hospice here in Nashville, the majority of patients wanted to hear gospel tunes. “I’ll Fly Away,” “How Great Thou Art,” “In the Garden.”
Remember, the majority of the patients in hospice are older, so they’ll appreciate music from their youth and upbringing. Old-timey gospel tunes often fit the bill for these patients.
Other patients will want something completely different. I often played John Denver tunes, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” popular folk songs–and one patient even requested Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” (though my musical partner was the only one who knew that one and I sat it out).
Often, however, you’ll find that gentle improvisational instrumental music works really well.
As you volunteer more and more, you’ll get a feel for a repertoire that covers many of the bases that you encounter as you volunteer. Certain songs will really work, and you’ll develop a set of these “greatest hits” that you’ll be able to break out whenever you’re not quite sure how to work with the mood in the room.
Over the course of my two years volunteering, I definitely encountered some moments with patients that were more intense than others.
Most of the patients that you play for won’t be actively dying in the moment while you’re playing.
However, sometimes you’ll enter a room at the precise moment when a patient is in the act of leaving their body.
This type of moment requires a very delicate sensitivity to the energy of the moment.
If you set yourself aside and really listen, you’ll find guidance from deep within you that will help you know what to do and how to handle the situation in each moment.
Err on the side of gentle, always. Play peacefully with a peaceful heart.
And keep breathing. Stay centered. Instead of getting activated into anxiety and fear, stay calm and focus entirely on helping the person who’s passing so that they have the most beautiful and peaceful death possible. Pray for them as you play–no matter what your belief system is. Just send them positive wishes for a beautiful reunion with their Source.
How to Take Care of Yourself
After a volunteering session with some particularly intense moments, be mindful of the fact that you’ll need to treat yourself with some tender love and care.
It can be very intense to open yourself up musically in front of these patients who are at the end of their life.
I would often wish that I was also volunteering to give musical service for children to counterbalance the at times too intense presence of Death all around.
Remember to spend time outside or with animals or children or family–do things that reinforce your sense of hopefulness and faith in Life.
While it may seem that you’re just a volunteer giving a little time to a local hospice, what’s actually happening beneath the surface is you’re becoming a wiser, kinder, more compassionate human being.
The funny paradox that I came to know quite well as I wended my way through my Tuesday morning volunteer stroll at Alive Hospice was that the more time I spent volunteering to play music for hospice patients, the wider my heart opened.
I became more vulnerable as I confronted this thing our culture fears so much–Death with a capital D–and found that it is a great gift if we’re willing to receive it that way.
The more I interacted with Death through the many hospice patients I met, the more I came to appreciate Life.
Death is like industrial strength solvent for dissolving the rigid confines of the Ego. Our posturing and self-importance fall under the fell slice of the sword of Death. Death mocks everything that isn’t real, which leaves only your present awareness and your love.
This confrontational process can be peaceful and smooth, or it can be a battle royale with plenty of unpleasant consequences. The more you resist and deny the suffering that you see in your stint as a musical volunteer, the more you’ll yourself suffer.
But if you approach the process in a spirit of surrender, then your time giving musical service as a hospice volunteer will help you immeasurably in your life.
Volunteering at hospice is easily one of the most meaningful and important things I have done in my entire life.
When your music is no longer about you, real beauty becomes possible.
When you have to pay total attention to the needs and energies of This Moment, you become a better musician.
When you give your music selflessly without worrying about how good you are or how much your audience appreciates it, the true value of music becomes apparent.
When you humble yourself before Life and Death, you’ll come to know yourself truly, deeply.
And when you give the most beautiful song you know in the moment when a human being is leaving their body for the Great Beyond, you’ll become a true musician playing for the highest purpose imaginable.
If you are considering volunteering to play guitar in hospice, then I have one simple piece of advice for you: Do it Now.
Finally, if you liked this article, then perhaps you would like to bring some beautiful new music into your life that I created while I was volunteering as a hospice musician. Pick up my first CD Spirited here.