Kathleen Blackwell-Plank believes in the healing power of music. She cites medical research supporting theories that music has a comforting effect on hospital patients. She says music reduces a patient's anxiety and dulls the perception of pain as it promotes relaxation.
"It's also an anchor or a tie to memory," said Blackwell-Plank. "It could be the memory of a wedding or of a courting. It might even call to mind a funeral or other significant time in one's life. (Music) connects people to a time that they might want to remember."
These are just a few of the reasons why, in 2006, Blackwell-Plank founded the Interlude Choir and music program at Hospice & Palliative Care of Cabarrus County, a subsidiary of Carolinas Medical Center - NorthEast.
Blackwell-Plank, 57, performed with the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra during the 1970s and early 80s, but eventually returned to school and earned a master's degree in social work from the University of South Carolina. Music remained her focus as she studied musical therapy and trained with programs that instructed how to use music to help patients in hospice care.
The Interlude Choir, according to Blackwell-Plank, was born out of a former patient's personal request. She remembers reminiscing with a man one afternoon and mentioning how she played the mandolin and fiddle. He immediately asked her to bring the instruments by and perform a few tunes.
"That experience sort of got me thinking about the power of music to retrieve memories, and the joy that it brings," she said. "So many of our hospice patients have been in the medical system battling a chronic illness, and that illness almost begins to dominate their life experiences. But music is able to help them step outside or transform that place where they are, to connect to other parts of their life."
The choir will have as many as 25 volunteer members at any given point. Most are singers. Some are instrumentalists who play flute, guitar, violin, oboe, cello and piano.
Kannapolis resident and lifelong piano player Ed Fink, 82, joined the choir five months ago.
"I was looking for an opportunity to go out and play the piano at the hospice houses," he said. "I go one or two times a week. It's very rewarding. Many times the parents or spouses (of the patients) will come up and tell me how much they enjoy the music and our visits."
The choir rehearses twice a month on the second and the fourth Tuesday evening.
Morningside Assisted Living in Concord hosts the group on the second Tuesday of the month.
"It's a good location for a number of our volunteers, and we also have a number of hospice patients there," Blackwell-Plank said. Residents of Morningside are encouraged to attend the choir's open rehearsals. Blackwell-Plank said many do, often singing along to familiar songs. After the practice, the choir goes room to room and offers music to hospice patients.
On the fourth Tuesday of the month, rehearsals move to the Bob & Carolyn Tucker Hospice House in Kannapolis.
In between the two monthly rehearsals, the choir is divided into teams and assigned personal visits to private homes, nursing homes and assisted living centers throughout Cabarrus County.
"Wherever hospice patients are, we go," said Blackwell-Plank.
Over the years, Blackwell-Plank has witnessed music's powerful effect on patients with Alzheimer's disease and dementia. She references the teachings of neurologist and best-selling author Oliver Sacks, whose research showed that the brain stores musical memories in different banks from language-related memories and thoughts.
"He said that the music section (of the brain) is a very enduring part," Blackwell-Plank said. "So that even when people ... have really lost significant abilities, they often times can sing old, familiar songs and hymns - and sing whole verses of them, even when they can't tell you the name of one of their children."
With that in mind, the Interlude Choir takes requests.
A patient's daughter once approached Blackwell-Plank and recalled how her mother - who at the time had dementia - would always sing "Waltzing Matilda" to her children while they were growing up. The choir came by and performed the song for the mother and daughter because the family remembered it as a comforting moment.
The Interlude Choir constantly seeks new volunteers.
Blackwell-Plank said she's able to integrate interested singers and musicians at any time during the year and encourages interested people to attend one of the monthly rehearsal sessions at either Morningside Assisted Living or Tucker Hospice House.
Volunteers do receive specialized training on working with hospice patients so that they feel comfortable in the hospital environment.
Twice a year, the choir also conducts a hospice memorial service, where they remember the patients that they've served in the previous six months who have passed away.