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The Globe and Mail

Kids' hospital uses mobile music studio as therapy

Alvaro Juarez-Vado, 15, in Vancouver, July 27, 2011.

laura leyshon The Globe and Mail

Sick kids can't always bring themselves to talk about how it feels to go through cancer treatments or do time in the ICU. But some can sing about it loud and clear.

Now, using a mobile recording studio, patients at BC Children's Hospital in Vancouver can create a permanent archive of the songs, drumming and guitar riffs they come up with in music-therapy sessions.

Dubbed the "Band Wagon 1," the wheeled contraption is built like a rock-and-roll road case, with bright red paint, shiny chrome banding, speakers, an integrated piano keyboard and places to plug in electric guitars and a mike.

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At the core is an iMac computer equipped with music software sophisticated enough to produce near studio-quality recordings on the spot, says Shaw Saltzberg, chair of the Vancouver-based Music Therapy Ride Committee, one of the groups that conceived of the device.

"It's like a kid's dream of what a boom box would be if it filled your whole room."

Built to literally withstand an earthquake, the $15,000 Band Wagon can be rolled into an oncology ward, patient lounge and even the intensive care unit, says Erin Johnston, a music therapist at the hospital for the past 11 years.

"Part of the system that's really neat is a child could sing into the microphone very quietly, and we could do the rest on the software afterward," she says.

Patients are assessed to determine whether music might help them relax during a procedure or increase their well-being during a serious illness or long hospital stay, Ms. Johnston says.

Children may be dealing with pain, nausea or fatigue from treatments such as bone-marrow transplants - and experiencing intense feelings of anger, sadness or celebration when treatments go well.

"Music is a really emotive therapy that we can use to allow them some means to express some of these high emotions," she explains.

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Until now, music therapists at the hospital have relied mainly on a basic laptop computer and acoustic instruments such as hand drums, shakers and xylophones to help children with songwriting.

The state-of-the-art Band Wagon will make it easier for patients to create layered pop tunes in the style of their music idols, Ms. Johnston says. Electronic music is "drawing in some kids, specifically the teenagers, who wouldn't normally say yes to us."

Patients are not obliged to record their music-therapy sessions, she adds. But sharing or reworking compositions over time can be part of the therapeutic process.

Ms. Johnston recalls a teenaged patient with cystic fibrosis who rewrote an Avril Lavigne song to express her frustration about having to take intravenous liquid nutrition called TPN. The child wasn't comfortable telling her doctor and nurses how she felt, Ms. Johnston says, so instead, the patient shared the song's screaming chorus: "Why did ya have to go and put me on TPN?"

Another patient, Megan McNeil, turned her music-therapy sessions into an anthem for children fighting cancer. After composing " The Will to Survive" in the hospital, Megan recorded the song in a studio and performed it in Whistler - backed bysinger-songwriter Chantal Kreviazuk on piano - as part of the Music Therapy Ride's annual charity event.

Although Megan died of adrenal cancer in January, 2011, her song is thriving online, raising funds for kids with cancer via iTunes.

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Megan's story is an inspiration for the Band Wagon, Mr. Saltzberg says. One of the project goals is to create an Internet-based archive of patients' compositions that the public can enjoy while donating to health-related charities.

He adds that recording artists such as the Barenaked Ladies have granted rights to allow children to create mash-ups of their works.

The Band Wagon is a collaborative effort involving the Vancouver-based Nimbus School of Recording Arts, the Music Therapy Ride Committee, Variety - The Children's Charity and the Toronto-based Canadian Music Therapy Trust Fund.

Fundraising for a national program of mobile recording units will begin in September during the Music Therapy Ride, a motorcycle tour from Vancouver to Whistler that has raised more than $350,000 over the past 10 years.

With any luck, hospitals across Canada will soon be jumping on the bandwagon.

With a report from Anita Li

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