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Music Therapists Are Trying To Help COVID-19 Patients Who Experience Loneliness

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Can you sing your way through social isolation and loneliness? A music therapist in Virginia started a support group for people with COVID-19. As NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports, they connect with each other through song.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TOM SWEITZER: We're going to use music to do some breathing. Take a big breath in.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: Tom Sweitzer has been a music therapist for 10 years. He usually works with people with disabilities and traumatic brain injury. When the pandemic hit, his practice moved online. He also made some short, guided videos for his patients, like this one.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SWEITZER: And let out a sigh - ah.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BLAIR: Sweitzer is 48 years old and says he's always been active.

SWEITZER: I teach Zumba class. I walk my dog five miles a day. I've been singing since I've been 5, so my lungs are in really good shape.

BLAIR: But not good enough to withstand the pain he felt when he tested positive for COVID-19 last July. He spent six days in the hospital.

SWEITZER: Even with, you know, these lungs that are, I felt, very strong, I was down for the count.

BLAIR: When he got out of the hospital, he joined a COVID support group on Facebook. As he watched it grow by the hundreds every day, he decided to start his own group where he could incorporate his skills as a music therapist.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SWEITZER: When you put it out on match.com, you can say you're looking for a 1980s lover.

SUSANNE BERMAN: (Laughter).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Laughter).

BERMAN: (Singing) She's an easy lover.

SWEITZER: (Laughter).

BLAIR: One of the regular group members, Susanne Berman, learned about Sweitzer from her doctor in New York.

BERMAN: I was excited about it because I'd been so isolated that I had an opportunity to connect with other people that were like me.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SWEITZER: I'm a big believer in joy, and music therapy is a clinical and therapeutic tool. But one thing music does for a lot of individuals is it brings joy.

BERMAN: (Laughter).

SWEITZER: Great. So here we go. How about this one?

BERMAN: Oh, my.

SWEITZER: Listen to this one. (Singing) When the - think about this with COVID - (singing) when the night...

BLAIR: In addition to breathing exercises and movement, they sing and listen to songs either from recordings or played by Sweitzer.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SWEITZER: (Singing) Some say love - it is a river that drowns the tender reed.

BLAIR: And they talk about the lyrics.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SWEITZER: Susanne, Rita - that first line.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: It means to me, like, that it's - love is continuous and flowing.

BLAIR: Sweitzer usually prepares a song, but he also asks group members what songs have been helping them get through the week. Berman says Sweitzer will often tell them, we can all understand each other better when we've heard each other's music.

BERMAN: They have a better sense of where I'm coming from and what resonates with me in that moment, and we get to know each other through the music. And I think that was a really intuitive and wonderful way to connect us.

BLAIR: Something else that connects them - most of the people who attend the sessions, including Sweitzer, are COVID long-haulers, meaning they're still feeling the physical effects of the virus long after they've tested positive.

SWEITZER: I still have some neurological damage. I can tell you my memory is not at all like it used to be before COVID.

BLAIR: What about with music? When you go to have a music session, do you forget?

SWEITZER: No, I never forget music. And so this theory that we have as music therapists in the brain - the brain is so plastic, and it's so moldable and flexible. And we know that music is this portal, this instrument that the brain connects with.

BLAIR: As both a music therapist and a COVID long-hauler, Tom Sweitzer says he's using that instrument for himself as much as he is for others.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIBIO SONG, "TOWN AND COUNTRY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.