Ruth Roberts Delivers the Healing Power of Music

Ruth Roberts approaches her patients with the keen eye of an experienced nurse, quickly assessing the situation to find the best approach.  Some are open books, ready to embrace the gift of music that Ruth offers, easily finding its restorative gifts.  Others are wary, resistant even, and that includes the loved ones at their bedside.

After a decade in nursing in several provinces as well as California, Ruth went back to school to study Music Therapy at Wilfred Laurier University, where she obtained a Masters in Music Therapy.  She is a Registered Psychotherapist. In her nursing practice, she had witnessed the therapeutic power of music first hand, and imagined how her love of music might help restore her patients, if not physically, then perhaps emotionally.  Her work as a Music Therapist began in 1999 in a pilot project at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children that operated a few days a week.

Music Therapists work as members of a multi-disciplinary team including social workers, nurses and parents delivering clinical applications of music in sessions designed to reduce stress, improve mood and encourage self-expression.  The sessions involve listening, singing, playing instruments or composing music, and has been shown to reduce blood pressure, manage pain, reduce muscle tension and develop healthy coping skills to manage thoughts and emotions.

Most of her young patients were in the oncology ward.  Seeing her walk into the hospital rooms with her guitar, sometimes visiting parents assumed that Ruth was a performer, and she is: she will even play requests.  However, entertainment is not her main objective.  Taking cues from her audience, she usually opens by delicately strumming a tune on the guitar.  Perhaps it’s “The Wheels on the Bus” or another popular children’s song.  Lyrics are optional.  Her pace and volume are dictated by the patient, who sometimes want it fast and loud!   The children find the sessions are a welcome respite from the pain and anxiety of their medical treatments.

Photo Karen Graham.
Ruth’s music brought joy to sick children, with measurable reductions in their blood pressure and heart rates.

Music transcends culture, and most youngsters see it as an ally, helping them feel safe.  One of her patient’s mother observed that the music provides a happy sound amongst the beeps and buzzes of the medical equipment that surrounds these children.  The ability to express themselves without the need for words is a relief, for some of the children are non-verbal due to medical conditions while others struggle to find words to express what they are feeling.  Small instruments such as chimes and xylophones allow direct participation in creating the sound.   You can see the feeling of empowerment in their joyful grins.  Music, poems and stories allow some patients to share their true feelings- fear, sorrow, but also rays of hope and joy. The self-expression can go far:  Ruth has occasionally been invited to perform or accompany her patients’ original compositions, helping them express what they may find unspeakable.

Over the past twenty years, the therapy program at Sick Kids Hospital expanded to include three full-time therapists, but for Ruth, three days a week was enough.  The work is demanding- draining even, but she is quick to explain that not all of her stories from the hospital are sad.  She found it richly rewarding to help families dealing with difficult situations, and an honour to witness their strength and to help them cope.

Living on a rural property south of Millbrook provides a refuge from the city, and Ruth finds rejuvenation by spending time in nature and nurturing her spiritual side.  She has also taught some university courses and supervises on-line courses in Guided Imagery therapy, sharing her wealth of knowledge and experience with other professionals in the field.  A close network of colleagues with whom she completed the Master’s program at Laurier ensures a social support system is always available.

After 22 years at Sick Kids, Ruth retired last year.  She now provides support to the elderly, visiting nursing homes, guitar in hand, playing the piano.  She relies on different classics to engage this audience, and understanding their background helps her find the tune that elicits a response.  For some it might be a classic country tune, and for others a familiar hymn might fit the bill.   Often the response is immediate and enthusiastic, but sometimes it is quiet and reflective.  She also continues a small private practice and helps teens in support groups and in palliative care.  The work is still difficult, but Ruth sees it as both powerful and necessary, and views each patient encounter as a taste of the sacred.  Amen to that.

To fully appreciate the power of Ruth’s work, see her in action where the joy she brought to her young patients is abundantly clear in this video:


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