Near Nashville’s Music Row, Sick Children Find Comfort In Songwriting

Alison Krauss, Faith Hill, and Vince Gill are among the artists singing heartfelt songs written by children with cancer and other serious illnesses. Vanderbilt’s Monroe Carell Children’s Hospital lies just a few blocks from Nashville’s Music Row, where generations of songwriters have come to make it big. Instead of pursuing their dreams, sick kids are using songwriting as a kind of alternative therapy.

Music therapist Jenny Plume, with her cart of instruments makes daily rounds at Vanderbilt's Monroe Carell Children's Hospital. Image: Bradley George/WPLN

Music therapist Jenny Plume, instrument cart in tow, makes daily rounds at Vanderbilt’s Monroe Carell Children’s Hospital. Image: Bradley George/WPLN

“I’m just a scribe in the room,” says Jenny Plume, who has worked as a music therapist at Vanderbilt since 2007. “I just write and write and write and circle nuggets and ask ‘what do you mean by that?’” More than 16,000 music therapists in the US work in hospitals, schools, and in private practice. Music has now become a standard part of care at Vanderbilt.

Plume pushes a converted nurse’s cart full of instruments through the halls of the hospital. Her mission is to make patients more comfortable about their stay. That can be as simple as letting them bang on a drum. For kids with musical experience, she may hand them an electric guitar and an amplifier. For others, she’ll just join in a silly song.

Occasionally, she’ll prompt the patient to write songs of their own, collaborating with the children to turn stream of consciousness thoughts into music. One of her former patients is a 15-year-old who has battled cancer four times in her short life. Her twin sister died of leukemia at age 4. With Plume’s help, Gigi Pasley penned a song called “What is Normal?”

Gigi Pasley shares a moment with Amy Grant in the studio. Grant recorded a version of Pasley's song, "What Is Normal?" for the CD Everybody Has a Story. Image: Vanderbilt University Medical Center

Gigi Pasley shares a moment with Amy Grant in the studio. Grant recorded a version of Pasley’s song, “What Is Normal?” for the CD Everybody Has a Story. Image: Vanderbilt University Medical Center

Normal isn’t a word used in her family, she says. “Nothing is really normal in our family. So that was kind of an easy song to write. Because it’s just talking about ‘what is it, does it exist?'”

Gigi has plenty to say about her months-long stints in the hospital. But she was somewhat reluctant to turn her thoughts into a song. Her mother thought it could be a good distraction, especially when Gigi was feeling down. “Sometimes, you’re in a mood and you’re not going to change. You’re just in a funk,” Jessica Pasley says, having spent nearly as much time at the hospital as her daughter.

The cover image for the CD, Everybody Has a Story. Released in May, it features songs written by eight children's patient at Vanderbilt. Image: Vanderbilt University Medical Center

The cover image for the CD, Everybody Has a Story. Released in May, it features songs written by eight child patients at Vanderbilt. Image: Vanderbilt University Medical Center

Jessica Pasley says music therapist Jenny Plume wouldn’t force her daughter to make music on those days when she didn’t feel like it. But ultimately, Gigi Pasley and other child patients showed a talent for songwriting.  So much so, that Plume thought a few of these creations were good enough to release on a CD.

A chat with producer friend led to big names like Amy Grant, Kix Brooks and Phil Vassar getting involved with the project. Grant sings on Pasley’s “What Is Normal?” The Fisk Jubilee Singers are also among the artists on a new album titled “Everybody Has A Story.”

You can listen to excerpts of the songs here.

Music therapist Jenny Plume says she’s grateful for the star power, and she hopes the album even sells a few copies. After all, the proceeds benefit Vanderbilt’s music therapy program. She says the therapy part of writing these songs is done, and sick children have found a few words to describe how they’re feeling inside.

Please keep your community civil. Comments will be moderated prior to posting, and Nashville Public Radio reserves the right to approve them at its discretion. Comments containing links promoting goods, services - even noble organizations - will not be published. Your comments may include external links, but all comments with links will be delayed as they are reviewed. Comments containing profanity will be rejected.