It’s a renowned recording studio that churns out hit after hit. Where every song that spills from its speakers touches the heart and inspires the soul, and every aspiring musician can become a songwriter, a music producer and pop star within an afternoon.
But this studio’s not in Hollywood or Austin or Nashville – but in the pediatric cancer units of St. Louis hospitals. Where next to children’s bedsides, the music therapists of Maryville University’s Kids Rock Cancer program put patients’ heartfelt words to music and help them showcase their inner strength.
For eight-year-old Tyreese, Kids Rock Cancer has been a way to not only express his emotions about his cancer treatment, but also to join forces with his sister Tyria. Together with Tracie Sandheinrich, MT-BC, of Kids Rock Cancer, the siblings recorded “If I Could Fly Away,” an original song featuring their own lyrics and melody.
The experience was so liberating for Tyreese, that when he underwent a bone marrow transplant to save his life, he turned to Kids Rock Cancer to compose his own musical thank you to his donor.
According to his mother, Dena, the Kids Rock Cancer songwriting and recording sessions gave Tyreese a time out from the treatments that consumed his young life.
“For an afternoon, the kids forget what they’re going through. It’s something fun for them to do. When he was doing his second song, he was getting chemo. We were coming to the clinic four times a week for blood and platelet transfusions for months. But programs like Kids Rock Cancer help the kids out. It gives them a break.”
Helping children find their voice
Since 2009, Kids Rock Cancer has helped nearly 500 children at local hospitals and support centers become rock stars. Based on the Purple Songs Can Fly songwriting program at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston, Kids Rock Cancer took it a step further – incorporating music therapy and providing certified music therapists to help patients cope with anxiety, depression and uncertainty. In fact, in some cases music therapy has been shown to lessen the need for pain medication.
Today, the program is provided at no cost to children and their families at SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center, St. Louis Children’s Hospital, Cancer Support Community of Greater St. Louis, Mercy Hospital St. Louis, and Ronald McDonald House. In addition, group recording sessions have taken place at Camp Rainbow, which serves children with cancer, and Camp Crescent for kids with sickle cell disease.
According to Sandheinrich, the songwriting session begins with a simple conversation with the child – what he or she likes to do, their favorite activities – and then transitions into what they’re feeling – hope, fear, love. An idea page is created, helping the young composer choose the ideas that grab him or her emotionally. From there, the two pull together a song, guided solely by the child’s own words.
“We take verbatim what the children said,” she explained. “We may tweak the lyrics if they want them to rhyme, but all I really do from a songwriting aspect is put their thoughts to music.”
Using a live guitar or piano or the GarageBand music creation interface, the patient chooses the melody and genre – from country to rock to hip hop – and from there, records the song right in the room, creating a CD to share with others or spin when he or she needs extra strength down the road.
Nine-year-old Arianna, who has battled neuroblastoma for the past six years, wrote her first song during a six-week stay in the bone marrow transplant unit. Today, she has nine Kids Rock Cancer songs in her repertoire – two of them recorded with her brothers, Liam and Aidan.
Said her mother, Lori Zucker, “Music therapy has a tremendous effect on Arianna and our whole family. She smiles and laughs throughout the whole session, and we all get to relive that time every time we listen to Arianna's CD – we can hear her joy in the song. Arianna has had several sessions with her brothers as well, which is a really special time for all of us, to have all three kids working together. It brings them that much closer together and allows the boys to be a part of something so they really feel included.”
“When in the hospital, she will ask to listen to her songs; they always help her to relax and smile even when she is not feeling well.”
The impact of Kids Rock Cancer has been so cathartic to patients and their families that the program has expanded to serve those children whose lives have been turned upside down because of the cancer diagnosis of a parent, sibling or other family member. They can share the feelings they often keep locked up inside, striving to maintain a brave face for their families.
For Sandheinrich, being involved with Kids Rock Cancer has been incredibly inspiring, knowing that every song touches the children and those around them.
“Enabling kids through music to express what they’re going through, to tell their story – it’s just so rewarding. The songs may be happy or sad or funny, but no matter, the experience is positive for the patient and their family members. It’s really a living legacy, giving every child a voice.”
You can listen to many of these performances now. An online soundtrack featuring more than 60 songs from Kids Rock Cancer is available at soundcloud.com/kids-rock-cancer.
A night to celebrate young artists
On Thursday, May 21, Kids Rock Cancer will celebrate the power of music while raising funds to deliver the program to more superstars. All You Need Is Love, the Kids Rock Cancer benefit concert, will take place at The Sheldon Concert Hall starting at 7:30 p.m.
Rocking the stage will be the reunited British Invasion cover band, Flaming Pie, of which two members are advisory board members for Kids Rock Cancer. In addition, musicians with the STL Symphony will perform – as will Arianna and her brothers, and another Kids Rock Cancer participant.
General Admission tickets are $50; $25 for Maryville University students. VIP Rock Star tickets are also available for $125 and include pre- and post-event receptions (appetizers, desserts and open bar) as well as reserved seating for the concert. General Admission and Maryville student tickets are available through MetroTix. For more information or to purchase VIP tickets, visit www.kidsrockcancer.org.
Photo courtesy of Kids Rock Cancer
Metro East mom Nicole Plegge is the lifestyle and pop culture blogger for STL Parent. Besides working as a freelance writer & public relations specialist, and raising two daughters and a husband, Nicole's greatest achievements are finding her misplaced car keys each day and managing to leave the house in a stain-free shirt. Her biggest regret is never being accepted to the Eastland School for Girls. Follow Nicole on Twitter @STLWriterinIL
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