The power of music

Therapeutic musician uses sound and melody to comfort, heal, and ease transitions


By Danielle Andersen


Sara Severson, a therapeutic musician with Knute Nelson Hospice, works with Kirk, a patient from Fergus Falls. Despite being reluctant to start the therapy, Kirk grew to appreciate and enjoy his time with Severson very much. Contributed photoSara Severson, a therapeutic musician with Knute Nelson Hospice, works with Kirk, a patient from Fergus Falls. Despite being reluctant to start the therapy, Kirk grew to appreciate and enjoy his time with Severson very much. Contributed photo

Music can do many things for people. It can lighten your mood, lower your blood pressure, ease your depression, and facilitate opportunities for emotional expression. Music has surprising impacts on the brain, too. It can also decrease pain and anxiety, improve exercise, improve memory, improve comfort, and more.


For patients served by Knute Nelson Hospice, it does all that – and a whole lot more.


Knute Nelson’s therapeutic music program has been a mainstay of the company’s offerings for years. What is therapeutic music? It is a broad field that uses music interventions and music for healing, including meditation music, to accomplish health goals. At Knute Nelson, Sara Severson is one of its most spirited proponents.


Severson is a graduate of Bemidji State University. Out of school, she first worked in sales before finding her niche in therapeutic music and gaining certification in the field from The Healing for Music and Transition Program. Therapeutic music grew naturally from her long-time passion. Sara grew up on a farm in Alexandria, Minnesota, where music was always present. For more than a decade, she has been playing and singing in the country band Blonde & the Bohunk alongside Brian Chlian. The two play concerts, benefits, parties, and more. She also sings in a worship band at Calvary Lutheran Church.


Seeing the Ability of Music to Heal – Firsthand


Severson was asked to visit someone in the hospital when something happened that changed her life trajectory. Her friend was close to death and had not had a verbal or physical response in more than 12 hours. Severson brought along her guitar into the woman’s hospital room, which was full of family, and sat down. A family member asked her to play her friend’s favorite song – “Girl Crush.” As Severson played the song, her friend moved her mouth as if she was singing along.


“It was what the family needed for that closure, to know that they had heard her,” she said. “She could hear them and me, and then she passed away the next day. When I left the hospital, I was blown away by that experience. I was just like, ‘I want to do this for a living.’”


At Knute Nelson, Severson played and sang with patients, first in memory care and later more broadly. Working in hospice was one of her bucket list items, as was wanting to write a song with a patient – something that was made possible thanks to a patient named Kirk.


Kirk, from Fergus Falls, was a painter, sculptor, and musician – an interesting person who was also terminally ill. He also did not want Severson’s services – he already had a plan with his wife to get her out of his room. But after just a few songs they were laughing, singing, and crying together. When she went back for a second time, he grabbed her guitar and started to play a song that came into his head in the middle of the night.


The song, Severson said, was a good one, and Kirk even had a chorus for it. His wife filmed them singing, and as soon as their session was over, Severson called a friend in St. Cloud who is a musician and music producer, and has a recording studio. In the span of three hours, they recorded the song. Soon, Severson’s friendship with Kirk had deepened. She went to visit him weekly, and they texted back and forth like friends. One Monday, she finalized plans to see him on Thursday, but opened her email the next day to see that he had died.


Kirk’s Song Lives On


The song that Severson wrote with Kirk, called “Fly Away,” was recorded into a music video that features some of the raw footage that Kirk’s wife took of the two of them singing and playing guitar before he died. The video, which is available on YouTube along with other recorded works and videos by Severson, then transitions into the full song that Severson recorded.


Sara Severson, therapeutic musician with Knute Nelson, stands with Kirk, a patient from Fergus Falls. During their time together, they bonded over a shared love for music, and wrote a song called “Fly Away.” Contributed photo

“I’m just so blessed that I get to do what I do,” she said. “I honestly don’t feel like I work a day in my life.”


Therapeutic music at Knute Nelson can be performed in a variety of settings, including care centers, senior living communities, home health care, and hospice.


Additional benefits of therapeutic music include aiding in mental focus, altering the sense of time, providing ease during life transitions, refocusing attention, stabilizing blood pressure, and supporting vital signs in acute patients. The reason for music’s wide impact on humans, said Severson, relates to the body’s water composition and the way that musical vibrations travel through the body to the vagus nerve in the brain, which controls many vital functions.


While playing and singing at church or in her band at events is rewarding, it does not match the satisfaction that comes from her therapeutic music at Knute Nelson, Severson said.


“Taking this music a step further to be able to provide it as a service to others,” she said, “has just been an amazing journey.”


To learn more about Knute Nelson Hospice, visit knutenelson.org or call (320) 288-1334. You can listen to “Fly Away” by holding your phone’s camera up to the QR code pictured above or search for Sara Severson’s channel on Amazon, Spotify, YouTube, iTunes, or Pandora.


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