Columbia Medical Students Launch Music at Bedside Program

December 27, 2017
Columbia P&S Musicians' Guild

P&S Musicians' Guild members perform at Tenafly Library in New Jersey. Left to right are Stefanie Gerstberger, Cory Chang, and Shaheen Malick.

On some days in the halls of Milstein Hospital Building at NewYork-Presbyterian (NYP)/Columbia University Irving Medical Center (CUIMC), the silvery sound of a violin playing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” floats in the air. On other days, it might be a Bach "Cello Suite" or holiday carols by a brass quintet. The music is live and the performances are thanks to the new Music at Bedside Program, a collaboration between medical students in the Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons (VP&S) and palliative care professionals at NYP. The program's goal is to soothe and entertain patients enduring painful conditions.

The Music at Bedside Program began to take shape in spring 2017, when P&S Musicians’ Guild leaders had the idea to create a program that combines their passion for music with patient care. Under the guidance of Craig Blinderman, MD, associate professor of medicine and director of the Adult Palliative Medicine Service at CUIMC and NYP, unit care directors were contacted to be paired with students.

“Alleviating suffering is not simply achieved with finding the right medicine or plan of care, but often happens with our touch, our words, our presence, and I believe, with art,” says Dr. Blinderman. “Music is perhaps the most accessible art form, especially for those who are in pain and cannot concentrate on words or images. So, the Music at Bedside Program fits in perfectly with the goal of palliative care.”

The program launched in the fall with 25 participants from the P&S Musicians’ Guild, a group of CUIMC students, staff, and faculty who perform with the medical center's symphony orchestra and at “Musical Mondays” in Bard Hall. Students who steer the program are the 2017 P&S Musicians’ Guild leaders, violinist Stefanie Gerstberger’19 and cellist Shaheen Malick’20. In 2018, the program will be led by instrumental guitarist Andrew Sanchez’21.

Students play weekly in the cardiac medicine and neurosurgery units. The patients in these units have some of the toughest conditions, whether they are recovering from surgery or suffer from chronic illnesses that keep them hospitalized for long stretches. In December, caroling groups visited various units, including cardiac medicine, psychiatry, neurosurgery/neuro ICU, bone marrow transplant, and rehabilitation.

“The patients are always surprised to see someone with an instrument walk into their room,” says Mr. Sanchez.

Ms. Gerstberger likes to play her violin in the corridors.

“I can reach more rooms and patients come out and look for me,” says Ms. Gerstberger, who previously served as a volunteer for another music therapy program and saw a patient wake up from a coma to the sound of her violin. "Music relieves stress for the entire unit: patients, families, nurses, and doctors. I really feel like I’m making someone’s day better. In the classroom, we are trained to become empathetic doctors, but nothing is as effective for feeling empathy as playing in the wards.”

The students also say taking part in the program has helped them as well. “Helping patients this way fosters a true sense of purpose,” says Mr. Malick. “Playing music in the hospital has a therapeutic aspect for us.”

In much the same way, the program has energized critical support staff, namely the NYP patient care directors who help to coordinate the students’ performances and point the musicians to certain rooms.

“I fell in love with the concept right away,” says Patricia Punzalan, patient care director in the neurosurgery unit at NYP/Columbia. “I remember the first time we had someone come to play cello at the bedside of an elderly demented patient. The appreciation and joy that we felt from the son who was with him were so compelling that we knew this is worth doing. Music is universal as we know. It transcends beyond color, culture, and language. It is interesting that, as the sound of music begins to spread across the floor, the staff and visitors cannot help but stop for a moment to listen. My hope is for this initiative to continue and spread to the rest of the units.”

Know a unit that would benefit from this program? Email the P&S Musicians’ Guild at and view their YouTube channel. To see how the Music at Bedside Program makes a difference for patients, watch this NBC New York video.