Music Therapist Kelly Tyrrell Brings a Tuneful Healing Touch to ACH Patients

Kelly Tyrrell
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You might see her walking the All Children's hallways with a guitar in hand, or pulling a cart packed with tambourines, shakers and two large binders of lyric and chord sheets. They are the tools of the trade for music therapist Kelly Tyrrell, whose world moves to a constantly shifting beat as she helps add harmony to the lives of newborns to teens.

The countless tunes she sings and strums are an oasis for patients and parents alike, lifting spirits and bringing smiles in times of pain and uncertainty.

But there is much more to Tyrrell's job than making music, even though she does that beautifully and with an engaging and varied style that seems to establish an instant connection with kids and families.

Her work demands  a knowledge of psychology, physiology and science as well as music. And it requires not only a college degree but, increasingly, additional specialized certification, such as the kind Tyrrell earned so she can help the fragile infants from ACH's Neonatal Intensive Care unit.

On a recent afternoon, you could find her in the dim lights of the NICU, where she stands by a high-tech incubator holding a baby born with a drug addiction - a condition known as NAS, short for Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome.

With firm but gentle strokes, she uses several fingers to massage the month-old girl's forehead and back while quietly singing the chorus of "You Are My Sunshine."  Several feet away, the girl's parents watch attentively, marveling at the impact of the soothing technique - known as Multi-Modal Stimulation - Tyrrell is utilizing.

"Please don't take my sunshine away," she and the parents intone ever so softly. They repeat the song again and again as the child, who had been crying fitfully minutes earlier, settles into a peaceful sleep.

Some 30 minutes later, Tyrrell enters a room on another floor where a 10-year-old girl with a genetic condition and serious respiratory infection lies in her bed, hooked to tubes and unable to speak. But she connects with her eyes, which convey a spark of enjoyment as Tyrrell picks up her guitar and launches into Smash Mouth's "All Star."

Soon after, she sits on a multi-colored mat in another hospital room across from 2-year-old Bradley, a little boy with Down syndrome who is thoroughly enjoying Tyrrell's version of "The Wheels on the Bus." He picks up plastic shakers and tambourines she has brought along and keeps time to the rousing rendition.

It's only a small portion of a typical day for Tyrrell, and a big reason she loves the job ¬- even if most people don't realize what goes into being an effective music therapist.

"I will never get tired of the question, 'Well, what do you do?' because there's so much that goes into it - and very few people fully understand what it really is," she says. "I absolutely love what I do, so I enjoy telling people about it. My basic explanation is this: music therapy is using music to reach non-musical goals.

"We use music more than we teach it, and the beauty of it all is that you can tailor it to be whatever you want it to be in order to help a patient."


It may look like she's performing as she belts out rock or pop chart-toppers to older ACH patients or hams it up singing children's classics to toddlers, but she most definitely is not.

The truth is, Tyrrell has never been comfortable in the spotlight. "I love interacting with people but I hate performing," she explains. "If I'm in a performance situation, I get nervous and my voice shakes - it's nerve-wracking. But if I'm singing and playing music to make somebody feel better, it's a totally different story. I'll rap, sing classical music or do a country song by Hank Williams or Johnny Cash. If I want a child to get silly, I get silly. If I want a child to be serious, then I get serious, too - whatever I need to be. I love the therapeutic part of it. I'm cut out to do what I do."

Tyrrell draws from a rich musical family background growing up outside of Albany. Her father plays guitar and her mother the piano, and both sing. Her older brother lives in Nashville and does music, and two younger siblings also sing and play instruments. "It was a perfect training ground growing up - I learned a lot about music from my parents, and then my schooling reinforced and fine-tuned things," she says.

Tyrrell's journey to All Children's took a roundabout route, with a pivotal course correction at the collegiate level. Initially, she wanted to go get an undergraduate degree in recording and producing - working behind the scenes. But after attending a community college to take music business classes, she concluded the music biz wasn't her cup of tea and decided to pursue a major in Music Education at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C.

Her goal was to become a teacher, and the notion of music therapy hadn't even occurred to her. But prior to starting fall classes at Appalachian State, a friend coaxed her into taking one last community college course: intro to music therapy.

"I fell in love with it," she says.

Tyrrell also happened to read an article about a music therapist who worked with a woman whose ability to speak was lost due to a stroke. Yet the therapist was able to get her to sing in their sessions, since that is controlled by a different part of the brain than the area that that impacts language. Through music therapy, the woman's speech eventually returned. 

"I looked at that and said, 'That's exactly what I want to do," she recalls. "I want to use music to make people feel better. So when I arrived at Appalachian State, the first thing I did was visit my advisor and ask, 'Hey, you don't have a music therapy program, do you?' "

The advisor promptly informed her eager student that the school was known for having one of the best music therapy programs in the country. Tyrrell switched majors on the spot and, three years later, earned her degree. Along the way, she completed six  "practicums" - including hands-on work with fifth graders with intellectual disabilities and older adults with Alzheimer's - as well as a full, six-month internship at a medical center in Fort Pierce, splitting her time between adult patients and babies in the NICU.

"I had a fantastic internship supervisor who modeled a bunch of situations that I needed to handle and would process with me after my sessions with a patient," Tyrrell says. "She'd say, 'Tell me three things you did well and something you want to improve on next time.' And if I had a really bad session, she'd say, 'Tell me three things you did well and something you want to improve on next time.' My education was fantastic."

Before receiving her music therapy certification, Tyrrell had to pass a board exam that measured her expertise in music theory, guitar and piano playing, sightreading, aural skills and voice - but also questions overlapping nursing, anatomy and psychology. "As music therapists, we're going to have to have some basic knowledge of the body and, say, where certain muscles are," she says. "And there's a mental health component, too. It's a hard test."

In 2011, Tyrrell completed her Florida music therapy certification and immediately went about getting her specialized NICU certification to broaden her range. It was an easy decision, given how much she had enjoyed working with the tiny NICU babies during her internship. She earned her additional credentials through Florida State University in a rigorous weekend training program held in Orlando, but her first job had nothing to do with NICU work.

She was hired as a music therapist in a private pediatric practice in Sarasota. Most of the children she worked with had life-limiting illnesses or autism, and a few had cancer. And many of them had received care at All Children's. One of her co-workers was a child life specialist who was an acquaintance of All Children's Child Life Director Kristin Maier.

She just happened to be looking for a new music therapist.


Tyrrell applied last fall, got called back for a second interview and then was brought in for a hands-on "audition" of sorts. She donned a protective mask and gown and showed up at a hospital room to sing and interact with a sick child.

As it turns out, the patient's parents were also in the room, along with a Child Life specialist on hand to observe the session - and they wore masks and gowns, too. In minutes, she and the entire group were busy singing a lively kids tune. Just then, six more people in masks and gowns entered the room.

Tyrrell assumed they were friends or family members and promptly involved them in singing along - getting them to say their names during a "goodbye" song. That's when she learned they were all doctors, who had stopped by to see the patient - unaware Tyrrell would be there.

"They were on a special team and were just having a blast singing and dancing around," she recalls. "Of all the times for me to have my 'hands-on' session - I couldn't have planned it better if I'd tried."

Maier had no doubt she had the right person for the job.

"When we were recruiting for the job, we were looking for somebody who would be able to grow the position in the NICU, so we wanted somebody with the NICU certification - and we probably had six applicants who met the on-paper criteria," Maier says. "But what I loved about Kelly is I would describe her as the full package.

"She has the ability to communicate and build relationships. She's got that real gentle soul, where she connects with the infants and the families. She's very versatile and can work very effectively with little infants all the way up through our adolescents. And she's well-researched; she knows what's current in the research and can speak to what is music therapy scientifically.

"But she doesn't even need that, because her actions speak louder than any words. And she has just done wonders at the bedside."

Tyrrell, who started in November, couldn't be happier in the job, which is funded by St. Petersburg businessman and music industry executive Bill Edwards.  She bases out of an office on the 7th floor, just outside the hematology and oncology wing. The small room is filled with guitars, ukuleles, percussion instruments and more. In addition to her songbooks, which she constantly fills with new requests from patients, a trusty iPad filled with song lyrics and chords also comes in handy during patient sessions.

"It has been better than I could have imagined - I absolutely love it," she says.  "I love the team and the patients. Even if we're having a rough day, I like that it's hospital policy for us to smile and make eye contact, because it totally changes the atmosphere. And if there's something I think a patient needs, I have yet to have somebody say, 'No, we can't do that.' "

Tyrrell builds her daily schedule on recommendations from Child Life or nurses, who recommend patients for her to see - and develops her own list as well making the rounds. Her day can change at the drop of a hat when a new call or email comes in, suggesting that she stop by a new patient's room or teach worried parents Multi-Modal Stimulation techniques.

Recently she visited a teenage girl who had attempted suicide. The girl didn't want to talk to anyone, but Tyrrell learned that she wrote poems to express how sad or angry she was. "I went in and we basically began putting her lyrics to songs, then recorded them and put them on a CD. She went from 'I don't really know who you are and I don't care' to 'this is great!'  Right as we were doing music, she posted on Facebook something like, 'music therapy is awesome!' Experiences like that are so fantastic."

Scanning her schedule, Tyrrell sees it's time for a visit with a 12-year-old named Michelle, who lost her hair from chemotherapy treatments in advance of a bone marrow transplant. Michelle has been feeling ill all day but perks up when Tyrrell, wearing a mask and gown, arrives with her music cart.

She has worked up Jason Mraz's song," I Won't Give Up," at Michelle's request. And as Tyrrell strums the melody, the young girl sits up on her bed. Oblivious to the maze of tubes and monitors connected to her body, she sings the melody in a soft voice.

"I won't give up on us. Even if the skies get rough...."

She is suddenly lost in the hopeful song, gently accompanied by Tyrrell as another healing moment of music unfolds on the floors of All Children's.

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