Can virtual songwriting help seriously ill children and their families?

Vanderbilt researchers are prolific and resolute in their pursuit of transformative research and innovation. During the pandemic, more than 3,000 Vanderbilt research personnel have returned to in-person research activities, while many others have continued remotely through perseverance and ingenuity. On campus and at home, they are making discoveries that advance knowledge and improve lives. 

Associate Professor Terrah AkardThe story below is part of a series highlighting the impact of the Research Ramp-down and Ramp-up processes and the various ways Vanderbilt researchers and their teams have persisted in their work throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. This and other compelling stories in the series are by Jenna Somers.

Terrah Akard, associate professor at the School of Nursing, experienced a research obstacle that evolved into an opportunity. She and her team are conducting a study to examine the feasibility of a family songwriting intervention for 5- to 17-year-old children with serious illnesses and their family members. The team planned to begin enrollment in spring 2020, but the study was paused due to COVID-19 restrictions. During that time, they adapted their protocol to deliver the intervention entirely via Zoom, and the study is now ongoing with completely remote delivery research methods, allowing families to safely participate from their homes.

Through four Zoom sessions over three weeks, about 25 families will be enrolled with a board-certified music therapist who will guide parents to write song lyrics about their child. A final music DVD will be created for each family by incorporating musical accompaniment, photographs and video of child and family interactions. The audio will include song lyrics sung independently by family members or with help from the music therapist, and audio recordings of the child’s physiology (e.g. verbalizations and respirations).

Akard’s team will measure the efficacy of the intervention through parent surveys about the child’s psychological distress and physical symptoms, parent psychological distress, and family environment before and after the intervention.

Determining how to effectively deliver music therapy via songwriting using Zoom, particularly for children with serious health conditions, was one of the biggest challenges of going remote. Akard credits the members of the study team, including music therapists Dana Kim and Rylie Webber, for their leadership and expertise in troubleshooting technological challenges and refining the intervention for utmost efficacy, all while prioritizing the safety of families during the pandemic.

Preliminary feedback from parents suggests that the remote songwriting intervention is not only feasible, but also convenient for the children and their families. Akard’s team will test the effects of the intervention by expanding the study nationwide through social media recruitment.

“This study is about enhancing life for these incredible children and their families,” Akard said. “To join them in a small part of their journey or hear from them that this project was helpful in some way is beyond rewarding for me and my team.”

If you or someone you know has a child with a serious illness, they might be eligible for the study. Email for more information.