Nontraditional Student ‘Plays It Forward’ to Help Patients Through Music


Allison Van Cott believes in the power of music to heal.

Allison Van Cott playing the piano at the hospital.

Allison Van Cott playing the piano at the hospital.

“Music was my sanctuary growing up. As a teacher, I’ve taught that to my students. It’s not about going to Carnegie Hall: it’s about the feeling that music brings you,” Van Cott explains.

Van Cott initially got into Stony Brook in the ‘80s on a piano audition. She hadn’t even done her SATs at the time. “Things were a little different,” she said, laughing. However, she didn’t stay at the University, choosing instead to teach piano lessons for children and to focus on raising her daughter. As a result, she never finished her undergraduate degree.

“I had decided to come back while my daughter was a senior here at Stony Brook. I was so excited, ‘Oh my god, I’m going to college with my daughter,’” she said. “I had never felt more privileged and grateful to be able to have a second chance at being 18 again.”

But her initial return as a nontraditional student didn’t last. After only two months, Van Cott needed to have emergency surgery that took her out of school for another two years. It was her hospital stay that further inspired and motivated her.

“I was going to the hospital a lot and passing by the piano in the lobby, and no one was ever playing it,” she said. “I figured I’m here all the time, so I started playing — they allowed me. And I didn’t realize how much it was really helping me and the other people at the hospital.”

Since then, Van Cott has returned to Stony Brook to finish her degree, this time with a mission to raise awareness of music therapy and to help people through music herself. She started a nonprofit organization, The Play It Forward Project, with the goal to give student musicians the opportunity to play music for hospital patients from anywhere through live-streaming. The organization also aims to educate people on the professional field of music therapy.

“We are going to be doing research, building a social media platform to live-stream to patients and nursing homes, veterans’ homes, rehabilitation centers, anywhere that we can connect to somebody,” she said. “The beauty of it is students would be able to do it in their dorm, in their home.”

The Play It Forward Project will also function as a club on campus soon, so that specifically, Stony Brook students can get involved.

“It will be one of the few clubs that seriously encompasses an interest and important role for almost every different college on campus,” she explained. “Music and medicine are finally coming together, and I just think it’s going to be so cool to have a club where we have pre-med students and musicians working together. I think we can all learn from one another.”

Van Cott hosted a movie screening of “Alive Inside” last semester to educate the campus community further on the power of music to heal. The movie focuses on the positive effect music can have on combating memory loss and returning a sense of self to those suffering with Alzheimer’s.  

“It was outrageously successful and exceeded my expectations. The audience was so moved, they were in tears. I had so many young people come up to me at the end of the film and say, ‘What can I do, how can I help,’” she said. “That’s another thing about doing something like this — it builds a greater sense of empathy.”

Van Cott has first-hand experience to the healing power of music besides her time playing on the hospital lobby’s piano.

“The first patient I did a bedside performance for had suffered a brain injury, and I was playing Pink Floyd’s ‘Comfortably Numb’ for him. It was the most moving experience watching this person who was in a coma, and you could see his monitors reacting to the music, and his eyes were blinking, and he squeezed his sister’s hand,” she said, reminiscing.

Van Cott is hopeful that students who participate in her initiative will have the same rewarding and memorable experience that she has while playing for hospital patients.

To find out more about The Play It Forward Project and music’s therapeutic properties, you can visit the organization’s website, and make sure to keep an eye out for information on meeting times for the club in the spring semester.


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