Exploring Death, Music, and Spirituality in Field Education: An experiment in collaboration and virtual creativity

Editor’s Note: HDS students have the opportunity to participate in field education, a structured learning experience that combines theory with practice. Students in the MDiv program are required to complete 2 units of field education, however it is optional for MTS students. Due to the pandemic, field education placements were shifted to virtual platforms, as were classes, in the Fall 2020 and Spring 2021. In this post, Julia Reimann MDiv’22, shares her experience thus far completing her field education requirement virtually.  

Post by Julia Reimann MDiv’22 

Photo Courtesy of Julia Reimann

As the start of fall semester 2020 approached, my second year Master of Divinity student self was not looking forward to an entire virtual semester. In particular, I was dreading the prospect of completing my first unit of field education digitally. In the first few months of learning at HDS (when we were able to be in-person), I heard many stories from classmates in field education placements about how they were glad to be actively engaged in and practicing the ideas learned and developed in the classroom; abstract learnings were made tangible in their sites. Months later, as an aspiring chaplain, I feared what would be lost in this new virtual version of graduate school & field education made necessary by the insidiousness of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Through a series of surprising twists and turns, I connected with an amazing field education supervisor (mentor) and HDS alum, Jennifer Hollis, a writer and music-thanatologist, who, by chance, had been collaborating with a group of palliative musicians (therapeutic harpists and music-thanatologists) since March of 2020 to figure out a way to offer virtual music sessions to isolated COVID-19 patients. The group, Harps of Comfort, had recently started offering virtual music sessions for patients at Froedtert Hospital in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and Jen foresaw more work in the coming months and an opportunity to involve a field education student.  

This student-initiated placement has surprised and delighted me in so many ways. Supporting the work of this group of gifted palliative musicians as they collaborate and fill a vital need for COVID patients has been a joy. It has offered consistent weekly gatherings to plan and talk through the next steps in coalescing into a nonprofit as well as much enjoyed face time and learning about collaborative organizing. This work has provided me time to delve into questions of care & healing, presence & distance, and music & silence that fill my time and to learn from their collective years of experience working in end of life care. My work with Harps of Comfort has involved: co-presenting a research poster on Harps of Comfort at the Medical College of Wisconsin’s Community Engagement Poster Session this past fall, attending the Music Thanatology Association International (MTAI) annual conference, researching fiscal sponsors & becoming fiscally sponsored, creating marketing materials, developing a social media presence, and supporting fundraising efforts. 

Podcast cover art by Sarah McRoberts 

Because my work with Harps of Comfort shifts each week, field education has also allowed me to dream up and produce a podcast called, Life in the Liminal. This project has offered me wonderful space to further develop my pastoral voice and investigate the intersections of end of life care, spirituality and music. It has also pushed me to think beyond the bounds of my interests in hospital chaplaincy and explore what additional career paths exist. As a musician, this project has allowed me a container to delve into the question of how to integrate music into my future work in a whole new way. I also have developed a number of new skills in learning how to produce a podcast independently: skills of audio and sound editing, creating impactful pauses with effective musical interludes, and more.  

One final note of delight: in addition to highlighting the work of end of life care professionals in this liminal moment, Life in the Liminal also features the original music of my HDS band, Divine Intervention, and dear friends: Mary Perez (MDiv ‘22), Kate Hoeting (MTS ‘21), Madeline Levy (MTS ‘21), Margaret Hamm (MTS ‘21), and Carolyn Beard (MDiv ‘22). 

In the midst of this ever-present and lingering pandemic, the feeling of joy in making a tangible thing (a podcast) has offered such beauty and learning. To my surprise, learning in the liminal reality of these days and months has been abundant despite the deep disruptions of the pandemic. 

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