DURHAM — They can calm anxious Alzheimer's patients and help preteen cancer victims forget that fifth needle of the day - or the fact that they haven't seen their friends and classmates in months.
Music therapists are even credited with helping U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona learn to speak again by helping rewire her bullet-damaged brain.
The profession still has a low profile, but it's rising after the publicity surrounding Giffords' case and a nationwide push to create state licensing for music therapists.
The licensing has been approved in three states and is under consideration in a dozen more, including North Carolina. Rep. Verla Insko, a Democrat from Chapel Hill, introduced a bill last year to create a licensing board and believes it has a good chance of passing this spring.
There are about 160 music therapists in the state, including some who work in the children's wings of Triangle hospitals and in rest homes and psychiatric wards and in hospice work. The training is rigorous.
But despite mounting scientific evidence of the effectiveness of their work and a growing legion of admirers among doctors, nurses and patients, music therapists are still struggling to educate people about the serious nature of their work. The proposed licensing standards would require a four-year degree from an accredited program, at least 1,200 hours of clinical training and an exam administered by a national certification board.
Just the chance to make presentations to legislators about the profession felt like a victory of sorts, said Lauren DiMaio, a music therapist from Asheville who heads the committee of the N.C. Music Therapy Association that's trying to get licensing approved.
"My hope is that it passes, of course, but if nothing else, at least we're pleased with all the educating we have been doing," she said.
"People are beginning to get a better understanding of what we do."
There's not much educating required once you see a music therapist work, said Newell Price of Greensboro, whose son Dylan, 14, is 13 months into on-again, off-again treatment at UNC's N.C. Children's Hospital for a rare and aggressive form of leukemia.
He was diagnosed Jan. 1, 2011. Not long afterward, music therapist Elizabeth Fawcett walked into his room and started talking with him about music. He told her he had hoped to start learning guitar in 2011.
And that's what he did, with her help.
Throughout a hard year of illness, recovery and illness again, she became the part of his week that he knew he could look forward to, Newell Price said.
When the chemotherapy made even his hands hurt, Dylan would reluctantly tell her that he couldn't do his guitar lesson. Instead, they would work on a song they wrote together.
"The guitar gave him purpose," Newell Price said. "It was fun, but it was a lot more than just having fun.
"He wasn't in control of many things, but it gave him something he had control over, something he could look forward to every day, something he could show her progress on, and even something that he could accomplish and show to his friends."
Dylan received a bone marrow transplant late last year and so far is cancer-free. He's still playing the guitar and amazing his friends, though he'll have to live in Chapel Hill awhile for follow-up visits to the hospital.
Fawcett splits her time between pediatric patients - most with cancer - and the psychiatric ward, where she does morning programs for patients who mainly suffer from Alzhiemer's.
UNC bumped her to full-time this summer after it became clear that the sessions for psychiatric patients were noticeably improving their behavior and quality of life.
She is the rare music therapist in the area who is considered officially part of the hospital staff. She also runs a private practice one day a week.
In part because the profession is still relatively young, many music therapists have to piece together incomes from several sources.
At Duke University Health System, music therapist Tray Batson works as a part-time contractor funded by grants and donations. He also is a music teacher at two area schools and has a band, Baron von Rumblebuss, that has cut two albums of children's music.
Batson said he would love to become part of the staff at the medical center, not just for the steadier pay, but also because he could gain full access to patient records, which would allow him to better design their therapy.
Dr. Joanne Kurtzberg, chief of Duke's Division of Pediatric Blood and Marrow Transplantation, feels so strongly about the effects of Batson's work that she helps raise the $23,000 a year to pay him. Sometimes parents are so happy with the effects on their children that they donate.
When Batson starts working with an apprehensive kid who is getting a painful procedure, he makes music a kind of drug, Kurtzberg said.
"It essentially distances them from whatever procedure they're about to get," she said. "He's really remarkable, because he can judge what kind of music is going to work, and it essentially becomes a form of sedation.
"Whatever we have him involved in always works more smoothly," she said.
Appalachian State University, East Carolina University and Queens College in Charlotte offer degrees in music therapy. There are now about 150 students at those schools, DiMaio said, and by helping make the work more viable the state could keep more of them in North Carolina.
DiMaio said it was important for the state to set standards and prevent those without training from claiming they offer proper therapy.
In Asheville, she said, one musician advertised therapeutic services and indicated that because she wasn't a fully trained music therapist, she was cheaper.
Also in Asheville, a local man is claiming that he can heal cancer through his music therapy, DiMaio said.
"It's Asheville, and there are all these interesting people around here who want to play music for people, and that's great, and I'm glad, but it's not music therapy," she said.
Last spring the bill was endorsed by the legislative Joint Committee on New Licensing and went to the House health committee.
Insko said it had bipartisan support in the joint committee and that there was no reason it shouldn't pass this session, especially since costs associated with the three-person board that would license and regulate the therapists would be covered by license fees.
"You have people going around presenting themselves as music therapists and charging people for it, and it's really the responsibility of the state to protect the public by setting a standard so that when our people are provided with what is supposed to be a therapeutic service, that's what they get," Insko said.
Newell Price said there was no doubt in his mind that's exactly what music provides when it comes from therapists like Elizabeth Fawcett
"The kids don't even have to be interested in music like Dylan," he said. "Just walking around, I've seen her with other kids, singing or playing, and it just puts a smile on their face. And this is a place where it's hard to find smiles sometimes."