HeartStrings Strikes A Chord



“All people will experience the profound impact of live classical music, regardless of their level of functioning.”

What a wonderful vision statement for a group of musicians. And that vision has been a reality for years now in Madison. Arguably the best-kept arts secret in our region, the program known as HeartStrings has quickly managed to impact at least seven nations on three continents—and thousands of people who likely couldn’t set foot in a traditional concert hall if they wanted to.

HeartStrings is a community engagement program that brings live, interactive music performances—by some of the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s top musicians—to health care and residential facilities to reach listeners of all ages, most of whom are challenged with physical and emotional disabilities of varying degrees. More than just a series of concerts, these visits have sparked extraordinary cognitive, emotional and physical changes in the audiences they’ve reached, and the impact on the musicians has been equally powerful.

So how did it all begin? First, members of the Madison Symphony Orchestra and educational staff took their art to new audiences. Then they wrote the book on it, or at least they published a hundred-page toolkit.

MSO director of education and community engagement Michelle Kaebisch and then-education assistant Shannon Lobdell coauthored “HeartStrings: A Guide to Music Therapy–Informed Community Engagement for Symphony Orchestras.” The manual covers every aspect of setting up a program that, in the case of the MSO, encompasses ten events per month, at ten different facilities, from September through May.

It is “music therapy-informed” because no licensed music therapist is present at the events—or needs to be. One of the key developers of HeartStrings was Laurie Farnan, a now-retired music therapist who coordinated the music therapy program at the Central Wisconsin Center in Madison from 1975 to 2011. CWC, a state residential and treatment center for people with developmental disabilities, continues to be one of the ongoing venues for HeartStrings, which has touched more than thirty other countywide facilities, running the gamut from children’s hospitals to retirement facilities to community centers, over the years.

Following publication in January 2011, the HeartStrings toolkit quickly caught on—the first copies were purchased by the Weill Music Institute of Carnegie Hall, and today dozens of musical organizations, healthcare facilities and colleges and universities have duplicated or emulated the program in the United States, Canada, Mexico, Germany, Greece, Australia and New Zealand.

Here in Dane County, the HeartStrings mission is carried out by the Rhapsodie Quartet, made up of four strings players who occupy prominent seats in the MSO. Co-concertmaster Suzanne Beia is the lively leader of the group, joined by violinist Laura Burns, principal violist Chris Dozoryst and princial cellist Karl Lavine. Beia does most of the arrangements of the music herself, presenting a different program each month of about fifty-five minutes or so, based on a theme or idea.

A program last year at the nonprofit Mobility Training and Independent Living Program was called Americana. Selections ranged from numbers from West Side Story to songs by Gershwin and Porter. An audience of about twenty MTILP patients attended; virtually all of them used wheelchairs. When they couldn’t easily participate using the sticks, tambourines, egg shakers and other various handheld percussion instruments Beia periodically distributed, their attendants would join in, often touching their patient’s arm or hand.

It can be difficult to detect quick cause-and-effect results in such a setting, yet one could feel the smiles in the room. “At a place like MTILP,” Beia says, “it’s not always easy to see the outward signs of the audience members’ response to our music, but with a few years’ experience, one can learn to observe the more subtle signs—eye contact where previously there was none, a clenched fist relaxes slightly, respiration grows deeper, slower … These small signs have come to mean as much to me as any backstage compliments at a ‘normal’ concert.”

A program a few months later at the Agrace Hospice & Palliative Care had a different feel. Invitation to the Dance was enlivened not only by Beia’s irrepressible energy, but also by an accompanying slideshow showing pictures of tangos, waltzes and gigues. About a half-dozen patients attended, along with family members and a couple of staff personnel. For an outside observer, the growing sense of life-affirming energy transcended any usual concert hall event. But how do the players process the fact that one or more of their listeners on this day will probably not be there when the Rhapsodie Quartet returns the next month?

A couple of days after the Agrace performance, Beia provided an answer that also gave great insight into the many ways HeartStrings is able to touch lives in so many different circumstances.

“When I first heard about this new program the symphony was starting to develop, I was the first to be skeptical,” she says. “What good could my skills contribute, I wondered, to these people whose needs seemed so much more basic than music? But, as I began to observe the reactions and responses of the audiences we played for, my skepticism slowly began to change into conviction, then passion for the HeartStrings mission … My work with HeartStrings reminds me, on a daily basis, of the difference music can make in people’s lives. The opportunity to provide a woman with advanced dementia the joy of recognizing a beloved and familiar melody from her childhood in Vienna; the attempt to reach inside the mind of an autistic boy, forging a connection through music between the outside world and the beautiful spirit locked within. I am aware when I play at Agrace—when I play anywhere, actually—that that performance might be the last music that someone will hear on this earth, and keeping this awareness in the back of my mind helps to keep me in the moment, and reminds me to fill each performance with as much emotion and love as I possibly can.”

Overture Center and the UW–Madison campus might be the first places that come to mind when one thinks of the power of great music in Madison, but be reminded that the eternal spark-of-life quality in music is happening in and around our city—in places where “bravo” and “thank you” seem more inadequate than ever when the playing stops.