Music belongs to everyone — which is the reason violinists Suzanne Beia and Laura Burns, violist Christopher Dozoryst and cellist Karl Lavine are out and about on a chilly winter afternoon, heading to the Central Wisconsin Center with their instruments and a thick folder of music.
The musicians make up the string quartet HeartStrings, an outreach program of the Madison Symphony Orchestra. Since 2006 the group has made the rounds of nursing homes, retirement centers, the children’s hospital, family resource centers and facilities for people with developmental disabilities such as Central Wisconsin Center to perform a live, interactive program grounded in the principles of music therapy.
HeartStrings’ mission is “to serve different populations and communities that typically couldn’t go to see concerts on a regular basis,” cellist Lavine said shortly before that afternoon’s audience arrived, mostly in wheelchairs or beds that were wheeled in. “Today’s a very different type of group we’d play for than tomorrow or the next day.”
HeartStrings has been so successful it earned MSO a $65,000 Society for the Arts in Healthcare grant from Johnson & Johnson to publish a guidebook for orchestras around the world that would like to copy its model.
“Most recipients of this program are unlikely to ever attend a performance in the concert hall,” Michelle Kaebisch, MSO’s director of education and community engagement, wrote in her introduction to the 104-page guide. “HeartStrings has uniquely positioned itself to bring meaningful, high-caliber arts experiences directly to participants in comfortable and familiar locations.”
HeartStrings programs tend to last 45 minutes to an hour. Each centers on a theme that allows the group to play a wide variety of musical styles, from classical and pop music to jazz standards and Broadway tunes. The quartet’s “Around the World” program, for example, includes “The Blue Danube,” “Appalachia Waltz,” “New York, New York,” and a tango.
“We’re allowed to have fun, right?,” said Dozoryst, who also is principal violist for the MSO. “There’s also an interactive component to what we do. As opposed to having people just sit and listen, we have them play along to the best of their ability with small percussive instruments, (such as) shakers or handbells they can ring. We get them in on the act.”
Along with the four to six HeartStrings performances they do each week, the quartet’s musicians all have work calendars filled with performing, teaching and coaching other groups. Since HeartStrings’ founding, the group’s hours have increased — from performing six months of the year at eight locations to concerts nine months of the year at 13 locations.
HeartStrings recently expanded to serve children with autism and Down syndrome, said violinist Beia, who arranges much of the group’s music and serves as emcee for many of its relaxed, informal performances. The quartet plays pieces that are only a few minutes long, and always ends with music that leaves a sense of peace.
“Often in that final moment after 45 minutes, you can hear a pin drop, it’s so calm,” she said.
A recent afternoon visit to the Central Wisconsin Center drew audience members from across the center’s campus, including staff from the business office, the lab and social work department, said Jan Holling, the center’s director.
“It’s just such a wonderful ending to your day,” she said. Often, parents and guardians of the people whom the center serves drop by for the concerts, “and it’s a really nice time for them to interact with their child.”
Music as physical therapy
Laurie Farnan, a music therapist who is retired from the center, returns for every HeartStrings concert. She said she often witnesses both physical and emotional reactions to the music — as when one man smiled and lifted his posture in response to a performance of “Stardust.”
Sitting more erect “makes it easier for him to interact with people, see what’s going on and participate in life,” Farnan said. “So we see a change in respiration rate, deep breaths, a change in positioning, different eye contact, eyes open, head up — all of those things are huge accomplishments for some people.
“People here in wheelchairs have a two-hour limit in their chairs to prevent the occurrence of pressure sores. A two-hour window doesn’t get you downtown to a concert and back,” she said. “So them coming to us allows the quality of the music — which is outstanding — to come right here, and for more people and more families to participate.”
The work is gratifying for HeartStrings’ musicians because of the connections they make with their audience members, said Lavine, who also is principal cellist with the MSO.
On a visit to a memory-care facility, for example, “We had a lady who had remembrances that nobody had heard about, triggered by us playing ‘Blue Danube,’” he said. It turns out the woman spent her childhood in Vienna, a fact previously unknown to much of the staff.
“It’s a whole different type of connection that we experience,” he said.