Listen up: Volunteer musicians hit a high note when their talents boost, heal spirits

Nineteen-year-old Isabella Gabrovsky, in her blue volunteer's coat and white slacks, made her way recently to a room on the sixth floor of the medical center, lightly tapping on the door and entering. To the surprise of the recovering heart transplant patient inside, she said, "I'm Isabella, a volunteer singer here, and if you'd like, I'd like to sing for you."

The patient smiled and nodded, not knowing what to expect.

What followed was a rendition of Moon River, sung by the UCLA junior with the confidence and charm of a seasoned pro. For the next few hours, Isabella moved along the long corridors, serenading those who wished to hear her or respectfully stepping away if, for any reason, her offer of music was declined. On another afternoon, on the eighth floor, Rick Penn-Kraus strummed his guitar as he made his way to a nurses’ station. "Anyone you think would like some music this afternoon?" he asked. The RNs on duty, familiar with his talents, suggested he visit two rooms. One patient, they knew, was a bit depressed after major surgery, and the other hadn't had any visitors and might like some cheering up.

Penn-Kraus, a professional musician and a creative arts director, made his way to the first room, introduced himself and with the patient's approval, he sang a lively number with guitar accompaniment. The patient's face brightened, and he asked for more. What musician doesn't like an encore request? Penn-Kraus glided into Sittin’ On the Dock of the Bay. "You're great," the patient said with applause and a smile.

While other volunteer musicians take their talents to patients, Marvin Smalley’s audience – patients, family members, hospital staff and other visitors and guests – comes to him: He plays the grand piano in the Plaza Level Lobby, next to the Fletcher Benton sculpture Bronze Yellow Phase 3. He relaxes for his weekly performances, sitting at the keyboard for 1.5 to two hours, and, as he says, "Let’s go."

Smalley, a retired plumbing equipment manufacturer, has a repertoire of almost 100 songs, mostly popular tunes from the ’40s and ’50s but including more contemporary hits. His performances prompt many compliments and much gratitude from listeners, because, as a volunteer at the nearby Information Desk observes, "His music creates a soothing atmosphere here."

"If I can make other people happy, it's what it's all about," he says.

‘A different kind of medicine’

These three musicians play key roles in the Music for Healing program, which is part of Volunteer Services at Cedars Sinai Medical Center. With more than 2,700 participants, Volunteer Services is one of the most robust of its kind at any academic medical center in the nation. Volunteers provide almost 220,000 hours of service to Cedars-Sinai annually and, on average, stay with the program for four years. Each Music for Healing artist donates an average of two hours a week, fitting in uplifting performances as their own schedules allow.

While music, with its power to move us emotionally, long has been known to comfort the afflicted, modern researchers have taken greater note of the medical virtues of melodies. Decades of studies have shown that, in addition to easing chronic pain, music can help lower blood pressure, reduce anxiety, improve depression and even help stroke patients regain speech.

"Music simply is a different kind of medicine," says Barbara Leanse, director of Volunteer Services.

Tammi Weinstein Wise, coordinator of the Music for Healing program, adds: "Every patient has concerns that can't be met by traditional medicine, and the music volunteers are trained to deal with these emotional challenges."

Musician volunteers, she says, honor patients’ sometimes-difficult experiences, knowing with compassion that "when music does bring a patient to tears, it's part of the healing process."

Sharing their gifts provides dramatic returns, too, for the volunteers who can see how their talents help others.

Penn-Kraus says he's often gone into rooms where patients await pain medication: "Then I start playing a song, and when I'm done, they often tell me that the pain is gone."

Dorian Christian Baucum, pictured above right, is a pharmacist and a volunteer vocalist. "In the pharmacy," Baucum says, "there is a professional obstacle between me and the patient. But when I walk into a patient's room as an artist, I can immediately break through that barrier and connect in a powerful way."

A good ear

Prospective volunteers for Cedars-Sinai’s music program discover quickly that their roles go far beyond performing in the medical center. Talk to program veterans, and they’ll tell you they learn how to adapt to the care-giving setting – sanitizing their hands when entering rooms to perform, sometime donning yellow infection-protection gear and blue plastic gloves. They appreciate that the acoustics of a hospital room can be surprisingly pleasing. And they know that if their art can comfort patients, even the most formidable concert stage might seem tamer.

Sometimes, too, they don’t sing or play. They just sit at bedsides and provide a compassionate ear.

Their service is not only welcome, it’s in growing need, Leanse notes. "We are grateful for the gift of time and care that each and every volunteer shares with us at Cedars-Sinai," she says. "Because our musical volunteers possess such talent, many of them fit their volunteer efforts in and around professional appearances, performances and concertizing. Our patients and community appreciate them so much, though, that we’re always looking for the very special combination of musical ability, taste and compassion that works for us here at Cedars-Sinai.

Una O'Donovan, a classical harpist, pictured right, recalls that when she started volunteering, she assumed she would play and make everyone feel better. "Now," she says, "I understand that it's a multidimensional process. I try to bring the artistry of the music, the psychology of what's needed at the moment – energy, spirituality and my own intuition – to the patient so they can be healed by the doctors and the nurses."

Vocalist Gabrovsky observes: "For me, singing for a patient is a highly personal thing, and it can be quite emotional. A song can give a patient an excuse to cry, and often, when that happens, I cry, too."

There are times, though, when there is humor. A man in his early 50s, recovering from transplant surgery in which he received the heart of a 24-year-old accident victim, teased the young lady. "My heart could date you," he says with a grin.

This article was written by Norman Sklarewitz, a former foreign correspondent and a volunteer with Cedars-Sinai.

Click here to learn more about volunteer opportunities at Cedars-Sinai.