Roosevelt alumna Allegra Montanari believes her cello has power. Convinced its beauty and sound can resonate beyond auditoriums and concert halls, the 2012 graduate of Chicago College of Performing Arts (CCPA) is using the instrument to reach people confronting serious illness.
“Do you know what this is made of?” Montanari asked recently, extending the bow of her cello to a three-year-old girl in a wheelchair at La Rabida Children’s Hospital in Chicago.
“It’s from a horse – made from horse hair,” the cellist says to the child, who is suffering from a condition that requires she be fed through a tube in order to be able to absorb life-giving nutrients. Taking one of the child’s hands, and guiding it under her own, Montanari and the girl position the bow, its taut ribbon touching the cello’s strings, until the sounds of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” emanate from the instrument.
Among five little ones wheeled into La Rabida’s sundeck lounge for an early evening performance by the cellist and two student flutists from CCPA, the little girl is all smiles and giggles — until the bow and music stop.
“One more song,” she says, as if to bring the music and its musicians back into action for an encore. “One more song. One more song. One more song.”
That is as good an introduction as any for Musicians in Action, CCPA’s new volunteer music corps, which performs regularly at several Chicago-area hospitals. Started a year ago by Montanari, the growing initiative aims to share the comforting and healing sound of music with the sick and those who care for the sick, most of whom don’t have the time, ability or inclination to get out for live performances.
“Music is special. It has power, life and spirituality,” said Montanari, who came up with the idea for a performance-giving organization while working on her Master of Music in Cello Performance at CCPA.
Trained by veteran Roosevelt cello instructor John Sharp, who is also principal cello for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO), Montanari has wanted to be a professional cellist since buying her own cello while in high school. This winter she landed her first professional job, a two-month position with the cello section of the Sarasota Opera Orchestra in Florida.
“Allegra is a terrific cellist and a terrific musician whose passion for music is quite strong,” remarked Sharp. “She’s also able to communicate and follow through on a business level, which aren’t qualities you often find in musicians,” he said.
So strong is Montanari’s commitment to music that she recognized, after attending Indiana University as an undergraduate and then as a graduate student at Roosevelt, that there wasn’t enough emphasis on the importance of sharing music outside the concert-hall setting.
“If you want to be a serious artist, you have to give back to those who might not otherwise hear your music,” said Montanari. “I believe giving back helps create balance for those who are engaged in a craft that is intensely competitive and highly focused on the individual.”
Montanari began looking at what professional musicians’ groups were doing with outreach in order to formulate a plan. “I came to the conclusion that music is a gift that’s meant for others and it’s something that we, as college musicians, need to be giving,” said Montanari, who shared her idea shortly before graduating with CCPA Dean Henry Fogel.
A veteran performing arts administrator who has headed the CSO and the League of American Orchestras, Fogel readily embraced the idea, recognizing its potential for CCPA, its students and the community. “In today’s world, professional musicians need to do more if they are to succeed than just sit on a stage and play,” said Fogel. “They need to know how to engage with people, and that’s what makes this initiative so exciting. It also fulfills the University’s mission of social justice and it fits perfectly with a trend in which orchestras and chamber-music organizations everywhere are placing more emphasis on community engagement activities.”
Recently at Northwestern Memorial Hospital’s Prentice Hospital, baritone Gabriel Di Gennaro and soprano Sara Schabas, both graduate vocal performance students at CCPA, performed a medley of pop songs because bone-marrow transplant candidate Jim Rinehardt mentioned he enjoyed songs like “The Summer Wind,” “The Way You Look Tonight,” “Fever” and “For Once in My Life.”
“Music is special. It has power, life and spirituality.”
“There are a lot of things with healing power,” Rinehardt remarked as he watched from a visitor’s lounge inside the hospital’s cancer ward. “There is faith in God, faith in yourself, faith in friends, your doctors, your nurses, and there is music,” he said, taking photos while wearing the plastic gloves that protect his low-immunity system from total devastation.
“It’s uplifting. It gets your mind off things you don’t want to think of,” he said. “And even though so many here can’t get out of bed, I tell as many as I can: ‘Open your door and listen. You can hear a concert. It’s positive for your attitude and maybe even your outcome.’”
Hearing the music while making his rounds through the cancer ward, Steven Newman, senior attending physician in hematology oncology at Prentice, had no doubt about the group’s positive effect.
“What’s not to like?” he said, pausing in the lounge to listen. “Anything you can do to lift patients’ spirits is good. If you can make them feel calm and engage them in some way, it’s going to make them feel better,” the doctor said.
“It might seem like these kids need us, but I feel like I’m the one who needs them. Their energy is just fantastic. It’s truly a blessing.”
Rolando Hernandez, musicians in action
The group’s music also has been a delight for nurses and other caretakers who regularly focus on the needs of the sick, no matter the mood or the prognosis.
“We have clowns who come by and really inspire our children with valuable therapy,” said Julie Catarello, charge nurse at La Rabida Children’s Hospital. “But this is something a little different,” she said as the little ones bobbed, clapped and swayed in their wheelchairs to selections from Mary Poppins and Johann Sebastian Bach’s Minuet in G Major. “It’s something the kids can interact with. We really need to do this more often.”
Laura Block, a post-graduate flute performance student at CCPA, reached that conclusion, too, after playing the Irish ballad Danny Boy. “I was amazed that such a simple tune could evoke such memory and emotion,” said Block, whose rendition of the song in the Prentice Hospital cancer ward was particularly moving for one of the patients.
“The experience reminded me that music has a lot of power. It touches lives,” said Block, who has become a regular volunteer with Musicians in Action.
Adriana Triggs, who will receive a Master’s in Music in violin performance from Roosevelt in May, joined the group because she had previously accompanied her mother, a breast cancer survivor, to a hospital in Orange, Calif., for chemotherapy treatments.
After playing Cesar Franck’s Panis Angelicus, which brought another Prentice patient to tears, and a Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart duet with her husband and viola player, Phillip Triggs, the CCPA student regretted that she hadn’t performed in a hospital years earlier.
“If I ever move back to California, I would like to start something like this at the hospital where my mom was treated. It would mean a lot to me,” Triggs said.
Being a part of Musicians in Action also is having an impact on CCPA student musicians from other parts of the world.
“This is the first time that I’ve ever been able to do something like this, and I’m really excited about it,” said Rolando Hernandez, a Costa Rica native and graduate flute performance student who joined Block and Montanari recently in the sundeck lounge at La Rabida.
Beaming at the three-year old’s request for “One more song, one more song, one more song,” Hernandez confided: “It might seem like these kids need us, but I feel like I’m the one who needs them. Their energy is just fantastic. It’s truly a blessing.”
For her part, Montanari plans to form additional partnerships with Chicago-area hospitals and music organizations so that Musicians in Action can continue to bring music to patients and hospital employees.Roosevelt student flutist Laura Block shows her flute to a child at La Rabida.
“We hope this initiative will become a model for community engagement at the college level, and this is an important first step toward that goal,” said Linda Berna, associate dean of CCPA’s Music Conservatory.
During a recent performance break at Prentice, Montanari extended her cello to Jean Griffin, whose husband was dying of cancer in a hospital room in the ward. “I’ve never seen anyone play this kind of instrument before. How did you find it?” asked Griffin, who was thankful to be able to take a moment away from worry and grief to just relax.
“It’s from the 1890s, but I bought it when I was a junior in high school,” said Montanari, encouraging Griffin to touch the cello’s strings. “When you’re getting a musical instrument,” the cellist added, “it’s kind of like finding a mate.”
“It’s well worth it,” Griffin replied, taking her hand away so that Montanari and other members of Musicians in Action could perform again for the audience of patients, family members and hospital staff gathered in the visitor’s lounge.
“You play so beautifully – every one of you,” Griffin told the group. “It will always be a positive memory for me of these days spent in the hospital.”