Throughout the years, numerous studies have been conducted to demonstrate the healing power of music.
From the therapeutic effects it has on cancer patients to patients with varying levels of brain disease, music has proven to be an effective method to aid those in the process of healing. Sharing Notes, a local nonprofit that focuses on playing music to hospital patients, capitalizes on these powerful effects. The four-year-old organization, founded by Allegra Montanari in 2012, sends volunteer musicians to hospitals to perform for patients around the city. With the hopes to expand to more facilities, Sharing Notes primarily serves Lurie Children’s Hospital, Northwestern Memorial Hospital and La Rabida Children’s Hospital.
Throughout the years, numerous studies have been conducted to demonstrate the healing power of music.
Contrary to my first instinct, Montanari had virtually no experience in the service learning industry when the idea of starting Sharing Notes was conceived. She had been a student at the Chicago College of Performing Arts when, frustrated by a lack of community engagement projects for students in the arts, she decided to put on her own performance for cancer patients at Prentice Women’s Hospital. The performance was a success, and new partnerships between Sharing Notes and the hospitals they serve was created and subsequently flourished. Sharing Notes volunteers now play music for patients of varying ages and illnesses in the hopes of garnering an uplifting environment in even the most gravest times. However, the assistant director of Sharing Notes, Laura Block, stresses that the organization does not claim to be an official method of healing. In fact, the volunteers play for patients in all levels of recovery, even those who are terminally ill and in hospice care. Sharing Notes only serves as a vessel to provide laughter, hope and a collective appreciation of music for those who truly need it.
CUSP Magazine sat with Laura Block to talk about the Sharing Notes’ powerful combination of music and community engagement.
Q&A – CUSP Magazine & Sharing Notes
CUSP Magazine: When was Sharing Notes started?
Laura Block: Sharing Notes started four years ago when our executive director, Allegra Montanari, was getting restless, finishing up her degree at the Chicago College of Performing Arts (CCPA) at Roosevelt University. She felt like she was only performing for other students and wasn’t taking all this music practice she’d been doing out into the community. So, she decided to organize one performance at Prentice Women’s Hospital for cancer patients. From that, it grew and became its own nonprofit, and now we do six performances a month.
CM: As a Roosevelt alum, I’m very familiar with the school’s strong mission of social justice. Did that have anything to do with why Allegra decided to start Sharing Notes?
LB: It definitely seemed like a good tie-in, and it’s definitely part of why we still have a good relationship with CCPA even though we’re outside of it now. It does seem like the social justice mission wasn’t connecting to the arts students as much, so we think we’re really bringing that to them.
CM: When did you start working at Sharing Notes?
LB: Mid summer [of 2012]. It was the fourth performance for the cancer patients, and then I went to the second ever performance at the Children’s Hospital. I joined up pretty early and became one of the repeat volunteers who was around a lot. I kind of became the de facto bookkeeper. Word was just spreading around Roosevelt. It was completely within the student body when it started.
CM: Can you talk about the evolution of Sharing Notes from when it started to what it is now?
LB: We just started out with one performance a month. We were looking for a different experience for volunteers and just to find another place to go. One of the board members at Roosevelt suggested we check out La Rabida Children’s Hospital. It turned out to be a perfect fit, and we now visit twice a week. We just love going there.
CM: What were the initial reactions of the hospitals when you first reached out to them?
LB: They were all interested. It’s sort of a different level between small hospitals like La Rabida and the huge mammoth that is the Northwestern Memorial Hospital campus [in terms of] how much they could initially help us and be supportive. We definitely get a really individualized amount of feedback from La Rabida. They can tell us what ages of kids will be there the day we’re coming, so we can plan what music to bring. We get great communication with their staff there. At Northwestern, we’ve found ways since we started. Now we work with chaplains to get more detailed info and to be able to know where to go. They know their individual patients on the floor when we visit.
CM: Say I’m a volunteer and I wanted to do something with Sharing Notes. What does that process look like?
LB: We start by accepting volunteer applications, and we ask for a recording. If they’re at Roosevelt and they’re an incoming student, we have a week where we’ll have them come in and play a couple of pieces and interview with us. That way we can place them in the hospital that will be the best fit. We have a little bit of volunteer training, mostly to deal with sensitivity in the hospital. If we’re going to the Children’s Hospital, it’s a little more detailed because we play games with the kids, so you kind of learn the whole program. Usually, you would trail a staff member or an experienced volunteer the first time. And then there’s always a staff member onsite at the hospitals to help out and guide the volunteers around.
CM: Typically, what kind of musicians are coming in?
LB: It’s expanded since we started. We now have some folk musicians, some [classic and indie] rock, singer/songwriter types have started. We had a couple of flamenco guitarists, and we have an in with the Irish music scene. One of our singers brings her Irish music friends all the time. We can bring a real variety, it’s not the same classical pieces every other week at the hospital.
CM: Are there ever any special events?
LB: Every year on June 21, there’s the Make Music Chicago Festival, which is a big outdoor music festival. We started bringing that into the hospital, so we’ll try to visit all of our hospitals or do a special event at one of our hospitals on that day. This past year, in honor of World Rare Disease Day, we worked with another organization called Harmony For Hope and did an iPod drive and donated iPods to the children of La Rabida, so they now have a collection of 20 devices that they can lend out to inpatients.
CM: What’s the experience of playing in hospital environments like?
LB: Each of the hospitals is a little bit different. I guess if I were to go into Prentice Women’s Hospital for the cancer patients, it can be a little strange at first. It’s these empty hallways, and you’re used to being onstage with an audience you can see, but many of the patients aren’t mobile, so they would have to be kind of in their individual rooms. But you’ll start playing and maybe you’ll see a couple of heads start poking out. People’s visitors who are there will welcome you. And then you’ll go to the door and see if they want a special song just for them. Usually when I’m there, I’ll get special requests.
Laura – “The best is when we know we’re distracting somebody who really needs it. No matter when we go, people are always surprised. It’s just an interesting break from the day, and they get to come up and talk to us. We have nothing to do with their medical treatment, we’re not medical [people], we’re not even family who know what’s going on. We’re just there, and we talk about music with them.”
CM: So it’s all been generally well received by the patients?
LB: Definitely. The best is when we know we’re distracting somebody who really needs it. No matter when we go, people are always surprised. It’s just an interesting break from the day, and they get to come up and talk to us. We have nothing to do with their medical treatment, we’re not medical [people], we’re not even family who know what’s going on. We’re just there, and we talk about music with them.
CM: What does a typical day look like for a Sharing Notes hospital visit?
LB: It’s always different, depending on the different kids we have. Usually at La Rabida, we’ll rehearse in advance and prepare some games and songs. For about the first half hour, we’ll go room to room and visit specific kids. They do transition care for babies who are in the ICU and are transitioning from being able to go home, so often they can’t leave their cribs. We’ll play one or two songs for them. At the end, every kid who is able will come down to the playroom area and we’ll do games, fun, singalongs, whatever they’re up for. We’ll probably play “Let It Go” from Frozen four or five times. [The visits are usually] 60 to 90 minutes, depending on what the kids are up for.
CM: Does Sharing Notes have any plans to expand or have a physical space?
LB: We want to keep adding hospitals as much as we can. Right now, we visit all three of our hospitals every other week, so we have considered moving it to every week. We definitely want to add another hospital next year. We haven’t really talked about getting space anytime soon, but it would be great to have a rehearsal space sometime in the future.
CM: What makes Sharing Notes unique to other organizations or volunteers who do this kind of work?
LB: Other organizations do little bits of what we do. But, we’re really the only organization that trains volunteer musicians to do this work. Also, we’re the only ones that do this volume of hospital performances. We’re going to do 75 this year. Most arts groups mainly perform other places and maybe go to a hospital once or twice a year. So, we’re really building relationships with the patients who are in long-term and with the staff and with the hospitals themselves. They expect us and know we’ll be there, and the nurses can say to [their patients], “There’ll be music tomorrow, is there anything you want to hear in particular?”
CM: Is there something you feel you provide specifically to Chicago as an entity?
LB: I guess any major city would have this many different hospitals as options, but [Chicago] has really fantastic music schools. Pulling those music students and finding a way to give back using their primary talent makes this a great place for that.
CM: How would you describe the Sharing Notes experience for the patients?
LB: Our main goal is not to do therapy in any way, it’s just to give a mental break to patients. We’re really not involved with the medical process at all, we’re just bringing in outside visitors and fun — especially for the kids. It’s all about fun, but there are other benefits too. The staff can watch the kids moving to the music. They might see some nonverbal kids reacting, and they can really see how their recovery is going. For the cancer patients and cardiac care patients, it can vary depending on their condition, but we might just be providing a little music during chemo, or we might be performing for a family who has gathered in an end of life situation. It’s not even just for the patients, it’s also for the visitors and sometimes for the staff. I recently performed at the cardiac care units, and when I got there a staff member said, “I’m so glad you’re here, we really need this today.” I heard from them later that one of their patients had really enjoyed the music and was much easier to deal with the rest of the day. And all the staff was really happy. That’s kind of our goal, to change the hospital atmosphere.
CM: Is there anyone you think we should reach out to?
LB: One of our amazing young musician volunteers is about to release his 11th album this month. His name is Brett Stewart, and he’s a rock/folk songwriter who records under the name Rivers Rubin. The Chicago branch of the national organization Opera on Tap presents fun and accessible opera showcases at the Red Line Tap in Rogers Park, supporting the organization’s mission of getting opera out into the community.
For more information about Sharing Notes and to show support for their amazing mission, make sure to visit their website and follow them on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.