For our second installment of Student Arts Contributor of the Month, we’re spotlighting BC’s Music Guild and their volunteer program at Franciscan Hospital for Children. As part of our mission to support the arts on campus, every month the Arts Council blog is featuring BC students who are making a significant contribution to the arts beyond the classroom. Whether it’s volunteering, raising awareness, getting published, or just making some seriously cool art, we want to acknowledge the artistic endeavors of our students both on and off campus. The Music Guild are November’s SACM for their bi-monthly performances with pediatric mental health patients, who are battling self-harm tendencies and suicidal ideation. And I say “with,” because these performances are all about interaction, as the Guild’s John Guzzi, Matt Lipari, and Alex Navarro explained during a chat over coffee in Hillside.
What’s the day-to-day experience for these children?
John: The unit works a lot like dorms — double rooms, a lounge. But they’re not allowed TV, the internet has so many filters on it you can’t go anywhere, and they jam the cell phone signal, so the idea is that everybody is focused on themselves and the relationships with people there. They don’t get very many chances to go home on weekends to see their family. Occasionally the family can take them out to dinner, but even that’s not very often. The whole point is to just make it as quiet as possible, and keep away any of the triggers that were causing their behavior. They take everything away and then slowly add things back in a way that they can deal with.
We recently interviewed Alumna Alison Davitt, a clinician in music therapy, and we’re just wondering if your performances at the hospital function in a therapeutic capacity?
John: We actually met Alison at Career Night for the Arts, and we’re hoping to connect with her, and see if she can give us some guidance on the program, because what we’re doing, we’ve worked out with the nurses there and what they think works best, what we think works best, and somewhere in the middle is what we do every week, but it’d be nice to get the professional in there; it’d be a lot of good feedback for us.
What’s a typical session like? Or are they all really different?
John: Everybody brings a few songs that they’ve prepared to play, and then, because we’ve gotten to know a couple of the long-term patients, they give us requests. It’s best when we learn the songs they want to play, so we’ll bring the guitar and they get up and do the vocals. It’s their chance to perform, and we’ve had people come up and play original songs that they wrote themselves, so it’s not really about us performing, it’s about them finding a way to connect with other people, whether it’s with us or each other.
Mike: It’s about the interactions, also.
John: Yeah, it get’s a lot of conversations going: we eat dinner with them after, then just from talking to us about songs they’d like us to play, they find other people at the hospital who have similar music tastes. Friendships form that way.
Mike: They can talk about what music they like, and then we bring a stack of guitar tabs and they can sort through that. It’s pretty freelance.
How did you guys set this up? Where did the idea come from?
John: I don’t like to give credit to the Bostonians… but this idea did come from the Bostonians. They were talking about a spring break trip they’d done, where they went to children’s hospitals and nursing homes in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, DC…
Alex: That’s awesome, I had no idea they did that.
John: …Yeah, they said it was a lot of fun, and I thought, wow, we have 600 people on our mailing list, if they can do that with 15 people we should be able to do this. So I asked around and a lot of people said they were interested. We did a testing trip last year, and it was a little awkward, but it went pretty well.
Mike: Really? You thought it was awkward?
John: I mean, it was awkward for me because I had been talking to everybody via email…
Alex: I think we just didn’t know what to expect.
John: Nobody knew…that was the first time I’d been to the hospital, and everybody expected me to know what to do when we got there, so I had to make it up as we went along.
Mike: I had a lot of fun that first trip.
John: It went a lot better than I thought it would… it definitely goes smoother now. We’ve built good relationships with the kids and the staff. There’s a few patients I’ve seen every time I’ve been this year; I know their favorite songs, so it’s nice.
What do you think the patients get out of your visits?
Alex: When we’re having fun with them, it’s really easy for us to forget why they’re there. They’re there for a reason, and really all we can do is just go and try to make it a good couple hours for the kids that we can. You can’t do more than that.
John: Everybody’s different. There’s one kid there, Wyatt, and he’s one of the kids we’ve seen every time this year, and he doesn’t want to leave the facility because he’s afraid of going back to school and people finding out where he’s been. He loves history, and we got talking because I was writing a history essay on something he really cared about, so I was asking him what I should write it on. When I came back, he was like, “How did your essay on the Black Death go? Did that work out well?”
What’s a really stand-out moment for you guys so far, then?
Mike: I don’t know if it’s a specific moment for me, but I definitely think that when everybody is singing along with whoever is playing, that is the best. The whole trip is really about what goes on between the performers and the patients, and when everyone’s participating, it really makes my day. I feel like I’ve done something worthwhile when that happens. There’s isn’t one moment, but there have been several when I’ve sat there and thought, “Wow, these kids are really singing.” Then I feel like I’ve made a difference.
John: About the second week of September this kid, Matt, he’s fourteen, and it turns out he’s a huge Taylor Swift fan. He just knows all the words to all of the Taylor Swift songs. So we bring a different one every time and we play it and he…
Mike: …believe it or not, he belts it out.
John: He’s not a good singer, but nobody cares. He’s just so emotional with it and it’s so awesome to see him stand up and start dancing, lie down, sit on the ground, roll around, and do whatever. The best part was when he left, Brian, the head nurse, came up to us and said, “We have never heard Matt talk or express himself, and he just got up there and just blew our minds.” That’s what it’s all about.
Mike: And as many people as we can get through to, and get them to express themselves, there’s always some we can’t make a connection with, some who don’t seem able to let other people into their lives, but I’d say with about 95% of the kids there, it seems and it feels as if we’re able to make some kind of positive change in their day, in their week, and there are some kids that look forward to us coming for a week at a time. Friday comes, the BC kids come, and they get to listen to music, they get to sing, and they get to eat pizza.
As we were being shooed out of Hillside for closing time, Thomas Harpole, another volunteer, emerged at our table just in time to say that, for him, the sessions are all about going in with no agenda; he doesn’t see the residents of Unit One as patients, but as peers. “I thought we were going there to perform,” he said, “but really, it’s just about spending quality time with them.”
If you’d like to volunteer with the Music Guild, email email@example.com to connect with the group and talk about ways you can get involved with the project.
The Music Guild aren’t alone in sharing their musical talents beyond campus. Another cohort of BC students devote a couple of hours a week to providing music lessons for children from low-budget families who wouldn’t otherwise have access to music education. Read more about the scheme, coordinated by Barbara and Ralf Gawlick as part of the Music Outreach program, in the Chronicle’s feature on these dedicated volunteers.
Are you an arts faculty/staff member or student exec. of a BC arts group? Sign up for the SACM mailing list to nominate a BC student! Email firstname.lastname@example.org with “LIST” in the subject header.