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Musicians On Call: 'Healing Songs' for Tough Times

Coronavirus put music charity's live performances on pause, so volunteer artists go digital

Screenshots of volunteer Musicians Matthew and Sarah Dedicate “Three Little Birds” to Patients

Musicians On Call Youtube Channel

Philadelphia folk-rockers Matthew Gordon and Sarah Napolitan contributed a cover of Bob Marley's "Three Little Birds," adapted for slide guitar and social distancing, to arts charity Musicians On Call's video playlist.

For more than 20 years, Musicians On Call has brought the joy and healing power of music to hospitals across the country, with volunteer artists going room to room giving intimate performances for patients, caregivers and family members.

Just as it has silenced live music in arenas, theaters and clubs, the coronavirus pandemic forced Musicians On Call to press pause on its signature Bedside Performance Program. But the organization hasn't skipped a beat, marshaling its corps of volunteers to produce a video compilation of “healing songs,” recorded ad hoc in living rooms and home studios.

The initiative, called #MOCHeals, features over 100 videos covering a broad swath of musical history, from a Bach cello suite to Tin Pan Alley, ‘60s rock and soul standbys, and recent hits like Kacey Musgraves’ “Rainbow.” The playlist has been shared with the charity's approximately 80 partner hospitals for streaming on their closed-circuit TV systems and can be viewed in full on YouTube.

The effort is part of an expansion of Musicians On Call's virtual and digital programs (see sidebar), which have helped the organization and its hundreds of volunteers maintain their musical mission to patients and homebound seniors, and to reach a larger public dealing with isolation and worry.

"Our volunteers that had been used to doing in-person programs wanted to do more,” says Pete Griffin, president and CEO of the Nashville-based charity. “They wanted to share their music with more people, knowing that not only patients and caregivers were going through tough times, but everyone was really struggling with the situation."

Songs that connect

In keeping with that goal, Musicians On Call aims to share songs that “are uplifting, they're happy, they have a positive message in them,” Griffin says. For #MOCHeals, volunteers were asked to select favorites from their hospital repertoires “that really seem to connect with patients."

For Drew Dixon, a Nashville singer-songwriter who specializes in a gritty, gothic brand of Delta blues, that's a soulful take with acoustic guitar on the classic Etta James torch song “At Last."

"It catches people off guard because they're used to hearing it in its original, iconic form. I enjoy putting my own spin on it and seeing how people respond,” says Dixon, a Musicians On Call volunteer since 2015. “I've had people tell me it was their wedding song, that it's ‘their song’ with their significant other. One even attempted to play ‘air trumpet’ along with me."

Many of the musicians call their selections “healing songs,” a term Griffin says reflects both their own experience and research showing that listening to music can have positive health outcomes, including lower blood pressure and reduced stress.

"One of the reasons that hospitals really want our program is because they don't just see it as a nice thing to do. They actually see it as part of the 360-degree healing process for patients,” he says. “Our musicians see that firsthand."

Thy Nguyen, a vocalist, composer and multi-instrumentalist in Boston who joined Musicians On Call in December, gave #MOCHeals an ethereal version of “A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes,” from the 1950 Walt Disney movie Cinderella. “I usually sing it as a lullaby when patients, their families or their health care providers request a soothing song,” she says.

Nguyen, who is set to start medical school in the fall, cites a favorite line: “Have faith in your dreams and someday your rainbow will come smiling through.” “As people all around the world are collectively going through such unprecedented challenges, those words hold even more meaning for me now,” she says.

Motown and Toy Story

Other performers lean into the boomer soundtrack (Elvis, Motown, the Beatles) and songs that have become pop bywords for affirmation, optimism and solidarity in tough times, such as “Stand by Me,” “What a Wonderful World” and Bob Marley's “Three Little Birds.”

Matthew Gordon and Sarah Napolitan, mainstays of the Philadelphia folk-rock scene and Musicians On Call's program in the region, augment Marley's lilting rhythm with some tasty slide guitar (and perform it on social-distancing-appropriate split screen).

"When we thought of songs for the #MOCHeals playlist, this one came immediately to mind for both of us,” Gordon says. “It seems to always bring a smile to everybody within earshot."

Jeiris Cook, a singer and songwriter in Jefferson, N.J., chose another popular paean to facing challenges together: the Toy Story theme song “You've Got a Friend in Me.”

"My goal really is to develop a friendship with audiences, especially when I'm volunteering with Musicians On Call,” says Cook, who works on the group's virtual programs. “I want people to walk away feeling better than they did when we started, and this song fits the bill perfectly."

Cook's clip reflects the vintage soul men he cites as key influences, like Otis Redding and Donny Hathaway — and the new reality of parents everywhere thrust into working from home, thanks to some impromptu scene-stealing by his 4-year-old son Kaeden.

"I figured I'd jump on and quickly record the video before he knew where I went,” Cook says, “but he heard me singing and the rest is history."

The Healing Power of Music — On Call

Along with building the #MOCHeals playlist, Musicians On Call is continuing, and in some cases expanding, video and digital programs to bring music to patients, seniors and people isolated by the coronavirus outbreak. You can learn more at the organization's website.

• Virtual Bedside Performance Program: Thirty- to 60-minute concerts broadcast from musicians’ homes to hospital patients and at-home seniors on CCTV systems or video chat platforms.

• Music Pharmacy: Participating hospitals get tablets equipped with music-streaming service Pandora and noise-canceling headphones for patient use.

• Selfhelp Virtual Program: This partnership between Musicians On Call and New York social services agency Selfhelp connects musicians with homebound seniors via videoconference for an hour of live music, conversation and requests.

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