ESO musicians perform in the main lobby of Advocate Sherman Hospital. (Samantha Ryan photo)

Elgin Symphony Orchestra: Spreading Joy Through Music

These musicians frequent local hospitals to share music’s therapeutic power. Learn how their work can have a powerful effect on patients, hospital staff and the musicians themselves.

ESO musicians perform in the main lobby of Advocate Sherman Hospital. (Samantha Ryan photo)
ESO musicians perform in the main lobby of Advocate Sherman Hospital. (Samantha Ryan photo)

Members of the Elgin Symphony Orchestra (ESO) have performed in front of some sizable audiences during the group’s 65-year history. But some of the most memorable experiences have come when playing in the lobby and hallways of Advocate Sherman Hospital in Elgin.

It’s all part of a program called Musicians Care, an initiative ESO launched five years ago to support the community.

The 68-member ESO is the largest professional orchestra in the suburbs and the second-largest in the state, behind only the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Founded in 1950, ESO has been named “Orchestra of the Year” three times by the Illinois Council of Orchestras.

The ESO Musicians Care program began in 2010 and was designed to enhance the patient-centered experience by providing a calming environment, one that contributes to the healing process through music, says Wendy Evans, ESO’s education and orchestra personnel manager.

“The program has really grown,” says Evans, a violinist and a 19-year member of the orchestra. “It’s become very popular within the hospital. There’s something about live music that’s soothing. It’s very medicinal for the soul. The musicians feel it as well. It’s almost as gratifying for them as it is for patients, family members and hospital staff.”

Musicians from ESO visit the hospital from noon to 2 p.m. every Thursday and the first Monday of the month. They also play the day before Thanksgiving, Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. When ESO plays, four musicians take a two-hour shift at the hospital. More than 20 members participate in the program.

Evans assigns a leader to each foursome who is responsible for putting together the music and assembling the three other musicians for each visit. Music Director Andrew Grams, who was named 2015 Conductor of the Year by the Illinois Council of Orchestras, has also performed.

The first hour of performance is spent in the main lobby and features a string quartet made up of four musicians who together play a viola, a cello and two violins. An oboe, bassoon, clarinet, flute or a French horn may also appear.

“We mix it up,” says Evans. “But we just can’t use brass or percussion because of the sound.”

During the second hour, the musicians split up and head to the oncology unit, cardiac care, pediatrics or family birthing units to play in the waiting areas. On occasion, they’ll get a request to play in a patient room. They play anything from Bach to Disney tunes – “anything that seems appropriate at the time,” says Evans.

Playing in a hospital environment, however, isn’t for every performer. “Some musicians don’t feel comfortable playing alone in that type of setting,” says Evans. “It can be emotional playing for people who are dealing with sometimes serious health issues.

“For example, I’ve played in the oncology waiting rooms for family members whose loved ones are dealing with cancer,” she adds. “They just sit there sometimes with tears rolling down their cheeks. I have many of the orchestra members tell me how much this opportunity means to them. They had never experienced anything like this before.”

For musicians like Matthew Agnew, there’s a huge difference between performing in front of a crowd of 1,000 and playing for a handful of hospital staff, visitors and patients.

“We’re trained to play in front of people in an auditorium,” says Agnew, who plays cello. “It’s business as usual. But a hospital is something completely different. I wasn’t totally sure about the concept in the beginning. But now it’s more comfortable and fun.

“I enjoy the first hour playing as a quartet, because I’m with my allies in pursuit of making music together,” he adds. “It’s a special feeling. But I also enjoy the second hour because I’m by myself. When I play the first few notes, it breaks the silence. And I have the ability to improvise on the spot. I often find my way from Bach to whatever else comes to me.”

To help offset the cost of the Musicians Care program, Advocate Sherman hosts a fundraiser every August called Music by the Water, which is held by the hospital’s 15-acre geothermal lake. This year, 280 guests enjoyed a buffet lunch, program and entertainment from the Elgin Symphony Orchestra Brass Quintet, a physician band called Moonlighters, and band The Smokin’ Gunz. The event netted $53,000.

“This program provides a wonderful opportunity for our patients and families. It’s a unique and important partnership to aid in the healing process,” says Brian Liedlich, vice president of development for Advocate Sherman Hospital. “Providing care in today’s health care environment with staffing challenges and the complexity of the work can be extremely difficult. This program also provides a nice respite to our staff during the lunch hour or breaks. It recharges their batteries. We appreciate and value the partnership with the Elgin Symphony Orchestra and the ability to provide this service to the people entrusted to our care.”

Musicians Care is just one way that ESO takes part in the community. It also maintains a similar program with Amita Health’s Alexian Brothers sites in Hoffman Estates and Elk Grove Village. The Music Heals program, which started in 2013, brings musicians twice per month to Alexian Brothers Medical Center, St. Alexius Medical Center and Alexian Brothers Women & Children’s Hospital.

In 2013, Alexian Brothers Health System also teamed up with ESO and six of its musicians to record a CD of lullabies that’s given to women who deliver their babies at one of the system’s hospitals.

Elsewhere in the region, ESO partnered in 2014 with Gail Borden Public Library to provide free family concerts. Held the Wednesday before an ESO concert, The Listeners Club offers a series of free lectures at the library and GreenFields of Geneva, a retirement and assisted living facility.

For nearly 30 years, ESO has offered Kidz Konzertz, a children’s program that’s designed to introduce students to orchestral instruments and the fundamental music concepts through study guides given to teachers early in the school year. The experience culminates in a field trip to an ESO concert at Elgin’s Hemmens Cultural Center. Kidz Konzertz now draw nearly 9,000 youth from about 60 communities.

ESO’s Magical Disney concerts and Magical Holiday concerts serve as drop-off locations for the annual Toys for Tots program, and patrons are encouraged to bring an unwrapped, new toy to the concerts. The ESO also partners with Rotary District 6440 on the End Polio Now campaign, in an effort where ESO and its patrons have provided more than 5,000 vaccines for children.

For other events, ESO has partnered with Feeding Greater Elgin, Elgin’s Downtown Neighborhood Association and the Elgin Area Chamber.

“The ESO strives to be a vibrant, relevant part of our community through our strong relationships with area schools, libraries, hospitals and other service organizations,” says Cheryl Wendt, ESO chief development officer. “Our focus on lifelong learning, the healing power of music, and great organizations like Food For Greater Elgin and the Boys & Girls Club of Dundee Township helps support the residents of communities that support us. It’s through these special connections that we not only get to produce world-class concerts, but also make our area an even better place to live.”