FISHERSVILLE — In a normal year the cavernous space at the Augusta Fitness Center’s indoor tennis courts is filled with the sounds of racquets hitting balls and shoes scuffing across the court surface. For several months now the courts have been put to a different purpose—that of a COVID vaccination clinic. Tens of thousands of shots have been administered as volunteers, medical personnel, and patients move through the clinic in rapid, military-like efficiency.
The world is healing, one shot at a time. But, at Augusta Health, another layer of healing is happening to the tune of sounds not normally found on a tennis court or at a vaccination clinic. There’s a saying that music is healing. Thanks to HeartStrings, a unique initiative between Staunton’s Heifetz International Music Institute and Augusta Health, there has been some very special healing happening in Fishersville.
The opportunity to combat a deadly disease by getting a vaccination is a relief to many, but the very act of being moved through an assembly line that includes a needle and an experimental vaccine is stressful, and that is on top of a year of stress. We have watched friends and family sicken and some die during the deadly pandemic. We have yearned to be with loved ones, but have been separated by a wall of caution.
Enter HeartStrings. In the tennis-courts-turned-vaccine-clinic, the sweet sound of a bow being drawn across strings fills the cavernous space. A viola, two violins, and a cello send out the sounds of Mozart, then an Appalachian melody, and finally the theme from Star Wars. People stop talking and listen, tense bodies relax, and, when each piece is finished, clapping echoes through the space.
In a room at the hospital proper, a patient on a ventilator watches her own private concert on an iPad while she mouths the words to the music she requested. Tears of joy flow from the musician on the screen, the medical personnel, and the patient.
Last summer, Heifetz was in the midst of a shutdown just like the rest of the world. The international program, which usually brings to Staunton instructors and students from around the world, went totally virtual.
“Our summer program was all virtual. Somehow we made it work across 14 countries, nine time zones, with 100 students and 40 faculty,” Heifetz President and CEO Ben Roe said. Roe continued to think about the situation and explore ways that he could simultaneously help his institute, his students, and his community.
“We had a twin crisis in our community. There was the pandemic and the toll that it was taking on the physical and mental health of the community, and then there were our students who are on the cusps of their professional careers and had the rug pulled out from under them,” he explained.
He found himself wondering if there was a way to address both crises with one solution. Thus was born the Heifetz Ensemble In Residence program (HEIR) that brought in five young musicians – four on stringed instruments and a piano player – to live in a bubble for six weeks, play, and be paid professionally. Through community sponsorships, the five musicians could live, eat, be provided with rehearsal and performance space, and receive a salary. In addition to Augusta Health, key support for the program came from Heifetz board member Robin Miller, a partner in the Blackburn Inn and Conference Center. The Blackburn provided housing for three of the HEIR musicians, and provided virtually unlimited access to rehearsal and performance space.
Roe’s brainstorming did not stop there. Conversations with other community leaders about the toll the pandemic was taking on community mental health soon led to a partnership with Augusta Health. Part of the program included HeartStrings in which the HEIR musicians presented one-on-one concerts to patients and resident populations isolated by the pandemic.
The results have been remarkable according to Dr. Clint Merritt, population health chief at Augusta Health. “The healing power of music came at a perfect time. The impact for the patients and staff because of the beautiful music and connection to life has been incredible,” he explained.
Shelley Payne, patient experience coordinator at the hospital, was equally enthusiastic. She described patients being so moved by the personal performances that they had tears and a deaf patient holding the iPad to feel the vibrations becoming more focused and relaxed than she had been for some time.
Recently the second group of HEIR musicians finished out its program in Staunton. With a week left in the program they stopped by the Augusta Health COVID clinic for a regular Tuesday performance. This day was extra special, however, because two of the musicians, siblings Kenneth and Noelle Naito of Elkridge, Md., were not only in Fishersville to perform, they were also each receiving their second dose of the COVID vaccination.
During the observation period after their shot, they sat and reflected on what the Heifetz program has meant to them as budding professional violinists. When the pandemic hit, Kenneth, 21, was a student at Juilliard School and Noelle was finishing up high school.
“Being here has been amazing. I came home in March last year from Juilliard and was stuck at home for over a year. The inability to perform live music and of being stripped of what our life was has been really scary at times,” Kenneth explained.
“Coming here and being able to connect with people again, even if it is playing for one person, is amazing. Playing for the patients at Augusta Health over Zoom was memorable. We learned that music can really change people,” added Noelle, 18.
The other two stringed instrument musicians in the HEIR ensemble have also been rejuvenated by their six-week stint in Staunton. Viola player Adam Savage of Port St. Lucie, Fla., who is 18, explained that he was thankful for the opportunity to provide entertainment and hope to people again. “Patients are in need of hope and beauty and music can give them that. I haven’t done anything live for a while and it was nice to have live applause again,” he said.
Cello player Jared Blajian is the group’s elder statesman at 26. The New York City musician was grateful for a chance to play a small role during the pandemic. “The front line workers are the real heroes, but to be able to give something back, like music, is healing in its own way,” Jared said.
“Something that I have learned is that the healing power of music reaches so many. It doesn’t matter if it is a concert hall or a vaccine clinic, live music can move people and touch people,” he added.
The effect of live music at the vaccination clinic brought unsolicited testimony from grateful patients and volunteers alike. Eileen Brooks, a clinic volunteer, said that the music uplifted everyone’s spirits and brought a calming sensation. “It was a nice distraction in a pleasant way. Some people are very scared to come in here and this calmed them down,” she said.
“It seemed a little nutty at first,” said Roe of the HEIR program. “But it prompted a lot of collaboration and reimagining of protocols and systems. We are here to serve the community. It was emotional for the audiences and the players to be able to come together. It was a profoundly moving experience and the musicians have also learned that when playing you don’t always have to have the beautiful conditions of a concert hall to connect with music.”
To which can be added the question: “Is there any other vaccination clinic in the entire world with live music?”