Hospitals often are places people would rather not be.

Such treatments as chemotherapy can be frequent and lengthy, lasting a few hours or an entire day.

Grand Rapids Symphony musicians are making a difference in the lives of patients and their families through the orchestra’s Music for Health Initiative, which sends musicians into health care settings, armed with the healing power of music.

After a recent session at the Spectrum Health Cancer Center at Lemmen-Holton Cancer Pavilion, a patient came up to violinist Diane McElfish Helle with tears in her eyes.

“She took me by the arm and said, ‘You have no idea how much this means to me,’” Helle recalled her saying. “That you would come to us and bring this beauty to us. It means more than I can express.’”

“She had tears in her eyes,” Helle added. “And we had tears in our eyes, too.”

Music for Health Initiative is an effort to engage with the health care community to promote health and well-being by creating supportive physical, emotional and spiritual experiences for patients affected by stroke, dementia or brain injury, as well as for families and providers caring for them.

The three-year-old program was a partnership from the start.

With funding from the Perrigo Company Charitable Foundation, Music for Health was launched in 2013 by a group of six musicians, collaborating with Spectrum Health’s music therapy program.

During each service, musicians collaborate with a designated “gatekeeper” from the health care facility who knows the patients and helps tailor the activities to the patients’ needs.  Often, the gatekeepers are music therapists, but others including social workers, nurses and physical therapists also can fill the role.

In the first season, six musicians, in pairs, performed monthly in group sessions led by music therapist Erin Wegener at Spectrum Neuro-Rehabilitation and Nursing Center.

Musicians participated in improvisation and patient-engagement activities such as singing or playing percussion instruments. The sessions, which drew as many as 25 people to each, proved to be very popular with patients and their family members.

Today, more than a dozen Grand Rapids Symphony musicians work in several Spectrum locations. Each has different patients requiring different treatment, not only from the health care providers, but from the musicians as well.

At Spectrum Health Neuro-Rehab Services, musicians play for patients undergoing rehabilitation, such as after an accident. With musicians playing live, caregivers can ask for changes in volume or tempo on the spot in response to a patient’s abilities or progress.

“It’s one thing to go to physical therapy and make this motion 25 times. But if we can get music going, they might not even notice they’ve done it 25 times,” said Helle, who is program administrator for the Music for Health Initiative.

Even active listening and following a musical line can help a patient recover speech and cognitive abilities following a stroke.

“If you can follow a musical line, it can help you in conversation,” Helle said.

One year after its debut, the Perrigo Company Charitable Foundation renewed the grant due to the overwhelming response from patients, musicians and staff at Spectrum Health.

In 2015, the Grand Rapids Symphony was a selected by the League of American Orchestras to receive a Getty Education and Community Investment Grant, allowing the orchestra to expand its programs to the Spectrum Health Cancer Center.

The Getty Grant provided funds to adapt music or commission new music for use for in Music for Health therapy sessions. Grand Rapids Symphony’s Assistant Principal Cellist Jeremy Crosmer, who also is part of the Music for Health team, was the composer.

Music differing in style and tempo is used for different interventions. Part of the collection is a set of 12 charts that enable groups of musicians to improvise meditative music together.

Recently, musicians recorded four hours’ worth of meditative music that is broadcast continually on a dedicated TV channel at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital plus four other Spectrum Health hospitals. Paired with photographs of outdoor Michigan scenes taken by Spectrum employees, the channel was launched in March 2017.

Patients and visitors now are able to tune in anytime they wish, day or night. Music can be used actively for guided meditations, such as for pain management.  Or it simply can be used for background.

“It’s very peaceful and relaxing and yet it isn’t boring because there’s always something changing,” Helle said.  “It also masks the noises and the beeps and brings a more calming atmosphere to the room.”


The Grand Rapids Symphony gratefully acknowledges the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation and the League of American Orchestras for their generous support of this program.