Nursing the Needy, Through Song

In hospitals and senior centers, public service group makes its mark

On a sunny Saturday afternoon, a dozen or so College students weave their way to Out of Town News—music and instrument cases in hand.

Twice a week, this band of students sets out to brighten the days of Cambridge and Boston’s elderly and sick.

Music In Hospitals and Nursing Homes Using Entertainment as Therapy (MIHNUET) is a Harvard student-run music-oriented public service group.

Each weekend these volunteers travel throughout the area, bringing their gifts of music to local nursing homes, hospitals, senior centers, and assisted-living facilities.

‘A LIGHT THING ON THE SIDE’

“These are people that are very giving and wanting to make a difference,” says Sandra L.C. Wong ’06. “They’re interested in giving back to their community even with their other commitments.”

This “sincere, motivated, and friendly” roster of performers, one that Wong estimates to be 80 percent pre-medical students, certainly enjoys no more free-time than the average Harvardian does—but still manages to find time for its rounds.

Wong has been an integral part of MIHNUET ever since she first stepped foot on campus four years ago. The group, which she discovered at a pre-frosh weekend activities fair, has become what she says will be a highlight of her undergraduate experience.

“I thought it would be a sort of light thing on the side, so I could try out other public service activities that I wanted to do,” she says, thinking back to the less certain days many freshmen spend seeking their niches in their new and often overwhelming surroundings. In Wong’s case, that spark generated as a prefrosh became a roaring blaze almost immediately. “After my first performance, I knew this is what I wanted to do.”

That “light thing on the side” would turn into years of dedicated service, she says. Wong has enjoyed stints in leadership positions ranging from site coordinator, to co-chair of vocal performance, activities, to co-director of the entire organization.

MIHNUET consists of the Crimson Crooners, a choral ensemble, MIHNUET Ultimate String Ensemble (MUSE), specializing in instrumental string music, and individual performers that take it upon themselves to arrange their own group acts.

The MIHNUET program’s mission is centered on music, so like any member, Wong says she shares a passion for song. However, she also says she cherishes the other side of the group’s work—post-performance interaction sessions with the audience. She says these conversations can prove especially rewarding for audiences who are in poorer states of health.

“No matter what site it was, I could feel that we were making an impact,” Wong says, referring to the differing needs of the audiences for whom MIHNUET performs.

In places where the audience could not be as overtly responsive, “the impact was less immediately obvious, but more so when we interacted,” Wong adds.

These interactions also provide a chance for the performer to establish connections with an audience member.

“A lot of times, I found myself staying afterwards for up to an hour chatting,” says Wong, a biochemical sciences concentrator. She recalls one especially talkative man who took a particular interest in her studies.

“He said, ‘Tell me about your research,’” a request not that different from the many conversations carried on among the MIHNUET volunteers and their audience, Wong says. She noticed that this man was a little more persistent than what she was used to. Her conversation continued until the man had acquired a deep knowledge of her work—“Down to the exact molecules I was studying,” Wong says.

It was at this time that another resident of the facility called over to the two. “Hey, have you told this young lady about your prize?” Little did Wong know that she had been chatting with a Nobel Laureate in medicine.

MUSIC AS THERAPY

Nearly 10 years ago, Junne Kamihara ’97, now a joint MD and PhD candidate in the Harvard-MIT Health Sciences and Technology program, co-founded MIHNUET.

“I had studied violin for a long time before college, and what I appreciated most about performing was the ability to connect with other people in a very unique, special way,” Kamihara wrote in an e-mail. “Music is a very powerful medium for encouraging people to become less withdrawn, to experience moments of joy and to recall fond memories from the past.”

Kamihara says that she still keeps in some contact with the group, remaining on its e-mail list and occasionally attending its black-tie events, but most of all, she says she is thrilled with its continuing dedication to its mission. “With each new group of students it takes on new energy and grows in new and different ways. I feel quite privileged to have been a part of its founding.”

HAPPY HOSTS

The MIHNUET contributions to the sites they visit do not go unrecognized by their hosts.

Sue Bowdridge, social programs director at Neville Place, a Cambridge assisted-living facility, said that MIHNUET has been making regular visits for about four years.

“One of the interesting things about when they come is that they’re not music majors, and my residents find that out when they speak—but they’re so talented,” she says.

Bowdridge points out that the MIHNUET performances provide an opportunity for her residents to interact with and dispel the often-negative image of young adults portrayed in the media.

“They don’t just walk out the door,” she says. “They stay and chat with everybody. It really makes a difference for the residents here.”

Ildiko Szabo, director of resident community life at Youville House, another Cambridge assisted-living facility, was also well aware of the students’ efforts.

“The beautiful part about what they do is they’ll have a series of performances—instruments, maybe vocal, whatever it is that day; and when they’re done, the beautiful thing is they sit and stay with the residents and talk to them a little bit,” Szabo says. “The residents really enjoy it.”

MAKING A DIFFERENCE

Katie Rose Clapham ’08, former MIHNUET vocal co-chair and co-conductor of the Crimson Crooners, said that her experience with MIHNUET began with an advertisement seen on campus and a rousing speech at an introductory meeting.

“They had a woman speak at the meeting who saw what a difference it made in people’s lives,” Clapham says. “That convinced me that it was something worthwhile and that it was something I would enjoy.”

She was particularly appreciative of the personal connections made on her trips.

“After the performances, we go around and talk to the audience members. I saw that one woman was sitting with one of the Crooners,” Clapham says. “The woman was unable to speak, but she was pressing the woman’s hand and smiling. You could tell that the music had meant something to her, even if she couldn’t express that to the Crooners with words.”

LOOKING AHEAD

MIHNUET approaches its 10th year of existence in good stead. Recent changes in its scheduling and recruiting practices have boosted membership and retention. The addition of a program, where members sign up for specific performance dates well in advance, has also cut down on some past difficulties with keeping site attendance up during exam-heavy periods.

Still, the group faces the occasional logistical difficulty.

“We don’t have a huge transportation budget,” says Vocal Co-Chair James E. Goldschmidt ’09 of the trips that sometimes are made solely on foot.

But still, the future looks bright for the organization that Goldschmidt says has had strong spring recruitment and performances. “I think we’ll be in good shape for this next semester.”

—Staff writer Nicholas A. Ciani can be reached at nciani@fas.harvard.edu.