Newswise — LOS ANGELES (Dec. 22, 2020) -- On a recent morning, Wendy Lawson attended an exclusive live performance of "Le Cygne" (The Swan) by composer Camille Saint-Saëns, a piece of classical music known for its use in ballet. But Lawson's front-row seat was not in a concert hall. It was in the Cedars-Sinai Cancer infusion center, where she undergoes treatments for ovarian cancer.
"It's extremely soothing," Lawson said. "It creates peace within, which I think is always going to be a good thing for somebody who is going through treatment. There's a certain level of anxiety that accompanies you each and every time, so it sort of really calms that."
The musician performing exclusively for her was Coleman Itzkoff, a professional cellist from the American Modern Opera Company, which has partnered with the Cedars-Sinai Spiritual Care Department to bring virtual private concerts to COVID-19 patients and cancer patients during the COVID-19 pandemic. Lawson, who is a ballet teacher, met Itzkoff by chance through the program, and the pair instantly hit it off, bonding over their shared love of the arts.
"That was probably the thing that really connected us-our artistic backgrounds, and the similarity of the lifestyle that we had led as performers," Lawson said.
The collaboration is funded through the Vital Sounds Initative from nonprofit Project: Music Heals Us. The initiative provides grants to pay musicians, who have been hit hard by the pandemic's economic repercussions. Now, instead of performing in concert halls, Itzkoff and others play via remote video for hospital patients.
Cellist Itzkoff says the program has been a win-win for the patients and musicians.
"A lot of my identity as a musician, as a musical performer, is wrapped up in performance, and when that was taken away from all of us, in March, it left me and so many others feeling a little bit empty, a little listless," Itzkoff said. "And to be able to perform live one-on-one for people has brought back all of that meaning that I once had."
Chaplain Bronwen Jones, herself a professional clarinetist and composer, launched the program at Cedars-Sinai after learning about it from a colleague.
"It reaches your heart and opens up some areas which can be hard to reach," Jones said. "We're human beings, and you want to get to those parts of the soul that are deep within us and need to be opened up sometimes in order to live well."
Before entering COVID-19 patient rooms, the chaplains must don a full suit of personal protective equipment and carefully sanitize the video and sound equipment. The time-consuming procedure, Jones said, is worth it.
Jones said the program helped make a difference for one patient in particular, whose blood pressure was initially too high for them to receive chemotherapy.
"It was an extraordinary experience," Jones said. "With this patient, the cellist played 15 minutes of one beautiful piece of music and, lo and behold, the patient's blood pressure went down enough that they were able to have chemo that day. So that was extraordinary, and that's happened a few times now, where people were on the borderline of not being able to have that treatment that day, and the music relaxed them enough to make it possible."
The program has become a highlight for many patients, and while they can't request a specific musician, Lawson tries to schedule her treatments for days when she knows Itzkoff will be available to play for her.
"I think that this is the beginning of something that could be really tremendous for patients and I'll always be an advocate for it," she said. "You know, there are the medical treatments and then there are the spiritual treatments, and I consider this being one of the spiritual treatments."
Read more on the Cedars-Sinai Blog: Navigating the Holidays During the COVID-19 Pandemic