MidMichigan Music Care Program offers soothing escape for patients, families and staff

While strolling through the lobby at MidMichigan Medical Center – Midland you may be greeted by live melodies wafting through the air. Each month, the Music Care Program brings local musicians — often young volunteers from area high schools — to perform for patients, families and hospital staff. The program, started by students in the orchestra class at Herbert Henry Dow High School, regularly hosts one hour of live music on Wednesday evenings in hopes of uplifting the mood of patients and their families while giving performers the opportunity to show off their talents to a live audience.

Neil Janwani and Ayla Khan, the co-founders of the program, both grew up with music, learning instruments like the cello and piano from a young age. And so, when Khan’s mom, a volunteer at the MidMichigan Medical Center – Midland, saw an empty piano in the lobby it was only natural for her to tell her daughter about it. Around the same time, Janwani had experienced playing music for an audience at a local community center for the elderly.

“Seeing how many people were enjoying the music made me happy,” says Janwani, a senior at H.H. Dow High School. “It reminded me of the power of music and the effect it has on people.”

Neil Janwani, a senior at H.H. Dow High School and co-founder of the Music Care Program.

Janwani and Khan started the program together in March 2018. For the first ever Music Care performance, Janwani played his cello. He remembers even that initial day, how a nurse came up to him to thank him and reminisce about her own experiences playing cello as a child.  Since then, the duo say they have many stories of people coming up to them after the performances, having been moved by the music.

“Music can bring people together, and that is important in the world today,” says Khan, a junior at H.H. Dow High School.

The program officially welcomed new performers in September 2018. Ever since then, on one Wednesday a month, you’ll find musicians in the lobby of the medical center performing live from 5:00 to 6:00 p.m.

The Music Care Program has grown to host nearly 20 new acts including a variety of arrangements, from solo performers to choirs and quartets. Musicians have played the piano, viola, violin and cello among other instruments.

Joseph Jackson, a junior at H.H. Dow High School performs in the lobby.

Interested performers can register online and have the option to sign up for a 10-minute slot. For middle and high school-aged students, the program also offers a way to get volunteer hours. Student musicians receive one hour toward their volunteering goals for every time slot they perform. Janwani notes that this is designed to consider the amount of practice that musicians put in to get the piece performance ready.

Abigail Ahn, was first introduced to the Music Care Program in her orchestra class, through fellow classmate Neil Janwani. A violinist for eight years, she has performed as part of the Music Care Program multiple times now, and with different groups. Often, she’ll play with a quartet.

“Sometimes being at the hospital can be stressful,” says Ahn. “So it’s nice to put a smile on people’s faces with music.”

Ahn is reminded of the impact she has when people approach her to congratulate her after performances. She even remembers one man coming up to her quartet after it had finished playing to ask if they had business cards.

“He said we should have a way for people to contact us to play at weddings or events,” says Ahn.

Her favorite pieces to play at the hospital are usually happy, light and calming.

Evie Schram performed a piece before her sisters at MidMichigan Medical Center - Midland in August.

“Music is an outlet for me,” says Ahn. “It has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. It’s a way to express emotions and connect with other people.”

Her friend, and fellow quartet member, Tia Li also remembers being approached after that Music Care performance to play at other events. She had been volunteering at the hospital before the program started, and finally found this opportunity a way to connect her passion.

“Music has helped me persevere,” says Li, who will be attending Case Western Reserve University in the fall. “To perform music for others is very special to me.”

Natalie Schram, who also plays the harp performs for her first time in the lobby.

It was this urge to share his gift with people that drew Lenin Brenes, webmaster for the health system’s intranet, to the empty piano in the main lobby long before the Music Care Program was established.

Now, Brenes, who has worked at the Medical Center in Midland for 20 years, fills in on Wednesday evenings whenever there is an open slot.

“Nothing gives me the peace of sitting at the piano, playing, and seeing people’s eyes as they connect with the music,” he says.

Brenes’ first introduction to music came in Costa Rica, where grew up. As a child, he remembers playing tunes on a keyboard by ear. His uncle, another musician, noticed and told his father that Brenes had an ear for music. He enjoyed it and quickly picked up playing the organ and eventually piano.

Sisters Natalie, Evie and Lydia Schram, who are all homeschooled, heard about the program through their church.

Brenes says he has grown to like the piano even more than the organ in recent years. “You can communicate more feeling, more emotions, more dynamics.”

He started playing for MidMichigan Health Foundation’s annual Love Light Trees fundraiser held in the Hospital Entrance lobby of MidMichigan Medical Center – Midland from his early days on the job nearly 15 years ago. In fact, before the new lobby was built, he used to bring his own keyboard from home, transporting it back and forth in a Medical Center van. After MidMichigan put in a piano in the lobby, Brenes would play sporadically, whenever he walked by and saw it sitting empty.

Over the years, he has had many people thank him or come up to say how moved they were by the music. He appreciates that the Music Care Program takes place just underneath one of the Medical Center’s waiting rooms.

One time in particular, he remembers a lady listening to him play from the balcony. She came down with tears in her eyes and thanked him.

“She said to me, ‘this was exactly what I needed to listen to today,’” says Brenes.

The Music Care Program runs monthly, highlighting local musicians and students.

Another time, an elderly woman stood next to his piano for the duration of time he was playing. When he finished, she pulled out a piece of chocolate from her pocket and set it on the piano.

“I still have that chocolate in my office,” says Brenes who keeps these little tokens as reminders of why he loves to play. “It reminds of that need to connect, to share this gift we are given as musicians.”

Brenes urges other musicians in the area, especially younger ones and those learning to play, to try performing with the Music Care Program.

“It’s giving local musicians, especially young talent, a great opportunity to play in front of people,” he notes of the program. “Every chance you get to perform, do it.”

The process for getting involved, according to Janwani, constitutes of filling out an online Google form to indicate what instrument you play, your level of experience and availability. From there, participants can sign up for time slots and will receive a confirmation email after signing up and a reminder before the performance.

For those who prefer to watch, there are still remaining performance nights in 2019. Stop by on Wednesdays, September 4, November 6, or December 18 between 5:00 and 6:00 p.m. to enjoy the live music.  

The Schram sisters along with Jackson rounded out the August performance. Musicians typically play for 10-minute segments.

Janwani and Khan hope the program will continue to expand and grow. They are looking for performers from across the Great Lakes Bay Region and hope to involve area high schools such as Freeland, Bullock Creek and Midland High. With both of them heading off to college in a year or two, they hope to pass on leadership to younger students so the program can continue to grow.

Both Janwani and Khan attribute their inspiration to start this program to growing up in families that supported and encouraged music education. Some of their siblings are also following in their footsteps. Janwani’s younger sister will soon be starting high school, and he hopes she’ll continue volunteering with the program. Khan’s youngest sibling, her 6-year-old sister, just started piano lessons this year.

“Whenever I played music it gave me a sense of calmness and grounding,” says Janwani. “Ayla and I know how powerful music can be and wanted to share it with everyone else at the hospital."
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