This week, I'm excited to look at the intersection of health and music from a different angle, and feature the work of Allegra Montanari, cellist and founder of Sharing Notes. Sharing Notes brings Chicago-based musicians and music students to medical facilities, where they perform for audiences large and small, old and young. Many symphonies and professional ensembles bring musicians into medical facilities, but Allegra started Sharing Notes as a graduate student, giving other students, young professionals, and educators an opportunity to perform and interact with patients, caregivers, and clinicians. I've long been inspired by Allegra's work and dedication, and I'm excited to share this interview and her work with a larger audience.
Kayleigh: How did sharing notes begin?
Allegra: Sharing Notes started as a student organization while I was finishing my Masters in Cello Performance at the Roosevelt University Chicago College of Performing Arts. The end of my education quickly approached and I did not feel as though I had become the musician I had set out to become when I decided to pursue music professionally. Technically, I was at the peak of my game working with an exceptional teacher, performing with great musicians and giving voice to some of the best repertoire ever written, but I felt lacking in purpose and unfulfilled.
Around the beginning of the 2011 holiday season, I heard a quote that piqued my interest: “love transforms talent into a gift”. All the musicians I admire used (or use) their talent to make a difference for others: Yo-Yo Ma in his never-ending quest to connect with everyone through our art, Mstislav Rosvtropovich and Pablo Casals standing up for human rights against corrupt regimes and Nina Simone who raised her voice in the fight for social justice. It hit me that music can change the world, but this change had to start with musicians. Why not me? Why not now? I decided nothing would be lost from starting something so I pitched a rough plan for a student organized community engagement program to the administrators at CCPA. They loved the idea – especially since there weren’t currently any easily accessible community engagement opportunities. With their blessing, I moved forward more seriously to consider how I could organize my colleagues to change the conversation about our roles as artists with the power to make a positive impact on the world around us. In the midst of recitals, auditions, graduation and months of investigating different venues we had our first Sharing Notes performance for cancer patients at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in April of 2012. After seeing how my fellow students and I could use the beauty of our craft to lift up the broken in body, mind and spirit, I knew there was no turning back – this work was positively serving both musicians and our hospital audience.
K: What interested you about bringing music to the medical community as opposed to another audience?
A: To be honest, there was no master plan that I envisioned about performing in hospitals! Before I started planning performances, I asked, “Where is music not going that it’s needed or can benefit others?” I made a short list of places I knew I could connect with that answered that question and began investigating. I happened to have a friend studying at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine who was enthusiastic about music and medicine and helped make some introductions to hospital staff interested in performance programming for their patients. Before I organized our first performance to the cancer ward in April 2012, I had never performed in a hospital before. After the first performance, after seeing the most simple Haydn cello duets bring a woman and her son to joyful tears in the cancer wards, I knew these performances served a great purpose. From our one initial month performance at Northwestern, we now visit four different Chicago hospitals to provide 76 performances and serve over 3,000 patients and their loved ones each year.
K: How have you seen music impact the hospital community, both in terms of patients and caregivers?
A: People receiving care in hospitals, even with the most incredible caregivers working to help them, can often feel dehumanized because of treatment, long stays away from home and the hospital environment. Live music creates a change of atmosphere in these circumstances and provides the opportunity to connect with someone totally unrelated to treatment! Our musicians’ goals are to change the monotony and frustrations of hospital life by sharing sounds so beautiful that maybe even just for a little while he or she forgets about the pain, by talking to the person as a person and not as a patient, by making kids feel like kids again while laughing and moving to a few favorite songs. We’re also happy to provide stress management and release for the hospital staff on duty when we perform! Caregivers work so hard to provide for others and we are thankful for the ability to give music to aid them as well.
K: What's one of the most profound musical experiences you've had so far with Sharing Notes?
A: Before I started this work, though I understood music power and potential for connection, I didn’t fully comprehend that I as a musician had such power and that my music could be such a gift to others. Through music, I’ve had the opportunity to perform for audiences during some of the most difficult and vulnerable points in their lives. Though I love making the kids laugh and seeing even nonverbal kids light up to smile and move with joy, the performances for families and loved ones during the last hours of their time together is the most powerful.
At the Cardiac Care Units, patients and their families often wait or live for months for a heart transplant or for recovery and treatment from heart failure. When we visit here, we’re often invited into some of the most intimate situations for these families. One year ago, almost to the day, my friend Jack and I were invited by a nurse and the clinical care coordinator to the room of a family who just learned their father / husband would not live through the weekend. There were 5 or 6 family members quietly gathered around the man’s bed as he rested with eyes closed. We learned the man’s name from his wife and asked what music he might enjoy and found out he was a big classical music lover. We decided to start with the "Swan" – an uplifting, beautiful piece by Camille Saint-Saëns. The man opened his eyes and looked around in awe at everyone surrounding him. A few days after that performance, I received a call to the Sharing Notes number from the man’s widow telling me that he had passed later that evening, thanking me for the peace our music gave her and her husband in their last hours together. We were later sent the man’s obituary with a special mention of our performance in the first paragraph. As musicians, to know that you can make such a difference for someone is truly a gift and we will never forget that day.
K: How do you envision your work expanding and evolving in the next few years?
A: Our Sharing Notes mission is two-pronged:
1. To bring live music to those who can most benefit from its healing power
2. To empower young professional musicians to share their gifts and make real impact throughout their careers in service of others.
Each year we have successfully added a new partnership to bring the healing power of music to more audiences and engage more fabulous volunteer musicians. As a new nonprofit, we are working hard to make new friends and develop relationships that will allow us to continue to go and grow!
K: How do you balance your performance, teaching, and philanthropic work?
A: I’ll let you know when I figure that out! To stay on top of all my commitments, I’m forced to stay very organized and keep a clear, prioritized to-do list in order. Each of my current jobs allows me to realize different skills that I enjoy putting to work and this helps me persevere when my work / life balance seems a bit skewed. Teaching allows me to serve as a mentor to shepherd in the next generation of music lovers, Sharing Notes gives me the opportunity to serve others while helping my colleagues see that they can change the world sharing through their beautiful gifts and performing gives me the chance to lift my own voice with the instrument and music I love.
K: How do you stay healthy and grounded?
A: Personally, I have an incredible family and relationships with loved ones that keeps me accountable and uplifted to live to my fullest potential the best way I can! Sharing Notes has a team that has allowed me to build this organization from a student group to a quickly-growing nonprofit! Our volunteers, our board of directors, our supporters and our hospital partners are all invested in the organization and have been a great help as Sharing Notes grows and strives to serve more each year.
K: How can people connect with you and learn more?
A: We’d love to hear from you on social media! If you like what you’ve read, please like us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter (@SharingNotes), Instagram (@sharing_notes) and YouTube! We are always looking for people to join our caring team of supporters and believers in the power of music! You can also learn more or join our monthly newsletter on our website www.sharing-notes.org.
If you don’t have any plans for global day of giving, Giving Tuesday, I would love for you to join us and show your support for the healing power of music!
Operating costs incurred by Sharing Notes while providing our free concerts to Chicago’s hospital patients are provided by donations and allow us to purchase music, reimburse volunteer expenses and cover administrative fees that keep us going and growing. Sharing Notes is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation. Visit our website today and your cash, check or electronic gift can make a difference! Donations at any level are appreciated and will be put to good use.
About Sharing Notes
Founded by cellist Allegra Montanari in January of 2012, Sharing Notes connects caring, young professional musicians with audiences who most benefit from the transformative power of intimate, interactive musical performances. We provide over 70 performances each year in four Chicago hospitals. In our 2014-2015 season, our music served over 3,000 hospital patients and their loved ones. Our volunteers are recent music conservatory graduates, current students and local freelancers who we train to make their performances fun, interactive, and always focused on serving audiences. Sharing Notes musicians talk to patients, take musical requests, and react sensitively to the different situations of patients and their families, providing distraction therapy that breaks the monotony and frustrations of illness and hospital life. Visit www.sharing-notes.org to learn more!