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Grand Rapids Symphony violinist honored with national award for Music for Health initiative

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League of American Orchestras honors Diane McElfish Helle with 2017 Ford Musician Award for Excellence in Community Service
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More on Grand Rapids Symphony's Music for Health Initiative


Grand Rapids Symphony’s Music for Health was launched in 2013 in collaboration with Spectrum Health’s music therapy program.


Musicians, in pairs, perform monthly in group sessions at Spectrum Neuro-Rehabilitation and Nursing Center for patients undergoing rehabilitation, such as after an accident.


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. 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 Diane McElfish Helle, who is program administrator for the Music for Health Initiative.


Grand Rapids Symphony's Music for Health musicians play for an open house at Spectrum Health's Lemmen-Holton Cancer Pavilion.

Grand Rapids Symphony's Music for Health musicians play for an open house at Spectrum Health's Lemmen-Holton Cancer Pavilion. /Terry Johnston | Grand Rapids Symphony

Grand Rapids Symphony's Music for Health program is administered by Diane McElfish Helle (left) s

Grand Rapids Symphony's Music for Health program is administered by Diane McElfish Helle (left) s /Terry Johnston | Grand Rapids Symphony

Grand Rapids Symphony flutist Judy Kemph and violinist Diane McElfish Helle perform.

Grand Rapids Symphony flutist Judy Kemph and violinist Diane McElfish Helle perform. /Terry Johnston | Grand Rapids Symphony

Hospitals are places were most people would rather not be.

More than 10 years ago, Grand Rapids Symphony’s Diane McElfish Helle found herself visiting her father in a neuro-intensive care unit in Pittsburgh.

“In an ICU, anxiety, fear and boredom are part of each day,” McElfish Helle said.

Hoping to cheer her father up, the Grand Rapids Symphony musician brought along her violin to play for her father.

Diane McElfish Helle soon realized she was playing for many more people.

As soon as she started playing, nurses opened the glass door so they could hear the music, too. It wasn’t long before others from all across the hospital floor asked if she would come and play for their loved ones, too.

“Music brought an unexpected touch of beauty and peacefulness and meaning to their lives,” McElfish Helle realized.

That experience led McElfish Helle and the Grand Rapids Symphony to launch its Music for Health Initiative, a program to send symphony musicians into area hospitals, armed with the healing power of music.

On Wednesday, June 7, the League of American Orchestras will honor McElfish Helle with its prestigious Ford Musician Award for Excellence in Community Service.

The Pittsburgh native, a member of the Grand Rapids Symphony for 37 years, is one of five professional musicians being honored at the League’s 72nd annual National Conference, which happens to be in Detroit this year.

“These five musicians are national leaders in demonstrating the transformative power of music,” said Jesse Rosen, League of American Orchestras’ President and CEO. “We thank Ford Motor Company Fund for their support of this program, which recognizes the vital role of orchestra musicians in their communities -- both on and off the stage.”

The awards funded by the Ford Motor Company Fund include a $2,500 grant to each musician plus an additional $2,500 grant to the musician’s orchestra to support professional development focused on community service and engagement.

“Orchestras are an essential thread in the rich cultural fabric of our communities and a joyful musical experience for people in all walks of life,” said Jim Vella, president, Ford Motor Company Fund. “We’re proud to recognize these talented musicians and their generous outreach into the community to help improve people’s lives.”

Grand Rapids Symphony’s Music for Health Initiative is a program that sends symphony musicians into area hospitals to assist with patient rehabilitation as well as to create supportive physical, emotional and spiritual experiences for patients as well as for the friends, families and providers who care for them.

“Music not only has the power to warm the heart and nourish the soul, it also has the ability to heal as well,” said Grand Rapids Symphony President and CEO Peter Perez. “Concert goers have long known that music, in the best of times, provides enlightenment, enrichment and relaxation. But in the worst of times, when people are affected by illness or injury or are recovering from stroke, brain injury or dementia, music offers comfort, support and encouragement that in some ways is even more important.”

The groundwork for Music for Health was launched in 2012 when McElfish Helle met with a music therapist and the program director Spectrum Health Neuro-Rehab to explore how the Grand Rapids Symphony might contribute to their work with patients recovering from traumatic brain injury.

“We asked, ‘If you could have symphony musicians come and do anything, what would you have us do?’ she recalled.

With funding from the Perrigo Company Charitable Foundation, Music for Health was launched in 2013 by a group of six GRS musicians, led by McElfish Helle, at Spectrum Health in Grand Rapids.

Grand Rapids Symphony’s partnership with Spectrum Health has pairs of musicians playing group music therapy sessions every month, sessions designed around patient needs whether they are physical, emotional or mental.

“By the end of our second year, we had 10 musicians doing 50 sessions a year and had branched out to also working with cancer patients during their chemotherapy infusion treatments,” she said.

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’s Lemmen-Holton Cancer Pavilion.

The Getty Grant provided funds to adapt music or commission new music for use 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.

“We’ve found when we play these at the cancer center in particular, the nursing staff, as well as the patients, tell us that they feel the calming influence,” McElfish Helle said.

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.

“We get stories every week from the music therapists about how patients are using this to help them sleep or to relax them when they are anxious,” McElfish Helle said.

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