How To Provide Affordable Live Music In Your Healthcare Facilities

Creating a sustainable, low-cost collaboration of professional orchestral musicians, your local university’s music performance and arts administration students, and music therapists in your healthcare community.

First, a little background: In 2000, with no budget, I began to develop the collaborative model we will be discussing today. In establishing and fostering the relationships between two of our major Pittsburgh institutions, the Pittsburgh Symphony and Children’s Hospital, and Carnegie Mellon and Duquesne Universities, I had a great deal of donated help from those organizations, in part because they all had something to gain by working with each other. Ultimately we all knew we would be able to serve our community better through this program. This was our goal, and it kept us focused. Because my initial efforts garnered a great deal of publicity and attention, two foundations funded new music therapy positions in hospitals that previously had none.

In a collaborative effort to get live music in the hospital, we have many very specific questions that have to be addressed:

  • Who creates and houses a handbook or guidebook for the musicians?
  • Who does the orientation?
  • Who identifies appropriate musicians?
  • Who trains them?
  • What should be included in training?
  • Do the musicians have the appropriate music?
  • Who supplies the music and determines what it should be?
  • What are the goals of the session?
  • Who determines the goals?
  • Who makes sure the patients are protected and protocols are followed?
  • Who determines locations for the sessions and what patients should attend?
  • Who determines the length of the sessions and when to stop or change the music being played?
  • Who finds out about what music the patients know and need to hear?
  • Who handles PR and permissions? What is the purpose of any publicity? Should you even publicize at all?
  • Who creates and houses the music library for these events?
  • Are there stands and other supplies that need to be part of the budget? Can we get them for free?
  • Who is the contact person for the musicians, the contact at the hospital, and the program director at the university?

Your community may answer these questions differently than we did, but you will have to revisit these questions periodically, as your personnel and resources change with time.

What is the orchestra’s role?

The Pittsburgh Symphony has a service exchange program where those who participate receive extra time off in exchange for eight free services in the community approved by the Community Projects Manager (CPM). The CPM can determine who would be the best fit for the music and wellness initiative.

Creating the handbook.

Gloria Mou, the PSO Community Projects Manager, Jessi Ryan, a Carnegie Mellon Arts Management student interning with the PSO, Debbie Benkovitz, MT-BC, the head music therapists at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, and Dr. Elaine Abbott, MT-BC, Chair of the Music Therapy department at Duquesne University and I worked together at no cost to produce a Music and Wellness Handbook for the musicians, based on a musician-music therapist model (download handbook).

The idea of the handbook is to have a very short introduction to music and wellness (so the musicians and others will read it!) which has guidelines for choosing music, defines the role of the musicians and the music therapists, gives examples of what kind of music might be appropriate for different locations within the venue, and provides resources to help musicians develop a playbook for each one of their sessions. Because the handbook is online, it is accessible to anyone involved in the program.

There is a sizeable donated library of music for small groups housed at the PSO, and many free sources of music online as well.

My role, as one of the more experienced musicians in the program, is to help support the less experienced musicians by determining what music they have to work with, understanding what the goals of their sessions are, and as needed loaning them more music to fill out their playbooks. The musicians can discuss goals of the sessions and what the expected participants will be like with both the music therapist and the CPM. They can use a tag-team approach, where a more experienced player accompanies a newbie. No one goes alone. Two to three players seems to be a workable number for a group and optimizes our musician and service exchange resources.


Because the PSO has a very high profile, this collaboration receives a great deal of free coverage if we want it (If it seems exploitative we don’t). We are often on the front pages of the paper or in headlines online. With appropriate permissions a photographer or videographer might be able to document (only) the musicians playing the  session. But the hospitals have their own PR department to cover the events, and must protect the privacy of the patients, so there will be times where photos or videos will be prohibited. But whatever footage you are allowed to make will be very helpful when you apply for funding.

The PSO often receives donations from doctors or hospital administrators when we play. The money is fed back into the program, covering extra expenses such as copying costs, but also supporting the service exchange program. Foundations that do not necessarily want to support the arts are nonetheless willing to support wellness collaborations such as this. With foundations increasingly focused on initiatives that serve the whole community (moving toward greater racial and social equity) we are positioned very well to receive continuing support.

What is the role of the hospital?

The hospital serves a full range of ethnicities and income levels, something we do not see to such an extent at Heinz Hall. But patients often have fears and stress that can be relieved very effectively through music activities. We can reach families and other groups of people in ways that complement and support the music therapist’s work with patients. And the experience can be vastly different and enormously satisfying for both musicians and patients. Because the experience is client-oriented, the musicians grow in ways that will help them better understand and more effectively serve the needs of the community.

Once a year the music therapist at Children’s Hospital (CHP) does a free workshop for interested PSO musicians and staff at the home of the PSO, preparing musicians for what to expect at the hospital, and how to work with a patient population that has a markedly diverse background. The CHP music therapist is also the contact person when musicians go to their assigned venue, and stays with the during the session to make suggestions and see that patient’s needs are met. One of the Veterans (VA) Campus music therapists is joining the CHP music therapist for this year’s session, as we expand PSO involvement in music and wellness activities in the community. We are able to make a noticeable difference in residents’ emotional states.

The music therapists know the patients and their music preferences, know who should or could attend sessions, make sure hospital protocols are followed, alert PR if desired, get permissions from patients and families if needed, and, with our Community Projects Manager, help decide on venues. They know that out collaboration gives them greater value and support, and helps protect their position from cuts when hospitals look at their budgets.

Twice a year a PSO string quartet, or a flute and string trio, plays for a memorial service at Children’s Hospital for families of patients who died, as well as for caregivers, doctors and other hospital staff. The memorial service was developed after extensive conversations between the CHP music therapists, the PSO quartet, hospital administrators and spiritual staff, all on donated time. As of March 2016 we have done eighteen of those services, with slight modifications of the program over time. The PSO involvement extends the reach of the music therapists in the hospital, and helps the families of patients in a profound way, right when they need it most. The whole community is joining together through music to help families from all walks of life through an unimaginably difficult time.

What is the role of the university?

Duquesne University has a music therapy degree program as well as a music major program.  The university has classes in music entrepreneurship, as well as music and music therapist majors looking for internships. These students are already feeding into the hospital music programs in a sustainable, low-cost way, and are supervised closely by experienced music therapists.

Carnegie Mellon University has an arts management graduate program as well as a business school. They have undergraduate and graduate music majors and an entrepreneur program, so they too are a potential source of candidates for internships. If we are able to identify good candidates, we have an opportunity to develop a collaboration at minimal cost.

The PSO has used CMU business and arts management interns to help develop and sustain its community projects.  CMU arts management graduate student Jessi Ryan, who first worked with me at the PSO writing the Music and Wellness Musician Handbook and is now on the PSO staff, helped develop workshops at CMU (which I taught at no cost to the school) for musicians who wanted to play in hospitals of at the VA Campus. Jessi wrote up the class proposal, project description, project logic model, deliverables, assumptions and indicator table, training brief and recommendations, the evaluation forms and introductory letter to students in the class, and arranged meeting times based around student schedules; in short, all the support services that made the workshops possible. She got Arts Management credit for doing it, and we were able to pilot a meaningful program. The cost to the PSO and CMU for starting the class was minimal.

Why do all three institutions like this collaboration?

The universities are happy because their students are better prepared for creating or finding jobs in the community, and they gain valuable work experience. The hospital gains a sustainable stream of musicians and music therapists at minimal cost. The PSO gains invaluable low-cost support for its staff, and a potential stream of more experienced candidates for staff positions.  All of our music-related programs get greater visibility in a positive way, because we are improving quality of life for current patients and helping to support family members in profound ways. And we are helping the net generation of university graduates better serve their community’s needs.


First presented April 2012 at the Society for the Arts in Healthcare national conference in Detroit, MI. Updated March 2016