Violins & Vaccines: Boston Hope Music Moves Fast to Play Live at Mass Vaccine Sites

If the Boston Hope Music effort were described in musical terms, it would have to be some sort of jazz piece due to the improvisational nature and the quick jumps from one place to the other that the live music effort has displayed throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

Now, with safety protocols in place, Boston Hope Music (BHM) has begun playing live string music at the Fenway Park mass vaccination site – having already played two sessions there this week for folks waiting in line to get their COVID-19 vaccine. With a nod to two previous efforts they conducted – one with recorded performances at the Boston Hope Field Hospital last year and the other an online music lesson program taught by New England Conservatory (NEC) students for front-line healthcare workers – the latest effort to play live during vaccination sessions is being dubbed BHM 3.0.

Several musicians from Boston Hope Music gather before the first music session at the Fenway Park Mass Vaccination Site last week. The program has used music throughout the pandemic in an ad hoc way as therapy. First, at the Boston Hope Field Hospital last spring, then providing front-line health care workers with online music lessons, and now playing live at mass vaccination sites to take the edge off the experience.

“Having this music for those touched by it has been so critical to their daily survival,” said Lisa Wong, a pediatrician and co-founder of BHM. “We began to think about the vaccine centers. We were thinking that if we were going to be vaccinated, it meant going there with a mix of hope, frustration, anger and anxiety…What can help you get your mind out of that place and to heal is music. So, 3.0 was on its way and going to mass vaccination centers and healing with music.”

Said Andres Ballesteros, executive director of Eureka Ensemble, “Receiving a vaccination can be a stressful experience, so we’re happy to do what we can to support Fenway and other mass vaccination sites.”

BHM was founded as a wellness program at the field hospital Boston Hope Medical Center by Dr. Ronald Hirschberg and Dr. Wong and is organized under the auspices of fiscal sponsor Eureka Ensemble. The BHM team also includes Winsor Music, the New England Conservatory, and Massachusetts General

Hospital. Wong explained that for BHM 3.0, the group has worked with Fenway Park to maintain strict health protocols for volunteer musicians, including mask wearing and social distancing. Local musicians will perform at Fenway Park on weekdays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. until the site’s closure on March 27. They do hope to continue the effort when the site moves to the Hynes Convention Center as well.

Dr. Kathy Tran was a recipient of BHM 2.0, which paired NEC students with front-line health care workers last year. The program taught them, or re-taught them, music lessons on a variety of instruments. For Tran, she had played violin many years ago, but had put it away in the closet for the last 15 years. With an opportunity to pick it back up as part of the program, she discovered the therapy it provided after spending many stressful hours in a hospital.

“Music as therapy, that’s the common thread through all of this,” she said. “We’ve been consistently echoing this idea of treating people with music – first patients at the Convention Center and then the doctors. I, as a doctor, didn’t know how powerful music could be as a treatment until I received this treatment myself…Now we’re bringing that treatment to the community. From the virtual recordings to the Zoom lessons to now playing live. It’s been an evolution of the same idea and going more and more into the community.”

Ballesteros said while the musical therapy has been key for patients and providers, being able to play music has been a just as important. Many musicians haven’t been able to play live for a year, and many more have only had limited times to play with another person and feel the connection that the language of music builds between performers.

With that, he said the musician community has been clamoring to sign up for slots to play at Fenway, and virtually every slot is filled at the moment. However, they do expect to add more slots for opportunities to play when they expand to the Assembly Row and Reggie Lewis vaccination sites.

“For the musician side, much of the excitement has been just being able to play for someone,” he said. “Last week at Fenway was the first time I’ve played for a real live human being I don’t live with…It’s been a joy feeding off everyone’s energy – other musicians, and students and patients. It’s not only playing with an audience, but also playing with other musicians because we’ve missed that too.”

Now the question on their minds as they continue to play for the vaccine sites is what they will do when that operation is completed.

“This is a healing program for me because of the creativity coming from everyone – everyone brings something to the table and we figure it out,” said Wong. “As the pandemic ends, do we end? We know there is going to be a lot of healing necessary. It has been food for the soul for the past year.”

Musicians interested in volunteering to perform can l earn more at w ww.bostonhopemusic.org.

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