Feature story: From ambient to upbeat

Stanford Hospital's music program goes beyond soothing, with genres including jazz, Latin, Hawaiian and Western swing

As gray rainy light filters down through the Stanford Hospital atrium windows, it's met by cheerful Western swing music on its way up.

On the ground floor, the musicians in the band The Saddle Cats are playing a sweet Texan schottische, sending the sounds of fiddle and vocals, guitars and bass emanating up through the building. People lean over three stories of railings to watch.

Music from these midday atrium concerts is said to reach even many hospital rooms. Other patients come down to see the band in wheelchairs and slippers, some with medical monitors in tow. Doctors and nurses sit in scrubs. Some staffers bring their lunches.

Today, as The Saddle Cats play upbeat dance tunes and ballads with roots in the 1930s, '40s and '50s, singer and fiddler Richard Chon keeps up a friendly patter as casual as his cowboy hat.

"I call Western swing the Reese's peanut-butter cup of American music," he says, painting a verbal picture of jazz and country musicians bumping into each other. "Hey, you got country music in my jazz! Well, you got some jazz in my country music!"

Guitarist Gordon Clegg, his hair combed up into a high swoopy curl, grins. The audience grins. A small girl covered with blankets in a wheelchair doesn't smile, but her foot taps in time when the tunes start again.

Some people believe that music has scientific healing properties. Others say it simply makes us happier and more relaxed. Either way, music can warm the days of people who are ill, and it has become a popular feature of many hospital programs.

What's interesting about Stanford's music program is its diversity. It features the traditionally soothing sounds of piano, harp and voice, including ambient piano music at the Stanford Cancer Center, and harpists and singers who visit patients' rooms.

In addition, patients can also request CD players and CDs, with program coordinators suggesting albums for different moods. In December, the Marin Dance Theatre performs a holiday ballet in the atrium.

Beyond that, though, the program hosts three public concert series with many flavors of sound. The Bing Music Series in the Hospital Atrium, which has featured The Saddle Cats a number of times, encompasses styles as different as Hawaiian and Irish music, French country songs, Cuban salsa and classical.

There's also a summer outdoor concert series with a variety of musicians. And new this year is a third program: the Caregivers Concert Series, in which the musicians are Stanford doctors, nurses, therapists, administrators and technicians. Music has benefits not only for the patients, but for the people who care for them, says Greg Kaufman, director of the music program.

The caregiver series kicked off in January with a sextet from the neurosciences department: the rock group HyperTonics. On May 26, the scheduled act is the Pipette Quartet, playing Mozart.

"This is for the performers and their colleagues, a way to de-stress and have fun," Kaufman says in the atrium, after The Saddle Cats' concert is over. "It's a pilot program. There'll be four (caregivers' concerts) this year."

Kaufman says that increasing musical diversity has been a goal of his throughout the music program. Community donations have helped, especially those from Helen and Peter Bing, after whom the atrium series is named.

"We wanted to introduce folks to new music forms," Kaufman says, "and we have patients from all over the world."

Foreign-language skills are not necessary for concert audiences, of course. "Once we had a Latin singer who was very sensual," Kaufman recalls. "One patient laughed and said, 'I don't speak Spanish, but I know exactly what she's saying.'"

Kaufman said he believes that Stanford is one of the main hospitals in the country to make such widespread use of music, along with the Mayo Clinic. That institution has a large Humanities in Medicine program that includes concerts, live theater and dance, music and creative-writing workshops, and films. Speaking of musical diversity, the musicians who have performed at the clinic's campuses include a concert tuba player.

At the Minnesota Mayo Clinic, there is also a Cardiovascular Surgery Healing Enhancement Program that includes music therapy. The program's description states that "Music therapy may promote relaxation and reduce anxiety, which may decrease pain, improve your mood and promote better sleep."

Back at Stanford, Joseph Mollick, a staff physician in the Cancer Center, says in an interview that he especially likes the harp music played by Barbary Grant in the areas where patients get chemotherapy. When she begins to play, people turn the TVs down and everything gets hushed. "Instinctively they know that this is really special. It really does transform the small suites," he says.

When asked about his beliefs on whether music can be healing, Mollick says: "There have been all sorts of efforts for people with life-threatening illnesses, to have them interact with art. ... All that is meant to release dopamine into people's brains and help them feel warmer and good about something."

He continues, "It's an important part of the Cancer Center, trying to overcome the inherent stress ... anything we can do to minimize the heavy heart that people have when they walk in here."

Back in the atrium, after The Saddle Cats' performance is over, audience member Liya Murphy is also positive. Her father sees a doctor at Stanford, and she has enjoyed the opportunity to watch the concert and let her young son dance around in his rubber rain boots.

The music also seems beneficial for the people around her dealing with illnesses, she says. "It gets the patients' minds off it." She adds that she appreciates the less "teary" kinds of music being played.

Nearby, Kaufman looks around with pleasure at the atrium. "This room is so good acoustically; it's so open and has lots of glass," he says. "It's almost like an opera house. The sound just develops up."

Kaufman himself has plenty of experience in sound. A singer and guitarist, he came to Stanford in 1997 when his friend was being treated for lung cancer. He asked what he could do to help, and his friend asked him to play his guitar.

Kaufman began performing regularly at the hospital with his blues band, The Circuit Breakers. When the director position at the music program opened up, he was happy to move away from his more intense career in advertising.

These days, one of his goals is to have the program's concerts shown on the hospital's closed-circuit TV system, so even more patients can see them.

As The Saddle Cats pack up their gear, Chon says he loves performing at the hospital.

"I think we're transferring healthy energy to these people, and that makes me feel good," he says. "Who'd think that vibrations in the air could make you feel better?"

Info: For more on Stanford Hospital's music program, call 650-725-2892 or go to and click on "Services for Guests." Upcoming free public concerts in the Bing Music Series in the Hospital Atrium include a performance at 12:30 p.m. on Wednesday, April 6, by The Fools on the Hill: guitarist Mike Wollenberg and multi-instrumentalist Steve Hanson. The pair play instrumental arrangements of Beatles music.

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Like this comment
Posted by neighbor
a resident of another community
on Apr 5, 2011 at 1:07 pm

Thank you SO MUCH for this "Good News" story --- on what so often seems to be an electronic posting board for negativity, with complains not only towards SU but about just about everything in the area.

The music program is just one of the wonderful SU programs. Having been in a challenging medical situation at Stanford, I can vouch for their sincere interest in finding a range of ways to support the whole patient and their family.

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