At a recent show by Latin-jazz vocalist Kat Parra, audience members listened appreciatively as the singer performed with accompanists on grand piano, percussion and saxophone. Some paid close attention to the songs; others tapped their feet along with the beat as they checked their phones or sipped a beverage. At the end of each number, everyone applauded.
But this wasn't a typical concert hall or coffeehouse. The venue was Stanford Hospital, and Parra and her band were playing for an audience of visitors, staff and patients -- some with IVs, oxygen masks, wheelchairs and walkers.
Every Wednesday and Friday afternoon, the Bing Music Series in the Hospital Atrium hosts an hour-long concert by distinguished musicians. These shows are free, open to everyone and designed to brighten the hospital's atmosphere.
"The goal is to really have a nice eclectic selection of diverse music," explained Greg Kaufman, the hospital's music-program coordinator. "We have everything from Native-American music to classical to jazz, rock and blues."
Since audience members come from a range of cultures, Kaufman explained, he aims to include top-notch performers in many musical genres.
"The bar is very high for musicianship," he said, noting that the series draws musicians from the Bay Area and beyond. Among the artists and groups featured in the coming weeks are celebrated jazz vocalist Nate Pruitt and guitarist Rick Vandivier of Primary Colors playing soul, pop, Latin and jazz April 29, The Frisky Frolics playing Tin Pan Alley-era classics May 6 and early music ensemble Brocelïande playing Celtic tunes from old Europe and the British Isles May 15.
Philanthropists Helen and Peter Bing created the concert series that bears their name in the mid-1990s, with the intent to incorporate beauty and art into the hospital setting so patients could feel soothed and entertained. Attending a live concert can give patients a sense of connection to the outside world without requiring that they leave the safety of the hospital and their caregivers.
"It lets them feel normal for an hour or two," Kaufman said.
And it isn't just patients who've benefited over the years.
"The staff appreciate it just as much," he added. "It helps them de-stress, which helps them do their job better. It's really wonderful."
Kaufman said he receives many inquiries from artists who are eager to perform in the series, and often gets referrals from friends and staff. Musicians who perform are paid a small honorarium, and say that they find it a meaningful experience.
"They often ask, 'When can I come back?'" Kaufman said.
Though the concerts are meant to serve the hospital community, they're also open to the general public.
"I think they're one of the best-kept secrets in the Bay Area -- no cover charge, top talent," Kaufman said.
The twice-weekly Bing concerts are part of the larger Music Program at Stanford Hospital, which includes weekly outdoor performances in the summer, ambient-piano concerts at the Stanford Cancer Center, a collection of recordings available for patients to borrow, an annual ballet performance and a group of staff musicians providing live harp and guitar music seven days a week on all hospital units.
The on-staff hospital musicians perform in the waiting areas and in patient rooms by request. There's no time limit on how long a musician can stay with patients.
Celtic-harp player Verlene Schermer is a longtime staff musician who said she regularly witnesses the impact music has on the hospital environment.
"The nurses all light up when we come into the unit, and say 'Oh good! We need you today!''' she said. "The stress reduction is the biggest benefit, which I think results in even better patient care."
For patients, Schermer said, music encourages relaxation (not always easy in a busy, noisy atmosphere) and combats boredom and worry.
"In some cases, we do a sing-along of their favorite songs, or I hear about their own experiences learning or performing music. This distraction lightens their mood."
One of the most poignant parts of her job comes at end-of-life situations, she said, describing a time she played "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" for a little girl at her dying father's bedside.
"It is believed that hearing is the last sense to go, so we hope that the music is helpful to the patient," Schermer said. "We know for certain that it is helpful for the family gathered around the patient to say their goodbyes."
Blake Jones recently underwent heart surgery at Stanford Hospital and experienced the impact of the music program firsthand, enjoying classical guitar and harp performances during his stay.
"I'm a lifelong musician myself, and anyone who does this seriously, and who has paid attention to it, can tell you of the healing power of music," Jones said.
Kaufman said that as far as he's aware, Stanford Hospital and the Mayo Clinic were pioneers in developing hospital music programs, but he now receives inquiries from other hospitals looking to incorporate music as a part of their care. Stanford is also unique in having such generous funding to support its program, rather than having to rely on volunteers, he said.
The program was a natural fit for Kaufman, who began his involvement with Stanford when a friend being treated for cancer asked him to play guitar in the hospital. Eventually, Kaufman's classic-blues-and-rock band began performing in the Bing series. In 2006, he was offered the job of music-program coordinator. "It's the finest job I've ever had," he said. "Very gratifying."
To Kaufman, making music a part of healing just makes sense.
"Ancient cultures always incorporated music into medical care," he said. "The Western medical community is now recognizing the benefit of music."
The best testament to the program's importance he has heard was the comment of a patient who remarked simply, "Doctors healed my body, but the music healed my spirit."
What: Bing Music Series in the Hospital Atrium
Where: Stanford Hospital Atrium (Ground Floor, between Units D and E), 300 Pasteur Drive, Stanford
When: Every Wednesday and Friday, 12:30-1:30 p.m.
Info: Go to stanfordhealthcare.org or call 650-725-2892.