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Concerts in Care

Health Arts Society

David Lemon isn’t looking for a pat on the back. Through his work he has been providing elderly Canadians in care with meaningful moments of joy, but he is far from satisfied. What he desperately wants is to make a bigger difference – more often, and for more people.

His charitable organization, Health Arts Society (HAS), brings professional musicians to often bleak institutions where they give live performances, known as Concerts in Care, to residents who are no longer mobile. The audiences are mixed. Some are in bathrobes; some are in wheelchairs; many are frail, confused, ill or unhappy. Their individual musical tastes may vary, but the performances invariably inspire feelings of deep pleasure. Once, a 92-year-old woman approached the performers after a concert of opera arias. “I never knew that I would like opera,” she said. “To think that I might have died without hearing any!”

It’s the kind of comment that gives Lemon’s work meaning. “The capacity to be surprised and delighted never goes away,” he says. “But when you live in long-term care, I think it’s fair to say that surprise and delight aren’t often part of life. We bring that to them.” Not, however, as often as he’d like to. “Of course it’s delightful and gratifying that people enjoy the programs. It’s also maddening that we can’t do more.”

Lemon, former owner of The Magic Flute music store, founded Health Arts Society in BC in 2006. Since that time, the concept has spread across Canada.The societies operate independently but share a common purpose, as well as some operating costs and staff. As such, a team of four full-time and two part-time staff have been able to bring a total of 7,500 professional-calibre concerts to people in care, with an average audience of 40 at each performance.

He had the idea while observing friends and family members transition to end-of-life care in residential institutions. What was missing from their experience was the rich cultural environment that previously had been integral to their lives. “These people are rather neglected, and coming to the end of their lives,” he says. “They’re not looking forward to a lot of new experiences.” And unlike a film or a play, music speaks on an emotional level that reaches even people with dementia. “It’s the most wonderful thing you can do for them.”

Scientific research suggests that music is highly therapeutic for people with dementia. So when HAS first started, some people insisted that it should present its case as therapy, but Lemon insists the program has a more straightforward reason for being. “We know it’s therapeutic, but our case is for normalizing the lives of people in care.”

And normal life means access to music not because it’s therapeutic, but simply because it’s beautiful – because it has an ability to lift our spirits. “It’s a shame that to make a case for people in care it has to be such an enormously loud one,” says Lemon. “I wish we could express it more quietly and gently. We tend to think of them as a separate species. And they aren’t.”

Each 45-minute concert delivers moments of surprise and delight, with caregivers observing expressions of obvious joy. Patients who had been virtually unresponsive are suddenly moved to dance, sing, conduct or clap their hands. One woman had been seriously depressed, refusing to leave her room for days. When she heard that pianist Robert Silverman was coming to play, she asked to get dressed, and to have her hair fixed and lipstick applied. She went to the concert and talked about it for days afterward.

Silverman himself has played some of the world’s most illustrious concert halls, to audiences that included Pierre and Margaret Trudeau and Prince Charles. He has also been involved with HAS since its inception – an experience he finds profoundly satisfying. “I can’t tell you the number of times someone in a wheelchair grabs my arm and says, ‘I never thought I’d hear music played like this again in my life,’” he says.

Yuel Yawney, a violinist with the Borealis String Quartet, echoes the sentiment. “The venue isn’t Carnegie Hall, but the audience is even more appreciative. Sometimes it’s sad for me to go to these places, but it’s gratifying that we can do something that makes a difference to their lives.”

Both Lemon and Silverman vividly recall one patient in particular. At Brock Fahrni (a residential care facility) in Vancouver, a gentleman in a wheelchair, suffering from Parkinson’s and dementia, approached them after the performance. He introduced himself as Frank Doyle, mentioned that he was a composer and indicated the pushcart of musical scores at his feet. Silverman asked to have a look at the songs and immediately discovered a true gem. “It was absolutely delightful,” recalls Lemon.

Shortly after, Lemon commissioned an arrangement of the piece to include other instruments, and had it performed at The Chan Centre as part of a public concert featuring other HAS musicians. He invited Frank Doyle, who was able to see his composition played by an entire ensemble to a standing ovation. It was a memorable event in all of their lives, and an especially bright moment for Doyle, who died three months later.

Vancouver Foundation awarded HAS a $30,000 grant towards Beethoven, Bob and Borealis in BC, a program that has Robert Silverman and the Borealis String Quartet each performing 100 Beethoven-rich concerts this year, reaching a combined audience of approximately 8,000. “Beethoven speaks to our humanity,” says Yawney. “There’s a depth to our communication that he elicits from the audiences. And these audiences have amassed the most life experience, so maybe the music speaks to them at an even deeper level.”

The Beethoven program is just a small part of the HAS BC agenda for 2013. In total, they expect to perform some 800 concerts in 100 homes. “I don’t want to overstretch how much we’re doing,” says David Lemon. “I want to stress how much needs to be done. I’m not satisfied.” VF

To find out more about Health Arts Society, call 604-230-2732 or email To support programs like this, call Vancouver Foundation’s Development and Donor Services at 604-688-2204.

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