by Andrew DeCanniere
Recently, while on Twitter, I stumbled upon Sharing Notes, a wonderful organization based in Chicago that brings together musicians who want to give of their time and talent to perform for patients at local hospitals. Currently, Sharing Notes musicians perform at three different area hospitals: Prentice Women’s Hospital, La Rabida Children’s Hospital, and the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago. This week I had the opportunity to speak with cellist Allegra Montanari, the organization’s Founder and Executive Director. Read on to see what she had to say about the program, its history, its volunteer musicians and much more...
UR Chicago (UR): To be honest, I hadn’t heard of Sharing Notes myself until recently. I just happened to stumble upon it on Twitter. However, the organization itself has been around for a couple of years now, right?
Allegra Montanari (AM): I decided to take action on the idea back in January of 2012, so it’s kind of the two year anniversary of Sharing Notes. We have expanded from our initial partnership to three [hospitals] that we now serve, and from one performance a month to six a month, typically.
UR: It seems that it’s grown considerably in a relatively short amount of time.
AM: It has. I’m really happy with that. Part of it was my commitment to it, saying ‘Okay, now I’m really going to see where this can go,’ instead of just ‘This is a good idea.’ The other component of it was realizing how much need there was for this type of service in the hospitals. Music does incredible things.
UR: It reminds me of this blog entry I recently read. It was written by this person who has been sick for most of her life, and she’s been in and out of hospitals for many years. She wrote about what it was like to exist in that kind of isolation. In her case I think it was something like a year long. It’s not something that we think about all the time, but when people are in the hospital, they don’t really have the same easy access to that.
AM: Right. Exactly. Health is a gift, first of all, but music is also a gift. It’s something that, ironically enough, musicians sometimes take for granted. We’re surrounded by it. So, part of the reason that I started [Sharing Notes] was to reconnect musicians, focusing primarily on people in my age group who are pursuing careers — twenty-somethings and early thirty-somethings —to remind us of why we decided to do this in the first place. Music spoke to us, and it speaks to other people. It’s a gift. We think of that gift, oftentimes, as being for an audience, but as musicians the gift is also for us.
UR: It's obvious that the patients really get something out of the performance, but it's clear that it's tremendously gratifying for you as well. Giving back to the community is something that has always been important to me, and it’s great that there are a whole bunch of people out there like your volunteers who want to give back to the community, too.
AM: Thank you. The Sharing Notes musicians are amazing. They are not only talented performers, but they are people with giving and kind spirits who are dedicated and passionate about serving others with their music. I am so thankful for the incredible people who have helped make all of this possible, and for all they have done to share their gifts with those who need them.
UR: I know that, as you had said, the organization was formed in 2012, and that it came out of a desire to give back, but how did the whole thing start? You’d said it had stemmed from this idea of, and desire to, make it easier for musicians to give back to their communities.
AM: It was my desire to give back to my community, along with my frustration at the lack of opportunity to do that. As a budding professional, you’re so focused on self-improvement and building a network for jobs, things that are inherently self-centered — not in a bad way, just by necessity — but I wanted to change our conversation, to say as musicians we’re not only people who make music, but we’re caregivers. We’re service providers. So, that started me taking action.
I approached Dean Henry Fogel of the Chicago College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University, where I was finishing school, and I said that I had this idea. Roosevelt University has this huge social justice mission – through the Mansfield Institute for Social Justice and Transformation, they do incredible work with correctional facilities and school systems. It’s a really great program, but the music conservatory wasn’t doing anything to follow through on this mission. At the time, I had friends at the Feinberg School of Medicine, and they helped me get connected with some different [hospital venues]. The first partnership that came out of that was the Prentice Women’s Hospital, where we play for men and women on three different oncology floors. That’s how we got started performing in April of 2012. Since then, we have given 60 performances for our three hospital partnerships, and we have engaged 76 different volunteer musicians.
UR: Well, I think the concept is a wonderful one, and I think that the hospitals are really recognizing the need for it, too, which brings me to my next question. If there are other hospitals who would like to partner with you or musicians who would like to become involved, how can they do that?
AM: The best way is probably to reach out to me through e-mail or through the contact form on our website. That way you can learn more about what we do currently, and if you want to support the mission or get involved, that’s the best way to do it.
UR: As far as musicians themselves, are you looking for more volunteers?
AM: We are always looking for more volunteers. Currently about 75 percent of the musicians come from Roosevelt University’s Chicago College of Performing Arts. They’re our sponsor institution, and it fits part of the vision of Sharing Notes to empower young professionals with values of philanthropy, communication and audience engagement. However, we do engage people from the larger Chicago community — mostly classical artists. We’re definitely open to other musicians and we’re always looking for new, committed, and dedicated, passionate volunteers.
UR: You spoke a bit about the power of music and the connection that people have to it. How did you decide to be a professional musician? When did you know that this is what you want to do?
AM: I started playing piano when I was around five-years-old. That was mostly because my mother had loved it when she was in middle school, and so she wanted my sister and I to have the chance to learn music as well. I kept my piano studies up, but when I was in fifth grade the local middle school orchestra director came by and brought all of these different instruments — everything from the harp to trumpet to triangle to cello — and I tried everything. From the minute I played the cello, I knew that was the sound I wanted to be making. I loved it. It was just a kind of an ‘aha moment,’ that went off and I said ‘This is it. This is mine. I’m done.’ It turns out I had a knack for it somehow, so I kept practicing. I was still academically-oriented outside of music. I thought I was going to go into some kind of science, chemical engineering or something, like my father. Then I got to senior year and my private teacher cautioned me against going into music. She said ‘Don’t go into music unless you can’t live without it,’ which was hard to hear. I said ‘Okay,’ then I auditioned for music schools and the rest is history.
UR: You perform for very different groups, as far as audiences go. There would be a very different dynamic, I’d imagine, between, say, Prentice Women’s Hospital and La Rabida Children’s Hospital. I know your organization also tailors the performances to the audience, to the age group you’re performing for.
AM: I’m glad you brought that up, because that was something I wanted to discuss as well. The whole mission is serving the audience, and in order to do that, you have to figure out what the audience wants and how to bring them into your musical world. How to engage them, how to make them feel better. With different demographics, with different age groups, different walks of life, you’re going to have to do that in different ways. When we visit the Prentice Women’s Hospital and play for the three oncology wards, most of the patients enjoy the soothing classical music. We actually play in the hallways, so it’s not only the audience but also the venue we have to think about with our music. We can’t play loud music, because it will actually get in the way of the service of the hospital.
In the La Rabida Children’s Hospital, it’s a completely different story. You have kids ranging anywhere from one-year-old to 18, and our goal is to help the kids have fun, to bring them into our music in a way that’s interactive, it’s energetic and upbeat. We do things like the drum circle, where all the kids get to play the drums and learn rhythms. So, they’re not only seeing a performance, they’re actually a part of it. It’s an incredible hospital with incredible caregivers, and we work very closely with the Child Life Department to do these performances, but when you’re a little kid, and most of the attention you’re getting is related to your illness everyday, to just sit and play a drum is a really fun thing.
UR: It really seems that it’s educational, but also just shifts the focus.
AM: Right. Exactly, and there are kids who have developmental delays, so they might not speak or move as other children do, but it’s incredible to see how they have changed from the time you start making music to the end of the performance. They light up. They dance. They clap. As musicians, to see that, to be a part of that, it brings you so much joy. It’s one of my favorite places to go to in the entire world.
UR: I’ve done some research since learning about the program, but is there anything else you’d like to share with regards to the organization?
AM: As I mentioned, all of these performances are currently free to the hospitals. It’s volunteer- based, so this is something that the musicians are doing on their own time, because they believe in it. Our goal is to empower young professionals. These three different venues give them practice on how to engage an audience, how to adapt and respond within a performance Sometimes we get requests. That’s never something you’re going to get in a recital venue of a classical performance.
UR: And, in a way, it has to just be a great change of pace. I was on your website, and if I remember correctly, that sort of informality of the whole thing, and the whole improvisation aspect, are things that were touched upon. That’s a pretty different dynamic in and of itself.
AM: Right. It is, but it’s something that is becoming more important with the way that we connect to our audiences. That type of engagement is becoming more common, so it’s good for us to know how to do.
UR: As far as donating to your organization, do you take donations or how does that all work as far as keeping the organization going, keeping it viable, and perhaps even helping it expand?
AM: We’re in the process of some exciting developments in addition to working on covering volunteer costs for transportation and expenses such as flu shots. We want to get a real piano for the Prentice Women’s Hospital. Right now we just have a little electric keyboard. We’re building a music library, so that our volunteers can check repertoire out from us and don’t have to go fishing for some of these tried and true selections that we know. We’re taking steps to really improve the service that we give. Donations are definitely appreciated and welcome.
UR: I just wanted to be sure to touch upon that as well, since it is such a worthwhile cause doing such amazing work — and because giving back to the community is something that has always been important to me.
AM: Thank you so much. I know that it’s a cause we’ve all been affected by in some way. Whether it’s an extended hospital stay, or having volunteered in the past and understanding the impact that it makes not only on who you’re providing the service for, but also you personally, it makes a huge difference. When I was in the hospital with my grandmother last year, one of the most comforting things for her — she didn’t know how to work technology, but I had my iPhone, and I had Spotify, and I said ‘Grandma, do you want to listen to anything?’ She was very sick at that point but she said ‘I want to listen to Kiri.’ — that’s Kiri Te Kanawa, who is one of the most famous opera singers ever — and so we put it on and she just calmed down and she kept clicking the screen so she could see Kiri’s face and listened to this music that she loved and she was calm. Almost everyone has been affected by an extended hospital stay in some way — and that we understand that it’s not a pleasant place to be, but music can make it much more bearable.
UR: My grandmother was sick for some time too — she actually passed away in 2006 — and we did something similar for her. She had this really old clock radio that hadn’t worked for many years. We purchased this new clock radio for her with a CD player and bought a few CDs for her to listen to and we played them for her. It really does seem that music just has this ability to calm a person, an ability to remove them from the situation a little bit — at least in as much as that’s possible.
AM: Exactly. It takes you to another place, a much better place.
Allegra Montanari is a cellist and the Founder and Executive Director of Sharing Notes. She lives in Chicago. To learn more about Sharing Notes, to volunteer or to donate to the program, please visit their website or call 313-444-0641. You can also follow Sharing Notes on Twitter @SharingNotes and friend them on Facebook.
This article originally appeared in Chicago Splash Magazine on January 19th, 2014.
Photos: Courtesy of Sharing Notes