Symphony of Soul: Providing musical medicine for those who need it most
Nov 27, 2011 | 1:10 pm
Leslie Hyland-Rodgers was sitting at her mother's bedside at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. After being diagnosed with Stage Three cancer, Leslie's mother was scheduled for surgery.
“Les, I’m so terrified," her mother said. "I don’t want to die. Would you sing to me? Perhaps it might make me feel better if you’d sing to me.”
Leslie’s heart broke to hear such fear in her mother’s voice, but she closed her eyes and sang soft, meditative prayer melodies. She didn't realize that the nurse had opened the door to the room until she opened her eyes. The other cancer patients in the ward had gotten out of their beds and were standing just outside the doorway, listening.
"I saw what a powerful affect music had on the patients and I knew I had to do something about it," Leslie says. "I settled in Austin and launched Symphony of Soul."
She created the organization as a means of serving two groups of people: her fellow artists and individuals who are confined to institutions. After majoring in Vocal Performance at the University of Texas, Leslie went on to train and work as an actress and singer in New York, Paris and Los Angeles.
Well acquainted with the struggles and successes of a life in show business, she wanted to create an opportunity for local artists that would allow them to share their gifts with others in a meaningful and dignified manner while also receiving extra income to support their craft. Leslie noted an untapped market in hospitals, shelters, rehab centers, retirement homes and other institutions where people are feeling lonely, fearful, isolated and depressed and greatly in need of the healing that music can provide.
The nonprofit is now in its 11th year, providing live "musical medicine for the soul" to people who are confined in care centers and facing challenging circumstances. Symphony of Soul boasts a roster of about 50 professional musicians in all genres, from jazz and blues to classical, folk, rock, bluegrass and more.
"We serve everyone from infants to senior citizens coping with cancer, homelessness, drug and alcohol addiction, Alzheimer’s and other challenges," says Leslie. "We are honored to provide musical medicine to Dell Children’s Hospital, Hospice Austin’s Christopher House, Austin Children’s Shelter, Trinity Center for the Homeless, Texas Oncology, various Alzheimer’s units, assisted living and retirement centers and more. Wherever there is a need, we are happy to serve."
The painful reality, according to Leslie, is that most people will have an experience dealing with a care center at some point in their lives. Whether facing hospitalization for an illness, undergoing chemo treatments, witnessing an elderly parent struggle through Alzheimer's, visiting a loved one in a nursing home or supporting a friend through overcoming drug or alcohol addiction, most of us will struggle with such suffering at some time.
"There is a great deal of suffering in our world and it’s a comfort to know that Symphony of Soul is lovingly providing our gift to the fragile people who need it the most," Leslie says. She loves her work, feeling that it allows her to utilize her creative talents in a ministry to serve others. Her greatest reward has been to see the ripple effect that Symphony of Soul has created in the lives of so many people over the years. "Not only do the recipients (clients and patients) benefit, but the families, the doctors, the nurses, and all of the professional and volunteer caregivers benefit from hearing the music. In those moments, they can forget their worries and their suffering and feel transported by the music."
Symphony of Soul is also very meaningful for the musicians. "In Austin we proudly declare that we’re the 'Live Music Capitol of the World,' but our musicians are really struggling to put food on the table," Leslie says. "So many Austinites expect to get their music for free and they don’t understand the years of training and sacrifice that goes into a music career. If we really treasure our musicians in Austin, we need to start paying them!" Symphony of Soul pays its musicians well for providing music in care centers. "I know they really appreciate the fact that our organization values them so much."
She has seen the effect, also of the rewards the musicians get from playing in front of an attentive audience. "It’s disheartening to perform in front of a highly critical audience or in a smoky bar when people are talking the whole time and not really paying attention. Again and again, our musicians tell me that performing on behalf of Symphony of Soul is the real experience of sharing music, the real reason they love what they do, and that it continually inspires them in a way that performing in bars and clubs never does."
As a 501(c)3 organization, Symphony of Soul relies on donations to provide services in the community. The organization recently had its first Gospel Brunch fundraiser at Mercury Hall, with music by The Original Bells of Joy. The event was very successful, and Leslie hopes it will become an annual tradition. The next fundraiser will take place on February 9, 2012; the “Symphony of Soul Swingin’ in the Stars Soiree” will be held at The Austonian.
"Music is the tool for doing what we do, but love is the medicine that’s really pouring through the music to the clients," Leslie says. "There is nothing like seeing our clients’ faces light up when they hear a favorite song and they start singing along with you. They feel that love and it’s very healing to them. It’s also very healing for the musicians to feel that love coming back to them. It’s a life-changing experience for all concerned."
For more information, visit www.symphonyofsoul.org