HeartStrings is informed by music therapy.
This spring the National Endowment for the Arts awarded a $15,000 Art Works grant to HeartStrings, a Madison Symphony Orchestra program that brings classical music to people with disabilities throughout Dane County. MSO's professional chamber ensemble, the Rhapsodie Quartet, tours 10 sites between September and May, reaching more than 3,000 people who rarely make it to Overture Hall. This is the ninth year the program has received a grant from the NEA.
Michelle Kaebisch, the MSO's director of education and community engagement, says HeartStrings is informed by music therapy. In other words, it's not simply a performance program aimed at raising ticket sales or promoting the symphony. Kaebisch notes that participants are actively engaged in making music at each 45-minute session, learning how to play instruments like therapy bells, egg shakers and hand drums before a song is performed. Each session has about 35 participants and revolves around a theme like "A Night at the Opera" or "Carnival of the Animals."
Kaebisch started working for the MSO shortly after HeartStrings began in 2006. Her background is in education, and she took the position because she feels passionate about using the arts to help children learn. But when she attended her first HeartStrings session, she was skeptical about the program's ability to educate.
The session took place at the Central Wisconsin Center, a state-funded residential facility for severely developmentally disabled people. Caregivers wheeled the participants into the performance space in beds or specially designed wheelchairs. All of the participants lacked verbal communication skills. Yet once the music began, the effect was transformative.
"There was cooing. People who had very contorted postures lifted up their heads and were sitting up. You could really tell they were listening to the music," Kaebisch says. "To see how music was touching them on such a fundamental level, a level they couldn't verbalize but that you could see on their faces... it was truly remarkable and very humbling."
HeartStrings benefits other groups as well, including participants' family members and caregivers, and other orchestras interested in community outreach.
Kaebisch, with the support of the Johnson & Johnson Foundation, wrote and published a toolkit that teaches other performing-arts organizations how to design similar programs. Carnegie Hall requested the first three copies. To date, 300 copies have been sent out nationally, and to countries such as Germany and New Zealand.
At the moment, HeartStrings staff are busy finalizing partner sites for the 2014-15 season. Right now, there is a huge waiting list. Kaebisch hopes that funding boosts such as the Art Works grant will help the program reach more sites in the future.