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Arts & Life

Medical Orchestra Returns To The Stage To Honor COVID-19 Patients, Health Care Workers

It's well-documented that music can be medicinal, improving brain function and lowering stress. But when you're an essential worker during a pandemic, taking time out for music can be tough. KUNC's Stacy Nick met up with a unique orchestra that’s just beginning to find its way back to the stage.

When she picks up her viola to play at the Health Sciences Tribute Concert, Cheryl Hite will be thinking of one person.

“My sister — little sister — was one of the first COVID victims here in Fort Collins,” Hite said. “Hospitalized. Recovered. Was doing quite well at home and then she was... sudden death, July 21st.”

The Sunday afternoon concert is part of an effort to honor health care workers, as well as those impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. It will be Hite’s first performance in more than six months.

“I hope I can play well to honor her,” she said.

"Music and science can both be considered somewhat analytical and both art."
Cheryl Hyte

Professionally, Hite is an immunologist, not a musician. She’s also a member of the Health and Wellness Community Orchestra, a medical orchestra made up mainly of Northern Colorado health care workers looking to find room in their hectic lives for music.

“It shuts off my science brain for a couple hours,” Hite said. “Music and science can both be considered somewhat analytical and both art. But science trends to the very analytical so letting that part of my brain rest and focusing on music is such a relief.”

That’s exactly why Dr. Ann Yanagi started the orchestra 12 years ago out of Poudre Valley Hospital, with rehearsals in the hospital cafeteria.

“I was a violin player in high school,” said the now retired emergency medicine physician. “And I thought, I kind of miss music and I bet there’s a bunch of other medical people on staff here — including a staff of 500 physicians — who like me, took years and years of music lessons, had instruments and then as soon as you hit college or beyond, all of the sudden, they go away. And I bet they miss playing ensemble music as much as I did.”

The orchestra started in Fort Collins with about 30 members, eventually growing to more than 120 thanks in part to interest from outside the medical community.

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The Health and Wellness Community Orchestra started with only medical staff but has expanded to include people from a variety of professions.

“We are all musicians when we come to rehearsal,” Yanagi said. “We get to put all our professional lives on the side and enjoy creating a sound with each other. It’s a stress buster. It brings out so much joy and happiness in everybody.”

That joy was put on hold in early March when the shutdown began due to the pandemic. The group’s makeup made them uniquely in need of the stress-relieving impact of the music, but it also put them more at risk.

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Stacy Nick / KUNC
Retired emergency medicine physician and Wellness Orchestra violinist Dr. Ann Yanagi founded the orchestra in 2008.

“I could see with the outbreaks occurring that my colleagues were going to be hit terribly with this,” Yanagi said. “This was such a dangerous epidemic because we knew so little about COVID.”

Since then, they’ve been patiently waiting for an opportunity to play once again.

Masked up and socially distanced, the orchestra is now preparing for its first concert back — at least some of it. As a safety precaution, it was decided that for now they would stick to stringed instruments that did not require blowing air through them, like brass and woodwinds.

When picking out the repertoire, music director Leslie Stewart said they wanted to take the audience on a journey.

While the concert itself is to celebrate the opening of Front Range Community College’s new Health Care Careers Center, the musical choices were about honoring health care workers and those who’ve been impacted most by the pandemic, Stewart said. Particularly one piece.

“We’re going to do the ‘Adagio for Strings’ by Samuel Barber, which is often used by conductors — especially here in the United States — as a way of expressing remembrance and sorrow,” she said.

While they won’t have a live audience — the concert is being live streamed from the atrium of the HCCC — violist Cheryl Hite hopes the music resonates with those listening online.

“I hope they embrace it with their souls,” she said. “And I hope that there’s a person in their life that they miss that is either completely absent from this earth now that they’ll honor by listening to the Adagio or maybe somebody that is just so far away that they can’t embrace them with what’s going on, with our world-wide situation, that I hope they feel that music like I do.”

The Health and Wellness Community Orchestra will perform its virtual Health Sciences Tribute Concert at 3 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 4 at livestream.com/frcc/healthconcert.