October 22, 2018

Volunteer musicians enrich lives at Cedars-Sinai

In a place filled with highly trained medical professionals, there is another dedicated group that contributes to the healing process: musicians.

Every week, 25 to 30 volunteers play for patients, visitors and staff at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center through its Music for Healing program, creating an environment intended to help restore patients to health and improve quality of life.

There are 13 pianists who play two- to four-hour shifts in the plaza level lobby of the hospital’s South Tower every weekday, from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. Add to that guitarists, a flutist, a harpist and vocalists who visit patients’ rooms to bring them musical cheer.

Music for Healing was orchestrated at Cedars-Sinai about 14 years ago by Barbara Leanse, director of volunteer services. 

“One of our nurses had attended a convention where he learned about a music and healing program, and he told me about it,” she said. 

After the hospital was gifted a Yamaha baby grand piano, the program was launched and quickly struck a chord with patients and staff. “The music changes the environment of the hospital lobby,” Leanse said.

Tammi Weinstein, the program’s coordinator for the past nine years, is responsible for the recruitment, selection and scheduling of the musicians. She said the hospital is always looking for volunteer musicians, and the summer months are typically appealing to teens and students.

The end result is an atmosphere that helps anyone within earshot. She recalled some patients who went to the lobby to play the piano shortly before they died, as well as the boost the music gives to employees.

“This program gives the staff a place they can go in the hospital and close their minds for a short time and not think whether a patient is going to live or die by enjoying the music,” Weinstein said.

Alan Ascher, 64, of West Los Angeles, has been tickling the ivories at Cedars-Sinai for six years. Every Wednesday from 9 to 11 a.m., Ascher, a self-employed freelance pianist, can be heard playing music that entertains, relaxes and stirs the memory bank for listeners.

Alan Ascher’s talent on the piano has been enriching lives at Cedars-Sinai for six years. 

Ascher became involved in Music for Healing at the encouragement of a friend. 

“My best friend’s wife was a nurse at Cedars-Sinai and she suggested I inquire about the Music for Healing program. I met with Tammi and signed up for every Wednesday morning,” Ascher said. 

He enjoys his weekly dose of tikkun olam (repairing the world). 

“It is hard not to get emotional each week as I meet the patients coming in for care, as well as providing a little rest and relaxation for the staff, who are very generous with their comments letting me know we are appreciated,” he said.

There was one patient who left a particularly strong impression.

“A rabbi introduced himself to me after six months of being a patient. He had various brain surgeries requiring constant hospitalization. The rabbi came down every Wednesday and sat unnoticed in the corner, listening to my music. He said the weekly dose of relaxing music helped him get through the ordeal,” Ascher said. “We both had tears as he told me the story.”

Ascher, who has played piano since he was a child, said he has a repertoire of 600 to 700 songs — including “The Way We Were” and “Memory” — but cannot read a note of sheet music. 

“I knew at age 10 I could play by ear. I listened to what has grown into a large LP collection and was able to learn the tunes and chords by listening to the albums over and over. Learning to create your own arrangements is just one benefit of having to play by ear,” he explained.

Maybe he was meant to hang out in a hospital — before settling on a career in music, Ascher wanted to be a doctor and studied chemistry. 

“My chemistry degree came about because I was pre-med at the time and needed so much chemistry and biology to apply to med school that I just went ahead and got a double major,” he said. “I ended up not getting accepted to med school, but I was a chemist for four years back in Chicago, and I feel to this day the healing I sought to provide by a career in medicine is being done through my music.”

Ascher is often recognized outside of the hospital for his piano playing by those who have heard him at Cedars-Sinai. 

“You never know who’s listening,” he said. “I’ve been approached and thanked at bus stops, in line at Ralphs, waiting in line at a coffee shop and playing pickup basketball on the court. It is a blessing to be able to provide even a little comfort to the human experience of going to a hospital. More than one doctor plays my CD in the background during surgeries.”

Officials at Cedars-Sinai appreciate Ascher’s contribution. “There is so much I can say about Alan. He’s loyal, talented, caring and compassionate,” Weinstein said.

And Ascher’s not alone. For three months, Amity Eliaz, of Brentwood, has been bringing her guitar and vocals directly to Cedars-Sinai patients. She said the volunteer program lets her combine her two passions — medicine and music. The 25-year-old, both of whose parents are from Israel, recently was accepted to the UC San Francisco School of Medicine.

She plays at the hospital from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Thursdays, and said she feels she is making a contribution to the community. 

“This is an amazing experience. The patients are so grateful,” she said. “People are in different places. The music inspires changes. For some patients, our music is all they have.”

For those who need a little more spiritual help, Ascher said that’s easy to find, too.

“The chapel is located directly across the lobby from the piano. In case the piano music doesn’t provide enough comfort and peace, one can always step across the hall and appeal to a higher source.”