Author: Nina Falk

Book Recommendations from Nina

Love is Stronger Than Death : The Mystical Union of Two Souls

Bourgeault, Cynthia. New York: Bell Tower, 1999

“Bourgeault, an Episcopal priest and professor of theology, met Brother Raphael Robin in 1990 while attending a Colorado training workshop in centering prayer. The elderly monk lived in seclusion in a mountain cabin. The romantic yet platonic relationship that ensued between the 50-year-old Bourgeault and the 70-year old hermit lasted five years, until his death. Both believed that a relationship can continue beyond this life, and here Bourgeault describes her search for that connection after Robin’s death. The unusual love story is told from a girl-meets-boy perspective. Though some readers will be turned off by the emphasis on the after-death relationship, others will enjoy this well-written telling of an unconventional intimacy. [The book will appeal to those interested in] mysticism, inner transformation, or dealing with grief.” — Leroy Hommerding, Citrus Cty. Lib. Inverness, FL, Library Journal, 03630277, 7/1/1999, Vol. 124, Issue 12

“This is a most unconventional love story: two aging individuals in search of God meet and immediately recognize ‘the beloved’ in the other. Together they attain what they could not do alone. They discover the highest form of human love, a love that joins them as one soul and defies death. This is a spiritual book about human passion.”
— Isabel Allende, author of The House of the Spirits (quoted on

Final Gift : Understanding the Special Awareness, Needs, and Communications of the Dying

Callanan, Maggie and Patricia Kelley. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2012

“This book is aimed at helping the reader understand the “special awareness, needs and communications of the dying.” It was written by two hospice nurses who have been at the bedside of numerous terminally ill patients and their families. It describes “nearing death awareness,” the sometimes puzzling changes that occur as a person nears death. In the final days and hours of life, dying people often make statements or gestures that don’t make sense and seem to indicate confusion. But this book makes a strong case that we need to listen closely to the dying because they are far more aware and in control of the dying process than most of us realize. This book is comforting, but it is also a practical guide for dealing with death. Reading it after my mother’s death helped me make sense of the experience.” — Parker-Pope, T. “Lessons on dying: Essential books to help understand life’s last moments.” Wall Street Journal, August 2, 2005.

On Living

Egan, Kerry. New York: Riverhead Books, 2016

“Lessons about life from those preparing to die. A longtime hospice chaplain, Egan shares what she has learned through the stories of those nearing death. She notices that for every life, there are shared stories of heartbreak, pain, guilt, fear, and regret. Every one of us will go through things that destroy our inner compass and pull meaning out from under us, she writes. Everyone who does not die young will go through some sort of spiritual crisis…The author’s anecdotes are often thought-provoking combinations of sublime humor and tragic pathos. She is not afraid to point out times where she made mistakes, even downright failures, in the course of her work. However, the nature of her work means living in the gray, where right and wrong answers are often hard to identify. A moving, heartfelt account of a hospice veteran.” — “On Living,” Kirkus Reviews, 19487428, 8/15/2016, Vol. 84, Issue 16

Being Mortal: Medicine and what Matters in the End

Gawande, Atul. New York: Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company, 2014

“Dr. Gawande’s book is not of the kind that some doctors write, reminding us how grim the fact of death can be. Rather, he shows how patients in the terminal phase of their illness can maintain important qualities of life.” — Wall Street Journal (quoted on

“Beautifully written . . . In his newest and best book, Gawande has provided us with a moving and clear-eyed look at aging and death in our society, and at the harms we do in turning it into a medical problem, rather than a human one.” — The New York Review of Books (quoted on

Being with Dying: Cultivating Compassion and Fearlessness in the Presence of Death

Halifax, Joan. Boston ; Boulder: Shambhala, 2008

“Joan Halifax reflects intensely on the process of dying. Her underlying theme is that being with the dying can make us ever more present in life. She suggests that the process of coming to terms with dying can be transforming. The book has a spiritual flavor and is told from the perspective of a wise elder. Each chapter begins with a story to illustrate a lesson and ends with a meditative reflection.
The book begins with a discussion of language and of a personal life philosophy and then explores many arenas of life. These include questions of life priorities, finding truth and meaning, letting go of fear, and the possibility of communities of care. Halifax also touches on existential areas related to the dying process such as love, forgiveness, appreciation, and surrendering to the dying process. She finishes the book with an interesting discussion about grief and the care and respect of a body after death. The book is a prescription to achieving fulfillment and meaning in life in the Buddhist tradition.” — Dahlin, Constance. 2010. “Being with Dying – Cultivating Compassion and Fearlessness in the Presence of Death.” Journal of Palliative Medicine, 13, no.1: 88-89.

“In this moving meditation on palliative care, Halifax tells a story about a dying Zen teacher who confesses to his students: “Maybe I will die in fear or pain. Remember there is no right way.” This sentiment forms the core of a book that provides practical and philosophical guidance to caregivers. Drawing on her 30 years of experience in the “contemplative care of the dying,” Halifax honestly enumerates the challenges of being with the dying while exalting it as “a school for unlearning the patterns of resistance… [it] enjoins us to be still, let go, listen, and be open to the unknown.” According to Halifax, “bearing witness to dying” can teach innumerable lessons to the living-assuming “we give up our tight control strategies, our ideas of what it means to die well.” Halifax is a Zen priest, and while many of her teachings derive from Buddhism, her supremely readable book will attract readers of all faiths who will appreciate her clarity and compassion and the poignancy of these stories of ordinary people facing their final hours with quiet courage.” — “Being with Dying: Cultivating Compassion and Fearlessness in the Presence of Death.” Publishers Weekly, 00000019, 4/21/2008, Vol. 255, Issue 16

When Breath Becomes Air

Kalanithi, Paul A. New York: Random House, 2016

“A neurosurgeon with terminal lung cancer writes here about his own dying — and one of the oddest discoveries he shares is the fact that after his diagnosis, he has to live an entirely different life. Who knew that a massively truncated future would inflate to such intimidating proportions? You’re finished, so who can you be in the time you have left? Kalanithi’s own answer is contained in this essential book. — “Teeming with death.” New Scientist 234, no. 3121 (April 15, 2017): 44. (quoted on

In his sublime “foreword [that] might be better thought of as an afterword,” Abraham Verghese reveals that he came to know Kalanithi “most intimately when he’d ceased to be.” That, too, is true of every listener here. Neurosurgeon Kalanithi died in March 2015 from lung cancer at the age of 37 and was, by all accounts, an exceptional human being. This posthumous release is an exquisite treatise on how to live. — Hong, Terry. 2016 “When Breath Becomes Air.” Library Journal 141, no.5:79-82. (quoted on

Visions, Trips, and Crowded Rooms: Who and what You See before You Die

Kessler, David. Carlsbad, Calif: Hay House, 2010

“David Kessler writes of a world that is rarely talked about, much less examined with such sensitivity. His stories reveal dimensions of the death experience that are anything but depressing, and at times absolutely joyful. In a book filled with intriguing and inspirational tales, Kessler makes a compelling argument that death is not the end.” — Marianne Williamson (quoted on

Healing into Life and Death

Levine, Stephen. Garden City, N.Y: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1987

“While working with the terminally ill, Levine, director of the Hanuman Foundation’s Dying Project, discovered an interesting phenomenon. In preparing for death, many were being healed. Levine also noticed that those who became physically well were often in better health than they had been before. Further study led him to conclude that the physical healing was a by-product of a new balance of mind and heart. Vivid case histories of patients are used to illustrate how individuals learned to let go, become open to life, and stop struggling against illness, pain, and death. Levine discusses meditation and how to use it to “heal into life and death.” This approach is certainly not for everyone, but for many terminally ill patients and their families it may offer new hope and peace.” — Mary L. Kirk, Univ. of North Carolina at Wilmington Lib., Library Journal (quoted on

Beyond Sympathy: What to Say and do for Someone Suffering an Injury, Illness Or Loss

Lord, Janice Harris. Ventura, CA: Pathfinder Pub, 1988

“A great book for everyone who is trying to be there for someone they care about! As a grief counselor, I still consider this the best book published for those who are in a supporting role.” — Judy Brigham (Amazon customer review)

The Five Invitations: Discovering what Death can Teach Us about Living Fully

Ostaseski, Frank. New York: Flatiron Books, 2017

“Frank is a pioneer in mindful care at the end of life. He embodies the wisdom and compassion he shares in these magical and compelling pages. You feel it instantly, because it is real, and it is really about you and your life.” — Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of MBSR and author of Full Catastrophe Living and Coming to Our Senses (quoted on

“This book distills a compassionate shepherd’s lifelong experience with death and dying.” — Bill Moyers, journalist, social commentator, and producer of “On Our Own terms: Moyers on Death and Dying” (quoted on

“These moving teachings can open your heart and change your life. For decades, Frank has been a compassionate guide to thousands of people facing death. In The Five Invitations, he shares his timeless wisdom, beautifully, as a blessing to all.” — Jack Kornfield, international Buddhist teacher and author of A Path With Heart (quoted on

“As a physician, I often work with people who view death as the ultimate isolating experience, solitary confinement for eternity―the ultimate dark terror. In this extraordinary, eloquent, and powerful book, Frank Ostaseski reveals how we can transform this darkness into a bright light (brilliant in every way), a return to the source, the ultimate in intimacy, healing, and meaning―the essence of love. What could be better than that?” — Dean Ornish, M.D. and New York Times bestselling author of The Spectrum (quoted on

“The Five Invitations is a remarkable book, one that is deeply needed by all of us. Five invitations to live our lives fully, in the present, all the way through. Frank Ostaseski, whose journey spans over three decades of creating and participating in the hospice movement, imparts timeless wisdom that should inform our every day: How to embrace uncertainty and live with joy, peace, and acceptance. This is not a book about death, it’s a book about life and living. Buy it, share it, live it―I know I will.” — Henry S. Lodge, M.D., Robert Burch Family Professor of Medicine, and coauthor of the Younger Next Year series (quoted on

“Frank Ostaseski speaks with clear wisdom and deep compassion. Sharing stories and insights from his decades of working with people at the very end of their lives, his ultimate revelation has to do with how meaningful, in both our living and our dying, is the capacity to be open to and present in grace. His words offer much worthy of contemplation and his service to all of us is worthy of deep respect.” — Kathleen Dowling Singh, author of Grace in Dying: How We Are Transformed Spiritually As We Die and The Grace in Aging: Awaken As You Grow Old (quoted on

The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying

Riggs, Nina. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017

“Poet Riggs (Lucky, Lucky) has lived under the shade of both a celebrated and a disheartening family tree. The great-great-great-granddaughter of Ralph Waldo Emerson, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, “one small spot,” in her late 30s, and she can name a raft of relatives suffering from the same disease, among them her paternal grandfather. Other family cancers included her mother’s multiple myeloma. This memoir travels the stages of Riggs’s illness, along with the author; her husband, John; and their two boys, Freddy and Benny, as she relates past experiences and current anxieties—her cancer metastasizes and is declared incurable. Riggs quotes RWE when it fits (and it always seems to), as well as one of his subjects, philosopher Michel de Montaigne. She reminds us that we are all in this world until we leave it; the gallows humor surrounding her mother’s funeral will make readers howl guiltily but appreciatively. VERDICT Whether confronting disease or not, everyone should read this beautifully crafted book as it imbues life and loved ones with a particularly transcendent glow. [Nina Riggs died on February 26, 2017.] — Fox, Bette-Lee. “The Bright Hour: a Memoir of Living and Dying.” Library Journal 142, no.6 (April 2017): 103-104.

“Nina Riggs did not feel prepared when she learned that a small spot in her breast was malignant . . . [She] was only 37. Her sons, Freddy and Benny, were eight and five; she was not ready to leave them. Merrymaking had its place, but it didn’t address her concerns. And the afterlife, if it existed, was unknowable.

So Riggs, a published poet, turned to writing as a way to shape and contain her experience . . . Riggs is neither spooky nor gloomy. Her book’s title comes from a journal entry by Ralph Waldo Emerson — her great-great-great grandfather — in which he praises morning, a “moist, warm, glittering, budding and melodious” time when one can “cease for a bright hour to be a prisoner of this sickly body” and “become as large as the World.” Riggs’s love of the world shines through every chapter, even as the ground shifts beneath her.” — “The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying” by: Neff, LaVonne, Christian Century, 00095281, 10/11/2017, Vol. 134, Issue 21

The Violet Hour: Great Writers at the End

Roiphe, Katie. New York: The Dial Press, 2016

“In this absorbing and affecting book, Roiphe (In Praise of Messy Lives, 2012, etc.) chronicles how Susan Sontag, Sigmund Freud, John Updike, Dylan Thomas, and Maurice Sendak dealt with what Freud called the “painful riddle of death.” She chose them because she always “felt some heat coming off their writing.” The last thing Sontag wanted to do was die. She was ferocious in her fights against three cancer attacks. She finally succumbed to cancer of the blood but not before enduring as a last resort great suffering and pain from a blood transfusion procedure using near-lethal doses of chemotherapy. She didn’t die; she just wore out from trying so hard to live. Roiphe notes that her hospital rooms always looked like her office at home. Freud approached his impending death from necrosis in his mouth, brought on by years of smoking his beloved cigars (he never quit), with a scientific stoicism. He finally gave up, and his private doctor performed euthanasia. Updike had been writing about death (and sex) since he was young; he often had death panics. When he accepted the fact that his lung cancer would kill him, he turned to poetry, urgent to finish Endpoint. “If style could defeat death,” writes Roiphe, “Updike would have.” Ferociously alcoholic, Thomas turned his preoccupation with death into ragingly beautiful poetry. His death at 39, Roiphe writes, was “both a great shock and utterly anticipated.” Sendak, who kept Keats’ “original death mask” in a guest room, was also obsessed with death and, Roiphe notes, wrote about it constantly in his books. He died at 83 from a stroke. As he told one interviewer: “I’m ready, I’m ready, I’m ready.” An epilogue about James Salter, who died just before Roiphe finished her book, completes this beautiful and haunting work.Never overly sentimental, this is a poignant and elegant inquiry into mortality.” — Kirkus Reviews, 2016 Bestbooks

“Now, 35 years on, here it is. The thread has been woven into an investigation of mortality as revealed through the lives of six “great” writers. “I want to see death,” [Katie Roiphe] writes in a strange, half-apologetic prologue to a book which is itself rather strange and apologetic. But to be clear: when she says “see”, she has in mind shelves rather than hospice beds; novels and poems rather than monitors and morphine. Her subjects are Susan Sontag, Sigmund Freud, John Updike, Dylan Thomas, Maurice Sendak and James Salter, names she chose mostly by instinct: “I’ve picked people who are madly articulate, who have extraordinary and abundant imaginations or intellectual fierceness, who can put the confrontation with mortality into words – and in one case images – in a way that most of us can’t or won’t.”

John Updike also worked at the end, turning “pain into honey” with a book of poems. His deathbed personality was cheerful, drollness being, as Roiphe puts it, more important to him than air; but when a clergyman telephoned him, his gratitude – “I loved him, bless his hide” – was undercut by the knowledge that a priest’s wares only really make sense to “the terrified”. Dylan Thomas, in New York and on a bender, did not rage against the dying of the light, so much as rampage: in the days before he finally drank himself to death, he took Benzedrine that he might stay up a little longer; he also went to a party with whose hostess he had sex upstairs, even as his mistress drank gin and tonic below. Finally, there is Maurice Sendak, who was obsessed by death, but who also, Roiphe believes, found it beautiful. He drew those he loved as they were dying. If this sounds strange, Roiphe understands: in writing her book, she believes, she is doing something not dissimilar. — Cooke, R. “The violet hour: Great writers at the end” by Katie Roiphe (review. The Observer, April 17, 2016)

Waking the Spirit: A Musician’s Journey Healing Body, Mind, and Soul

Schulman, Andrew, Marvin A. McMillen, and Writer of Foreword. New York: Picador, 2016

“Andrew Schulman has chronicled his amazing journey in a book that should be read by everyone, not only by doctors, caregivers and musicians. ‘Waking the Spirit’ recounts Andrew’s own miraculous recovery in an ICU when he was literally brought back to life. His profound discoveries related to healing and self-healing through music will astound the reader.” — Liona Boyd, author of In My Own Key: My Life in Love and Music (quoted on

“In the grand tradition of Oliver Sacks’ Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, Schulman cannily narrates stories of the ways that music can bring healing not only to the broken spirit but also to the broken body.” — No Depression, Journal of Roots Music (quoted on

“With a winning combination of anecdotal bedside stories, personal experience, and the research of neuroscientists, neuromusicologists, and fellow musicians, [professional guitarist Schulman] offers evidence of the calming, stabilizing, and synchronous (‘entrainment’) physical effects music therapy can have on a patient’s nervous system, pain, and overall health. . . An inspirational testament to the limitless benefits of music and its role in health care.” — Kirkus Reviews (quoted on

A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows through Loss

Sittser, Gerald Lawson. Expanded ed. Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 2004

“Every time someone asks me for my top-ten list of all-time favorite books, A Grace Disguised is on the list. No one could write about tragedy and suffering at this level of meaning without possessing Sittser’s level of authenticity and depth of character.” — Marty, Peter W. 2010, “5 books for ministry” Christian Century 127, no.9: 29.

Animals in Spirit: Our Faithful Companions’ Transition to the Afterlife

Smith, Penelope. New York; Hillsboro, Or: Atria Books; Beyond Words Pub, 2008

“Those who live with and love animals dread the moment when their beloved companions will leave them. Smith, an animal communicator for more than 30 years, and author of two books on talking with the creatures, provides a unique and detailed account, from the animals’ perspective, on the ways they transition from the physical to the spiritual realm. …Readers open to Smith’s claims about animal communication or who grieve departed furry friends will find much in these pages to offer comfort and hope. — “Animals in Spirit: Our Faithful Companions’ Transition to the Afterlife.” Publishers Weekly, 00000019, 9/24/2007, Vol. 254, Issue 38

Four Funerals and a Wedding: Resilience in a Time of Grief

Smolowe, Jill. Berkeley, CA: She Writes Press, 2014

“When we are in the throes of grief, we often look for solace from those who are closest to us, family and friends. But sometimes even those whom we might depend up for support are unable to do so. For many, this could mean despair. For Jill Smolowe, it meant moving forward and translating what she learned about grief into resiliency, which she shares in her most recent book.” — Psychology Today review. June 2, 2014

“In Four Funerals and a Wedding, Smolowe jostles preconceptions about caregiving, defies clichés about losing loved ones, and reveals a stunning bottom line: far from being uncommon, resilience like hers is the norm among the recently bereaved. With humor and quiet wisdom, and with a lens firmly trained on what helped her tolerate and rebound from so much sorrow, she offers answers to questions we all confront in the face of loss, and reminds us that grief is not only about endings–it’s about new beginnings.” — Goodreads review

The Top Five Regrets of the Dying: A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing

Ware, Bronnie. Carlsbad, Calif: Hay House, 2012

“The Top Five Regrets of the Dying is the most heart‐warming and heart‐breaking I have read this year. It is encouraging inspiration for carers and chaplains, for others who work with or are related to people who are old or dying, and for anyone interested in grappling with deeper questions of life.” — Cronshaw, Darren. 2012. “The Top Five Regrets of the Dying: A Life Transformed by the Death Departed.” Australian E-Journal of Theology, 19, no.3: 254-55.

“After too many years of unfulfilling work, Bronnie Ware began searching for a job with heart. Despite having no formal qualifications or experience, she found herself in palliative care.

Over the years she spent tending to the needs of those who were dying, Bronnie’s life was transformed. Later, she wrote an Internet blog about the most common regrets expressed to her by the people she had cared for. The article, also called The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, gained so much momentum that it was read by more than three million people around the globe in its first year. At the requests of many, Bronnie now shares her own personal story.

Bronnie has had a colourful and diverse past, but by applying the lessons of those nearing their death to her own life, she developed an understanding that it is possible for people, if they make the right choices, to die with peace of mind. In this book, she expresses in a heartfelt retelling how significant these regrets are and how we can positively address these issues while we still have the time.

The Top Five Regrets of the Dying gives hope for a better world. It is a story told through sharing her inspiring and honest journey, which will leave you feeling kinder towards yourself and others, and more determined to live the life you are truly here to live. This delightful memoir is a courageous, life-changing book.” — Review on Goodreads

Reading recommendations from Nina

Beautiful article about our brothers and sisters at work:

These Are the Bedside Concerts Comforting Virus Patients

An I.C.U. doctor felt despair at how little could be done for the sick. Soon, she had musicians playing over the phone in hospital room.

Read more on the

Our dear friend Lawrence Eyre, poet, wrote a haiku about our work. We recommend his book of poetry to all:

Her melodies lift
Departing souls straight to the
Doorstep of heaven.

Find Haiku Country on Amazon

A Musical Heart musician in the news

Jodi Beder

One of our musicians, Jodi Beder, was featured on the front-page of The Washington Post on March 26, in an article about the good things people are doing for others during the pandemic.

Jodi is playing daily from her front porch, sending healing music out to her community for all who come to listen. At the end of the article, she mentions her affiliation with A Musical Heart.

Here’s an excerpt from the article in The Post:

After her performance ended, and the strains of Bach, Randy Newman and an old klezmer song faded from 34th Street, Jodi Beder sat on her front porch with her cello and blew a kiss to her fans on the sidewalk.

People clapped and yelled “Thank you Jodi!” from across the street. They said they needed it. She said she needed it too. Beder normally plays her cello for people in hospice care. Many are in need of care, she said. “I think we need it enormously,” Beder said. “I’m administering treatment.”

… Beder, 69, said she started her mini concerts a week ago, with a cello made around 1870 in Prague. “It’s not that old for a cello,” she said.

Jodi Beder plays music on her cello from her front porch in Mount Rainier, Md. on Wednesday.

Beder is a member of the group A Musical Heart, which plays music to hospice patients.

From The Washington Post, March 26, 2020, by Michael E. Ruane

If you’re a subscriber to The Washington Post, you can read the entire article.

Our COVID-19 Response

A Musical Heart is adapting to the unusual needs presented by the COVID-19 crisis. 

Using FaceTime or the phone, we are now available to serve those nearing the end of life at home, in addition to playing remotely for patients through hospice agencies. 

If someone you know is nearing the end of life, and you would like us to bring music to their bedside, virtually, please contact our director, Nina Falk, at She will coordinate with our musicians to make this possible.

We offer the music free of charge to patients, through the kindness and generosity of our donors and the foundations that support our work.

If you’d like to support our efforts, learn how on our donate page or use the online form on this page.

Listen to Jodi Beder speak about her work as a musician for A Musical Heart during NFL’s Draft-a-Thon. She joined Dr. Allen Sills, NFL’s chief medical officer, Brandon Marshall, NFL wide receiver, and host Kay Adams on 4/25/2020.

An Interview with Sara Matayoshi

What led you to get involved with A Musical Heart?

I first began bringing music into health care facilities while playing in the Knoxville Symphony. The KSO has a program called “Music and Wellness” whose central mission is to bring live music into health care facilities. I was lucky enough to be there at a time where there was a grant available to 5 musicians to enroll in the Music Healing and Transition Program (MHTP). I found myself playing at a hospice, rehabilitation center, and hospital, which included working in the Neonatal Intensive Care, Oncology, and Cardiovascular units. I loved doing this work. When I moved to DC I felt strongly about continuing it. A fellow CMP (certified music practitioner which is the title you earn after completing the MHTP training) told me about Nina and I knew immediately that I wanted to connect with her.

How does playing for the public differ from playing for a single person through A Musical Heart?

For me, the experience of doing the work for A Musical Heart is healing not only for the patient, but for me as well. Sometimes when musicians perform, they can get so caught up in judging their performance that they become disconnected from the beauty and expression of the music. When you go into a space with a patient, you’re there for the patient. That music is for the patient and each session is unique. My wish to be there for the patient almost always overrides the judgmental mind, especially when you’re with someone who’s at the end of their life. Witnessing someone heal through music also reminds me that I can allow myself to do the same. It’s healing and transformative for both of us. It brings me back to the core reason I became a musician: because I love music!

Could you describe an experience in which you felt your music aided or lifted the spirit of a hospice patient?

The experience that comes to mind is one of my very first visits. The patient was non-verbal and I found them curled up in a ball on the bed. Their muscles were contracted and the breathing seemed shallow and restricted.  I began to play tentatively, unsure of how they would respond. As I played their muscles started to relax, and they started to adjust their position in the bed. I started to feel more confident, and I continued to play. They began to stretch their legs out and roll onto their back. By the end of the session, the patient’s body was completely elongated and it appeared softer. They looked a lot more comfortable and appeared to be breathing with more ease. The room felt quiet and peaceful. The patient and I never spoke a word to each other (except for my initial attempt to speak to them at the beginning), yet I felt like we shared a powerful experience.

How does playing for hospice patients inspire you?

Live public performances can change people’s lives, but you don’t necessarily see it. In this setting you see it and feel it. As I am playing, I can sense that my love for music can also be of service to the world and is not just fulfilling some kind of selfish desire. When I see someone receive the music in a whole-hearted way that can bring anything from laughter, joy, cathartic relief, or peace it also reminds me of its power which inspires me to keep on the path I am on.

What is it like being an integral part of A Musical Heart?

I feel grateful to be in a community of musicians doing this work who also come from a classical background. I think it’s a unique position to be in.  As of now, there aren’t many musicians who do this work and also perform professionally in the classical world. I love that A Musical Heart provides that community. While I do love doing this work, it comes with many challenges. The energy and love my colleagues have for it are inspiring. Each person has their own unique style, and I will often learn from the stories and ideas they share.

Sara Matayoshi playing the violin in a concert setting

What does the training in classical music on this level, of your being a professional, give you when you go into this setting with hospice patients?

Our background allows us to not worry about technical execution on our instruments, which as a result, allows us to give more energy and attention to the patient. It also gives us a larger chest of tools to draw from. For example, we can change our articulation in a heartbeat; sometimes more space between the notes is needed and sometimes more connection is needed and these levels might vary throughout a session. We can also change our dynamic level and still have a beautiful sound without a problem; I have belted out my sound like I would on a stage for someone who was really struggling with their hearing and I have also played so soft that I could barely hear myself, but this was necessary for a patient who was extremely sensitive to sound. We can also carry around a wide variety of repertoire. I carry around a tablet with hundreds of pieces on it. If a patient requests a specific song and I don’t know it, sometimes I can download it onto my tablet, which allows me to sight-read it for them. While playing patient requests isn’t necessarily needed for this work, I do find that it can bring something extra special to a session.

Say you go into a room with a nonverbal hospice patient.  Can you give me some sense how you intuit or decide what to do? If there’s someone else present sometimes they can sometimes assist in giving me some direction, but if not, I will just start playing based on instinct and watch how the patient responds If something tightens, an eyebrow furrows, a fist clenches, a shoulder starts to rise, or anything similar to that, then I know I need to change what I am doing. This is the benefit of live music. We can change and adjust things within a breath. Sometimes a patient will seem to like something for the first part of a session and the suddenly seem to not like that anymore, so again, I adjust and try something else.

Has someone actually passed while you’re playing?

Yes, this has happened on two occasions. I was alone with the patient the first time I experienced this. The family had stepped out of the room to talk while I continued to play for the patient. The breathing was shallow and slow, but that is not abnormal, so I was not anticipating how close they were to death. All of a sudden without any struggle, they stopped breathing. Sometimes there can be large gaps in between breaths, so I wasn’t sure at first if what I was seeing was what I thought it was. After I realized that they had indeed passed, I continued to play for a little longer as this was taught in my training. The music would have been the last thing they would have heard. I later I found out that the patient had been an organist.

The second time was just a month or so ago. This session involved a caregiver who sat close to me as I played. Again, the breathing was slow but there wasn’t anything unusual to tip me off that death was so close. The caregiver requested Christmas music for the patient, and I didn’t think it would hurt to see if the patient responded positively to this, so I played a number of slow soothing Christmas songs. The patient did appear to look at peace when the session came to a close. I then moved to a bed that was next to the patient’s bed and began to play for the patient there. As I played, the caregiver of the previous patient exclaimed in a panicked tone, “He is not breathing, he is not breathing! I think he has passed.” A nurse arrived pretty quickly to confirm that this was true. I wrapped up the session with the patient I was with without rushing and stood with the caregiver for some time before exchanging a hug.

Nina on the Radio

Our founder, Nina Falk, was interviewed on the Talk of Takoma radio show on September 1st.

Listen below to learn more about A Musical Heart and our work!

A portrait of Nina outdoors in the summer

An Interview with Caterina Vannucci

Briefly provide highlights of your education and musical career.

I’m an Italian violinist with 18 years of extensive experience in symphony and chamber orchestras, opera, and violin education. After receiving my BA in violin from the Instituto Pietro Mascagni in Livorno, I debuted in the Orchestra Giovanile Italiana. I also played as a Concertino violinist in the Florence Symphonietta, under the direction of Maestro Pietro Bellugi.

Subsequently I joined the Puccini Festival Orchestra in Lucca, specializing in opera repertoire. In 2013 I moved to the United States and played with the Takoma Ensemble Chamber Orchestra. I currently work with the choreographer Mimmo Miccolis and the Washington Ballet.

What led you to become involved in A Musical Heart?

When my Dad was sick with cancer at the hospital, I played for him. The music was the only means of communication with him, and I decided I would do for other people.

When I arrived in the United States and tried to make sense of my new life, I was lucky enough to meet Nina and learn about her incredible project. I’m lucky and happy to be part of the Musical Heart family.

How does your experience playing for a public audience differ from playing for a single hospice patient?

Playing for an audience creates expectations in those who listen and in those who play; it creates both satisfaction and disappointments. Playing for one person creates a different intimacy. It becomes a conversation made of looks and emotions. As you can not foresee a patient’s reactions, you cannot even foresee yours; each time it will be like the first time. For a patient you will always be precious, because you are there to give the most important thing you have – your time. Your music is just for him and becomes “unique”. For a public concert the program is established beforehand, and there is no room for changes. Music for a patient can’t be established beforehand, because even a single note can be what the patient needs.

Sharing music in a concert hall puts the musician in a privileged position, where he or she is master of what happens. In front of a patient you are vulnerable. A person at a concert is usually glad to be there, but patients in hospice often have a different mood because of pain or the nearness of death. When they listen to music, they probably think about the past, the story of their life. Sometimes they don’t ask for you to play, but usually they relax and accept your presence and your music. I have to be completely sensitive to the patient and go with no agenda. I am not the protagonist. They are.

Caterina Vannucci, violinist for A Musical Heart

Please describe a memorable, touching moment in which you felt your music truly aided and/or lifted the spirits of a hospice patient.

I believe that every achievement, like a smile, a tear, or a breath that changes its rhythm with music, is a special and unforgettable memory.

One memory that will always stay with me is when I visited with a patient who had once been a violinist. During the visit the wife brought him his old violin. The patient started to play, but no sound came out; he was physically unable to do it. I moved where he could not see me, and I started to play.

I will never forget the joy he had when he believed that he could still play the violin. His eyes brightened. The feeling he was still playing was the only thing that could relieve his pain at that moment. It is for these moments that you choose to do what you do.

Spring, renewal

Today, March 1, the month of spring. A great day to launch our new website, and share our goals and news. We have two new musicians joining us. They are wonderful and well-suited to playing/singing for hospice patients. Read about Sarah Issaelkhoury, voice, and Gray Dickerson, violin, on the “Musicians” page. That makes seven of us, total. We hope to have many more, because the Washington, DC area has many hospice patients at any given time who would be comforted by music as they transition.

So our goals are to increase our musician roster, raise money to support the greater numbers, and make music available to more hospice patients at their bedside.

Another goal, more broad, is to make people, who are not facing death, more comfortable with the idea of their own death. By sharing some stories and experiences of patients near the end, and contributing to the current national conversations about end-of-life, people come to terms with their mortality. By doing so, it’s easier to live in the present without fear, more fully and alive now.


Beethoven:  “Music is a higher revelation.”

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