An Interview with Eva Cappelletti Chao

Tell us a little about your education and musical career.

I’ve been playing violin since I was 5. I grew up playing bluegrass fiddle along with my classical training in violin. From that I came to understand that music is to be shared in many ways.

I graduated Summa Cum Laude from Ohio University with a double degree in psychology and music, and received my Masters in violin performance from Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, after which I attended America’s Orchestral Training Academy – the New World Symphony.

I freelance throughout the Washington, D.C. area, playing for many of the orchestras and choral groups in our area—at Strathmore, the Kennedy Center, and with the Baltimore Symphony. I also am the lead violinist with Quintango, a 5-person tango band that tours nationally and internationally. When playing for hospice, I feel I can bring many types of music to the occasion: classical, bluegrass, jazz, ballads—whatever is needed. Because my interests and training are multifaceted, almost anything I have heard I can play.

Eva Cappalletti Chao

Eva Cappalletti Chao, violinist for A Musical Heart

What led you to get involved with A Musical Heart?

When my colleague and friend Nina Falk first started A Musical Heart, her intentions for it spoke to me because of my experience with my mother-in-law’s passing. We were with her during her last weeks at home with hospice care. She wanted music, so my (violist) husband and I would play for her. What I recognized in her amazing process was how grounded and calm I got in those moments. I have a harder time in social situations, but end-of-life provides the opportunity to get real: we’re going to connect or we won’t. It’s so calming and wonderful. Her passage was not necessarily an easy one; there were times when she was struggling. But to hold the space of it – to be near her and be part of that time, it was incredibly clear to me, I can be in this.

I found years later, when I was having my own children, women friends in Takoma Park asked me to be with them while they were giving birth. Those places do not scare me. I love places of transition, where superficiality is impossible. It feels centered and calm. I knew I would do this work. I just wasn’t sure when.

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

It’s night and day. Playing for a single hospice patient has nothing to do with performing at all.

On my first day at Casey House for Montgomery Hospice, I went to the nurse and asked, “Who would you suggest might be open to hearing violin playing on this ward?” The nurse said, “There’s a woman in the room at the end of the hall, she’s near end-stage,” so I walked to her room.

It’s my first day playing for patients and I feel a little worried. “What am I going to see? Will there be anything that will shock me so I lose my groundedness and my sense of being here in service?”

I went into her room and there this woman was by herself in the bed, eyes closed, and I’m just struck how beautiful she is. She just looks beautiful to me. After taking a deep breath I say, “Hello, my name is Eva. I’m a violinist and I’m here to accompany you on your journey.”

I closed my eyes and thought, “What would you like to hear?” Often, this is how it works; a song will come to mind, and I start playing that, and then maybe another song will come. Or I’ll be watching their breathing, it’s either calm or sometimes I sense they’re sort of unsettled, and I change the sounds, the tempi, the textures of the music. I can’t usually tell you what I’ve played when I leave the patient’s room except in this particular woman’s case, because as I was playing for her at some point she closed her mouth hard and I thought, “Oh! She’s more “here” than I thought.”

She looked so calm. She was breathing, and I was following her breathing like I’d been trained, and the thought went through, “You should play ‘Silent Night.’” I started to play ‘Silent Night’; I didn’t even think twice. I thought, “Oh, this is beautiful.” Then I thought, “Wait, what?! This is a Christmas song! Why am I playing this poor woman a Christmas song? It’s October! It doesn’t make any sense.” And just as I was getting to the part, “Sleep in heavenly peace…” I noticed she was not breathing anymore. The breath had stopped and she had let go. It’s my first day playing for hospice, and she had passed while I’m playing. What occurred to me after that was to play something else, because there was still a journey going on. I found myself playing “Amazing Grace,” and the ward nurse came in because of what she’d seen on her screen and said, “I think this woman has passed.” I said, “Yes, I believe she has. I’m just sort of playing it out.”

Afterwards I was talking with this same nurse and said, “It seemed she was there not that long before, because she really forcefully opened and closed her mouth.
The nurse said, “Ah, many people, right before dying, let the last breath out.” “Maybe” she said, “it’s the spirit leaving.” That was so humbling. What a gift. Every time, playing for hospice is a gift to me. Maybe someone else could look in and comment on what a gift I’m giving, but to me – how intimate, how humbling to have someone let go in my presence and connection.

Do you recall any moments when you feel your music truly aided or lifted the spirits of a hospice patient?

There was one woman who had been in hospice for quite a while. I went to play for her more than once. One day she wanted me to play some Christian rock by Josh Groban. She would croak along, in the voice she had at that point, but it was so heartfelt. There I was sight-reading Josh Groban, reading the sheet music off her friend’s ipad, and the patient was singing with me, “You’re not alone,” and I found myself completely brought to tears. It so speaks to her, that she’s not alone in this time. As she’s croaking, I’m playing the music she needs to say that, and suddenly I’m aware that she’s singing to ME: the gift flips around. I’m not there for her. She’s there for me. I’m the one crying, thanking her as I’m leaving, and she’s saying how important it was for her to know I got what she gets from the music.

Some of my favorite moments are simply with the “sleeping” patient in the bed. They’re not visibly responsive. They’re not talking, but they can hear. I engage simply using sound and I’m following their breathing, as they breathe and stop breathing, and then breathe again—the patterns that happen as they’re in that stage. To follow that, to be with them, it’s connective because I’m joining with them without words. The music is not even necessarily “music” to them, which is fine with me. When their breathing slows, I slow the music, or I’ll go up to a harmonic or something that’s a really light sound, and their eyebrows will go up in tandem with the sound. Then we fall back . . . and I’m just playing loops and patterns of sound and triplets. It’s so lovely to attend to a person with sound. Somebody else might say, “Oh, she’s sleeping. You don’t need to play for her, she’s not responsive right now.” But I feel there are so many ways to connect with a person who’s in that space without it being about people. It’s about sound vibrations connecting with human vibrations.”

Nurses have come up to me and said, “We want you to play over here. We can’t get this one to calm down. Let’s try music.” That’s easy for me. I say, “Yes!” It takes a few moments to assess, especially if the person seems physically uncomfortable, so in the beginning, I play songs/pieces. I start by finding what meets them. Sometimes if I’m going really slowly, and they’re uncomfortable, I’ll need to speed it up to meet their energetic level. Then I can begin to slow down the same tune, or move to some other tune in the same key, or something like that, and I connect as deeply as I can. Something shifts, the breathing calms down. They know the tune. I can see that now they’re following something organized: the song that they know, and their body settles more comfortably. And as I tell this experience, I recognize that I have no proof that that’s what’s happening, but that is what appears to happen, and that is what my instinct would say is happening. Very often they fall asleep somewhere in there, and that’s my favorite.

That’s your favorite?

Eva: Absolutely! What do you want for the person in that hospice bed? To be able to relax enough to let the body rest.

How does playing for hospice patients, inspire you (perhaps to help others, or in other ways), enrich your life, provide a greater sense of purpose in the world?

As a full-time professional performer, it’s easy to make being a musician a job, to lose sight of music’s effects on the people listening. I go to the concert venue, I read my notes, I do the techniques that I understand how to do. I have a skill set. It’s easy to just take care of the skills and not remember what it might mean to someone else. It’s very easy to walk off the stage and not have even given eye contact to anyone in the audience.

Being engaged with hospice patients allows me an opportunity to connect with something larger than my personality. For instance, I was once with a Korean woman, who barely spoke any English, as she attended to her dying husband. After playing for her husband in the bed, I gestured to her and asked, could I play for you? She opened her Korean hymnal. I played the notes while she sang in Korean for herself. It was so connective. With the trained skills that I have, I’m doing for her exactly what she needs in this moment, through sound, and we don’t even have a common language.

I can bring that understanding back to the stage. Back in the concert hall, even if I’m playing Beethoven 5th for the 30th time, and the first row of audience members is 20 feet away, I can tap into that awareness that there are people out there for whom this music is speaking in ways I can’t begin to know; that reignites my engagement.

For me, personally, having a combination of various stage performances and also being able to share violin music for hospice patients through A Musical Heart makes me fulfilled: I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing in this life. That’s so satisfying.

How does your work with A Musical Heart affect the families of hospice patients and the hospice or hospital staff?

The staff is always glad when we’re there. They can see a change in the patients and they’ve thanked me for my part in that process. I’ve had doctors and certainly nurses stop me in hallways to say how lovely, how beautiful hearing the music I play is as they attend to their business. I’ve also had clergy come and stand outside the door to say, “Thank you for giving me the time to settle into what I need to do.”

As for the families of the patients, I do my best to hold the presence, the space, for someone in pain or for the visitors that are uncomfortable. It’s so dear, this awkwardness, when they don’t know what to do and it’s so painful for them to let their beloved person go. Many families have invited me in at this really difficult time and even allowed the music to bring them to silence for a while. They allowed themselves intimacy. My wish is to offer them sound to invite them into presence, because when we’re in presence we’re not in fear. In presence, we can connect with ourselves, each other and with Grace.

Being a part of that, it all just feels like a gift to me, over and over again.

4 Comments On “An Interview with Eva Cappelletti Chao”

  1. What beautiful reading! The clarity of descriptions and emotions brought tears to my eyes. A lovely person! She also happens to be my niece!

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  2. Eva—how lovely! I was moved by what you expressed. It’s a beautiful thing you do, finding the music that brings comfort on the last journey.

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  3. So wonderful that you do this work and that I actually know you! I hear your voice in the interview – such a great explanation of the work that you are doing. I’m so thankful to be a musician and to know how many ways our gifts can be used to touch other human beings.

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  4. Eva – you have articulated so beautifully the power of music: The ability to impact equally the giver (the musician) and the receiver (listener). You describe so tangibly this flow and what it can mean. I was part of my father’s journey — it was just the two of us. It was the most intense and wonderful experience of my life. Your explanation of how your gift of music and heart in hospice heals equally the giver and receiver took me be back to those 24 hours. Thank you for sharing your insights and your gifts and reminding us of the transformative power of music. Brava, Eva.

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