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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.

An Interview with Floyd Jones, A Musical Heart Vocalist

 

In 2012, Floyd Jones (https://www.floydjones.co) was awarded the Presidential Scholarship in the Arts in voice at his alma mater, George Washington University. Since receiving the award he has performed in premier venues across the country, from the Kennedy Center and Wolf Trap in Washington D.C. to the Apollo Theater in New York City, and has had the privilege of performing in concert tours across the globe.

Floyd is a 2017 Fellow at Venture for America, where he works with high growth startups and entrepreneurs to create jobs and revitalize emerging communities across the country. He currently lives in Maryland, where he serves as a worship leader at Epworth United Methodist Church and is currently working on an extended play record with his company Worthy Music Group.

Floyd Jones, vocalist for A Musical Heart

What led you to get involved with A Musical Heart?

During my senior year of college, I was looking for a way to continue singing throughout the D.C. area. I also wanted a unique way to serve others. When my choir director, Gisele Becker, introduced me to Nina, and Nina explained the mission of A Musical Heart, I was immediately hooked and knew that I found a new home.

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

Maybe one of the most PROFOUND experiences I have had since my journey with AMH began–I sang to an older woman with 3 family members around her. She was sleeping, but I asked the family if they would want me to sing to her and they all cheerfully accepted! I asked what type of music they would like for me to sing.

Her daughter said, “If you start singing hymns she will jump up and start singing with you!”

I just laughed, as did everyone else, for she had not really made any movements for quite some time. I sang some traditional hymns like “Because He Lives” and “It is Well,” and the craziest thing happened! Once I started singing, her mouth started moving along to the song!! It was so crazy, something I’ve never seen before! No words came out and her eyes were still closed, but her mouth was moving! She was right there with us! And most importantly her skin lightened up and her entire demeanor just seemed lighter. The family started to cry because they were so moved by the entire experience. It was extremely overwhelming and beautiful!

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?

Singing for hospice patients inspires me a great deal, for it makes me pause and try to live my life in a more full and purposeful way. I have met people from all walks of life, with different backgrounds, races, and levels of ability, and the one thing that I realized is that death does not discriminate. Everyone will be in a place where they find themselves nearing the end of life–thus we must learn how to live our lives in a way that cares for and celebrates our spiritual, mental, and physical well-being. This process has led me to be more brave and to focus on how I will serve all types of people.

How is the experience of providing music for hospice patients different for you from performing in public?

Providing music for hospice patients is different because it isn’t really performing, it is a true service. I have to put myself in the position of mere servant. I can’t sing a particular song just because I feel like it. I have to sing a song that meets the patients’ needs and aids them in their development.

Other thoughts you would like to share about being an integral part of A Musical Heart?

A Musical Heart has been one of the greatest experiences of my life. I never feel like I am giving the patients much, because every time I go, I feel as if I have been given more. I have seen so much struggle, yet so much strength and resilience in the patients and families I have been able to support. It reminds me continuously that one can truly find peace in any and every situation if only we look for it.

 

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.”

Welcome!

We are pleased to announce the redesigned website for A Musical Heart! We’ve been working hard behind the scenes to launch the new design. Soon we will launch new features like online donations.

For the moment, we are excited to bring you more information about our work, the musicians who work with us, and the patients we serve. Stay tuned!