Sound Health at UW Hospital and Clinics

The Park Street Quartet, a group of young musicians who perform in the common areas of UW Hospital and Clinics for the benefit of patients, visitors and staff, had just begun to perform Minuet and Trio from Mozart's string quartet K. 298 when a woman stopped to listen.


She was perhaps 60 and had been walking briskly from the hospital's H elevator lobby through Main Street. When she first heard the music, the woman was surprised, as though her ears were playing tricks. Then she saw the quartet and smiled while placing a hand on a railing that separated Towne Square, a small patch of carpet and chairs, from the hospital's admissions area.


As violinists Laura Mericle and Andrew Gentzch, violist Andrew Vollmer, and cellist Alison Rowe went to work, the woman's face broke into a subtle smile.


"I already feel better," she said.


That's exactly the point of Sound Health, a group of University of Wisconsin School of Music students and alumni working to enrich the hospital environment through live music.


The Sound Health program is the brainchild of Mary Perkinson, who came to Madison from Boston in 2003 to study violin performance and knows firsthand the transformative power of music in health care settings.


In 2009 Perkinson spent extensive time in the Cleveland Clinic because a member of her family required major surgery.


"I'd never spent much time in a hospital before," she says. "It was a very stressful period."


After a long day at the hospital Perkinson and her partner took a walk, and as they approached an atrium they heard music.


"There was a live harpist performing and I was surrounded by patients and staff," Perkinson says. "I thought, ‘Wow, what a cool idea.' I came back to Madison and wanted to be on the giving end of something like that."


Perkinson contacted UW Hospital art coordinator Sarah Grimes and UW Hospital volunteers services manager Michael Rosenblum, both of whom enthusiastically supported the idea. With the help of a $500 grant from the University of Wisconsin Arts Venture Challenge, they organized a pilot musical program in February 2010. Thirty-six musicians gave 18 performances in the Towne Square, the hospital's third-floor atrium and the American Family Children's Hospital lobby, and the music was well-received.


"Music is a healer and a comfort," Perkinson says. "A lot of patients say the music is calming. It takes their minds away from their appointments."


That pilot program has since been bolstered by a $5,000 contribution from the UW's Ira and Ineva Reilly Baldwin Wisconsin Idea Endowment, an amount matched by UW Hospital and Clinics. Sound Health musicians now perform every Wednesday from noon to 1pm during the University of Wisconsin's fall and spring academic terms. Perkinson asks that musicians volunteer for their first performance. If they're interested in continuing in the program, the grant money allows for a small stipend.


Sound Health is funded through 2013, so even if Perkinson, who will finish her doctoral work this spring, has to move away from Madison, the program will continue.


"It's a great connector to other people," says Grimes, who earlier this winter was forwarded an e-mail Perkinson received from a Rockford, Illinois woman who was at UW Hospital during Sound Health guitarist Miles McConnell's January performance. In her e-mail the woman admitted hospitals put her on edge and she does not like going to appointments ("though the doctor," she added, "is a very kind person."). She was tired from the drive from Rockford, but after listening to McConnell she said "the fatigue we felt just melted away."


"The music," says Perkinson, "makes people feel important and cared for."


More information about the Sound Health program, including a calendar of performances, is available at

Date Published: 02/24/2011

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