By Laura Hensley
Staff Writer, Westlake Picayune, Thursday, March 6, 2008
At 7:00pm, twice a month, the residents of The Summit at Westlake Hills retirement community cheerfully filter into a downstairs activity room for an evening of music. The silver haired audience may hear a skilled harpist, a concert violinist or a country music legend. On one recent night, the crowd was entertained by classically trained lyric coloratura soprano Leslie Hyland Rodgers and Brazilian pianist Gustavo Bianchi.
“Are you in the mood for some show tunes?” the graceful and eloquent Rodgers asked her audience.
Gay Descouzis, who is in her 70s, giggled and clapped her hands together. “That’s what I was hoping for,” she said before the evening of show tunes music began on a somber note. One of the retirement home’s residents and music night fans had died that day, and Rodgers too a moment to remember her. “I know such losses are felt very, very deeply,” Rodger said to the small crowd. “This is for her,” said the Westabank resident before launching into the soulful show tune, “Cant’ Help Lovin’ that Man of Mine.”
At each performance for an hour or two, the group forgets about their ailments, and they are young again. That night, some sang along. Others gently swayed in their seats. Rodgers took request and even threw in some Celtic songs in honor of upcoming St. Patrick’s Day.
“It’s part performance, part sing-a-long, part free-for-all,” she said. The residents, some in wheelchairs and dressed in their finest, delighted in the performances.
“It’s wonderful,” Descourzis said.
And Rodgers seemed to get just as much enjoyment out of the min-concert as her audience.
“You guys are my cup of tea,” she said, quoting from of the show tunes she sang.
The performance is one of many put on by the locally based organization, Symphony of Soul, which Rodgers founded eight years ago. The nonprofit organization includes more than 40 musicians who visit local retirement homes, hospitals, homeless shelters, rehabilitation centers and hospices to perform for adults and children.
“We bring musical medicine to people in need,” Rodgers said about Symphony of Soul. “The experience of sharing in the music is heartwarming and uplifting both for the musicians and for the audience.”
Participating Austin musicians range in genre from classical and jazz to country and rock. Musicians include several well-known artists such as members of Del Castillo, Ray Benson of Asleep at the Wheel, singer/songwriter Colin Gilmore, bluegrass group Jelly Jar and Peter Bay, the Austin Symphony Orchestra conductor.
“At most institutions, there are plenty of people that will bring music in as a volunteer,” Rodgers said. “But it’s not always professional. We have a roster of first-class musicians who we pay for performing. (People) know they are going to get a first class performance every time.”
Rodgers has always loved performing. Since the age of 5, she has been singing, dancing and acting. She grew up in Dallas, where she graduated from the Hockaday School and then majored in voice at the University of Texas. After college, she spent almost 0 years in New York and Los Angeles performing in plays, musicals, movies and soap operas such as “One Life to Live,” “The Bold & the Beautiful” and “Another World.” In Austin, she has written and performed in several one-woman cabaret shows.
But in 2000, Rodgers’ career as a professional singer and actress was put on hold when her mother, Judy Greene, was diagnosed with cancer. Wanting to be close to her mother, Rodgers returned to Texas in 2000. It was then, during one of her mother’s lowest moments, that she was stuck with the idea to create Symphony of Soul. While sitting with her mother in a hospital room at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Rodgers’ mother mad ea simple request.
“Les, I’m so terrified,” her mother said. “I don’t want to die. Would you sing to me? Perhaps it might make me feel better if you’d sing to me.” Leslie’s heart broke to hear so much fear in her mother’s voice, so she began to sing in an effort to comfort her. It was no song in particular, just soft, prayerful words set to soothing melodies to try and ease her mother’s mind. After several minutes of singing, Rodgers was surprised to open her eyes and discover that a nurse had opened the door to her mother’s room and several other cancer patients on the floor had gotten out f their beds and were standing outside listening.
“A light bulb went on,” Rodgers said about that powerful moment. “I realized I wanted to do more of this.” Rodgers was inspired by that night in the hospitals and decided she wanted to use music to help uplift people in need.
Soul is born
Rodgers created Symphony of Soul with her own money but now relies on donations and fundraisers to help support the organization.
One of the major costs of Symphony of Soul is the stipends paid to musicians who perform. As an artist, Rodgers knew how important it was to pay musicians for their time, so she wanted to create an opportunity for local artist that would allow them to perform for others while also receiving extra income. Soon after Symphony of Soul’s inception, word spread and many musicians stepped forward to join the organization. The group now has a client base of more than 30 institutions, including the Austin Children’s Shelter, ARC of the Capital Area, Dell children’s Medical Center, St. David’s Rehab Center an several retirement homes.
One such musician who has stepped forward to help is Peter Bay, the conductor of the Austin Symphony Orchestra, who no serves on the Symphony of Soul advisory board. He first met Rodgers more than eight-years ago, and the two became friends. When she told Bay about creating Symphony of Soul, he knew he wanted to get involved.
“I know how music can be a very strong healer,” he said. “For me, it has brought comfort in the worst of times. This seemed like a natural fit for me.” Bay said he is committed to the mission of Symphony of Soul and has witnessed how powerful some of the performances can be both for the audiences and the musicians.
“(Musicians” love bringing enjoyment to people, but if we can also bring peace and comfort, then it makes you feel that being a musician is even more special than you can imagine,” he said. “It shows me how music can cut through to places where medicine cannot.”
One of the mot poignant performances many of the Symphony of Soul musicians have is playing music for Alzheimer’s patients.
“They may not remember the name of their own children, but they will remember the words of a song from their era,” Rodgers said. “(We use) music that can engage an audience and connect with them on a personal level.”
Sound of the future
Rodgers, who is now joined by her husband, George, in running Symphony of Soul, is hopeful about eh organization’s future. She remains driven by her mother, who survived cancer and encourages her daughter to continue helping others through music.
“She loves knowing she is the inspiration,” Rodgers said about her mother, who lives in Georgetown and often attends Symphony of Soul performances. The organization has a full roster of musicians, and more and more people are hearing about the group.
Symphony of Soul is constantly raising funds to pay each artist a stipend for every concert, and the long-range goal is to raise money to provide concerts on a more consistent basis while also providing daytime performances. Rodgers also hopes to expand the organization to other cities and hire a fulltime executive director.
“I have really run Symphony of Soul as a volunteer,” Rodgers said. “I’ve tried to run it as a full-time job. I would love to grow. But I’m not the person to do it. I will always be involved but I would want an executive director to help raise money.” In the meantime, Rodgers and her band of musicians plan on continuing o bring musical medicine to Austinites in need of a joyful tune. Sharing music with the people that need comforting is special,” Rodger said. “You know you are doing a good deed.”