Thank you to the wonderful Pam LeBlanc of the Austin American-Statesman for writing such a wonderful article on Symphony of Soul musician Margaret Slovak!
Striking a chord with cancer patients
That musician was Margaret Slovak, a classically influenced jazz guitarist who has played around the world.
“Her music is so soothing,” my dad, Ed Coleman, tells me now, as I sit with him while he gets another infusion. “It’s not intrusive; it doesn’t dominate. The music transports you away — it reaches out and really touches me.”
Some patients doze while Slovak plays; others talk quietly with family and friends. For my dad and his wife, the music softens the anxiety that surrounds this new reality of life.
“I just remember looking up and hearing a guitar and thinking, ‘Wow, this is really a warm, soothing place,’” my dad’s wife, Diane Coleman, says. “The music is incredibly calming, but also it’s alive and being performed by somebody who is giving us a gift.”
Slovak started playing for patients nearly 20 years ago in Portland, Ore. She’d been performing in clubs and touring as a solo artist and as part of a quartet, but sometimes she felt like she wasn’t connecting with audiences in noisy venues. She began volunteering weekly at a hospice facility in addition to performing concerts.
Then, when her mother became ill in 1999, she brought her guitar into the intensive care unit and played for her there. “It seemed like it really calmed her down,” Slovak says. “With all the machines, I felt so helpless; I felt like all I could do was play for her.”
She realized other patients could benefit and began volunteering in the hospital’s oncology and critical care units, too.
In 2003, Slovak became a patient herself when the car she was driving was struck by another vehicle, injuring her right hand, arm and shoulder. Since then, she’s undergone six surgeries to repair nerve damage and still doesn’t have full use of her fingers. She continued to play guitar but modified her style, using a pick instead of plucking strings individually and slowing down her music.
Self-conscious about her ability to perform, she quit touring publicly. She knew, though, she could still touch lives by playing for patients. Her own experience, she says, has made her more empathetic, and the patients give her a reason to play when she might have quit. “I try to make up for my limitations by playing with heart,” she says.
When Slovak moved to Austin in 2012, she joined the nonprofit group Symphony of Soul, which hires musicians to perform for patients in health care settings. She also plays with Swan Songs, which provides music for people drawing near the end of their lives.
Leslie Hyland-Rodgers, an Austin singer, actress and artist, founded Symphony of Soul 14 years ago, when her own mother had cancer. “She asked me to sing to her to help her relax,” Hyland-Rodgers says. “When I did that I turned around and saw that the other cancer patients in the ward had gotten up out of there beds and were gathered, listening.”
Besides providing therapeutic music for people at 34 different care centers around Austin, Symphony of Soul provides needed income for musicians, many of whom live at the poverty level, Hyland-Rodgers says. The group works with more than 100 musicians who give more than 200 performances a year. Still, it doesn’t have the funding to keep up with demand from care facilities.
Slovak’s performances at Texas Oncology aren’t part of Symphony for Soul’s work, but the guitarist missed playing for oncology patients and started playing there as a volunteer last October. She plays some of her own compositions — she has three CDs to her name — along with jazz standards.
“I know when they’re going through chemo it’s scary, it’s uncomfortable,” she says. “I just try to offer them calming music that will help them relax, offer them some peace.”
For my father, it brushes away a little bit of the stress of not knowing what happens next.