By Barbara S F Davis

This past winter Deborah lay in the cancer ward at U. T. Hospital, resting after a difficult treatment. She heard music. Live violin music. She was enchanted.

One of an increasing number of patients treated to music as well as medication, Deborah felt touched by healing grace when a violinist knocked on the door and, at her invitation, gave her a gentle concert.

Sean Claire, a 24-year veteran with KSO, plays for a chemotherapy patient.

Sean Claire, a 24-year veteran with KSO, plays for a chemotherapy patient.

This is not a performance, say the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra (KSO) string players who grace health care centers with fine music.

“We consider it more a presence,” says Cellist Stacy Nickell Miller.

Stacy Nickell Miller

Stacy Nickell Miller

“Music can result in improvement measured by heartbeart, blood pressure, better sleep, and the ability to relax and feel calm,” according to Jennifer Barnett, director of KSO’s Music and Wellness Program.

“There have been many cases of emotional relief for patients and families,” Violinist Sean Claire says. “Their faces drop layers of tension and the entire mood of the room is lifted.”

Musicians Passionate about Healing

Ms. Nickell Miller, along with Violinists Sara Matayoshi, Sean Claire and Ilia Steinschneider; and Violist Eunsoon Corliss, are the KSO musicians who play for patients, families, and visitors.

They play in hospital lobbies and as they stroll the corridors. They play individually at bedsides.

“I wanted to be part of this since the Symphony first told us about it. Playing music for my mom was therapeutic, one of the last good memories I have before she died of Alzheimer’s. The more I learn,” says Nickell Miller, “the more interested I am in this important work.”

Nickell Miller’s colleague on the viola agrees. South-Korean born Eunsoon Corliss’s love of playing has embellished symphonies internationally. Now she’s tuning her instrument to a new scale for bedsides.

Violist Eunsoon Corliss

Violist Eunsoon Corliss

“The more people who know about this, the better for those who are sick and trying to recover, or for those who are approaching the end of their lives.”

Under the Music Therapist’s “Baton”

 After she checks with unit staff to see which patients might benefit, Alana Dellatan Seaton knocks to see if the patient is open to being serenaded.

“When we enter it’s usually just one of us and Alana. She is the intermediary between the music and the patient’s experience,” says Matayoshi.

The musicians’ effectiveness is shaped and supported by Seaton, the other person at the bedside. A Board Certified Music Therapist for 12 years, Seaton says, “A Music Therapist is a clinical health care professional who uses music experiences to help people reach non-musical goals. Helping a non-verbal child to speak, an addict to express feelings in healthy ways, helping give closure to people with cancer diagnoses, are three examples of why Music Therapy is such a growing field.

“Live music is indicated in geriatric and oncology environments,” says Seaton, “especially stringed instruments.” The musicians plan the repertoire ahead of time and make appropriate changes as needed.

“We have learned that a steady drone, especially in the lower range, can be very grounding and supportive,” declares Nickell Miller.

Music Eases the Beginning and the End

 “I’ve played in the neonatal intensive care unit,” says violist Corliss. “I play very low volume lullaby-type music, under 50 decibels, at a heart-beat slow tempo. The time I play depends on the situation as Alana evaluates it. She usually advises four to five minutes, until the newborn’s heartbeat and oxygen levels stabilize, and she notices visible relaxation.

“The viola’s range of voice has healing properties. We musicians in the KSO Music and Wellness Program are learning the appropriate range for hospital settings,” Corliss explains.

Sean Claire says, “I’ve played for dying patients. In one case I played for a man who passed a few hours later. The family noticed his facial expression changed, perhaps allowing him to let go of some of the fear of crossing over.”

Citizen Musicians

“When our musicians play in a large ensemble, you don’t hear the individual stories or see them as people,” says Barnett. “Bringing classically-trained musicians to bedsides is an opportunity to affect someone (and their family) as a ‘citizen musician’.

“Each time they play at bedsides, or in any health care setting, they see the impact their music has,” says Barnett. “They enhance the patient’s wellness, which matters a lot at any stage of treatment.”

Quartet plays in UT Medical Center lobby. (Note the sounds meter on chair used to gauge amount of sound level to introduce.)

Quartet plays in UT Medical Center lobby. (Note the sounds meter on chair used to gauge amount of sound level to introduce.)

Musicians have played at Cancer Support Community in town, and Knoxville hospitals value having Symphony musicians play for patients. U.T. Medical Center and Covenant Healthcare are paying partners in the KSO’s Music & Wellness Program. Two consecutive years of Getty Education and Community Investment Grants have rounded out the funding for the program, which supports the musicians’ training through Music Healing and Transition Program (MHTP).

This writer attended Matayoshi’s yoga class at the Glowing Body Studio, which ended with the usual relaxation posture, but not with the usual music. The drawn out tones, which she modulated for texture and pitch, were profoundly affecting – perhaps more than any recording could be.

Nickell Miller’s voice is warm when she states, “Patients feel we’re a comforting presence and every time we play, someone expresses sincere gratitude.”

Synching with the Soul

Ilia Steinschneider, a 30-year violinist whose instrument was crafted in Stradavarius-renowned Cremona, says “A typical repertoire at the bedside can be songs from children’s books for teaching music, and it can be as complicated as Bach and Mozart.

Violinist Ilia Steinschneider

Violinist Ilia Steinschneider

“Stringed instruments in general are in synchronization with the soul and human voice, which itself has strings for producing sound,” says Steinschneider. “As a child I was taught to try to imitate and play with a singing sound, to be less percussive. We avoid playing the high E string due to its shrillness. The viola and cello are lower frequencies, and if I match the viola’s timbre, I make my goal.”

As the first solo performer in the Music and Wellness Program, Violinist Sean Claire is a core member of the Knoxville Symphony and Chamber Orchestras since 1990. During his tenure he has served as Concertmaster, and twice held the positions of Acting Associate Concertmaster and Principal Second Violin.

“As I child I knew the healing power of music. When the Music & Wellness Program started, I wanted to work with a Music Therapist (Dellatan Seaton).

“The most dramatic stories have been in NICU. An infant son was not relating due to the fog resulting from the mother’s chemical dependency. I was able to break through with the music, which quieted him and gave him a focus. He was then able to respond to a nurse.

Sean Claire and infant in harmony.

Sean Claire and infant in harmony.

“An infant born with her intestines on the outside had corrective surgery, but therapists could not get her to move her head to the right. I didn’t know this, but intuitively moved to stand and play at her right. Her eyes and head moved to follow me.”

Matayoshi explains, “Before MHTP, most of us spend the majority of our time playing in the major or minor scales but in this work, we train to become fluent in all Western music modes so we are entrained with the physical and emotional needs of a patient.

Violinist Sara Matayoshi.

Violinist Sara Matayoshi

“This fluency to improvise and move in and out of all the modes are skills none of us were that adept in before. We’re about one year from full certification by MHTP.”

Matayoshi adds, “To heal is a return to wholeness. It is a process of revealing one’s basic nature, and music can provide a gateway since it does tap into basic functions of the brain. This is one reason why I believe music is extremely effective as a regular offering in the hospital setting.”

Training Openings for Future Certified Music Practitioners

One does not have to be a professional musician to apply for this training, according to the KSO website.

The Knoxville Symphony Orchestra will have between 10 – 12 spots available. Please email Jennifer Barnett at for more information.


The group was willing to express preferences for the time they’re in bed after a lifetime of music. Alana wants to hear “When I Die – You Better Second Line,” by Kermit Ruffins. Sara requests “Largo from Bach’s C Major Sonata for solo violin.” Stacy wants healing music she wouldn’t necessarily recognize – “No nostalgia!” Eunsoon said, “Whomever comes to play will know best. I trust their selections.” Jennifer said, “Nessun Dorma, preferably instrumental, but otherwise sung by Pavarotti.” Sports enthusiast Sean says, “I’m still well short of halfway to my avowed age of 110, so I have a long time to think about the music I’d like to hear!”

© Barbara S F Davis, 2014.

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