It’s lunchtime and the massive lobby of Methodist Hospital inside the Texas Medical Center complex is bustling with men and women in lab coats. Patients and family members crisscross the expanse on their way to appointments or waiting vehicles at the valet stand, and all manner of hospital staff race off to lunch. There is certainly plenty to see in this busy, oversized waiting area, but a sound is what appears to draw the most attention.
Among the shuffling footsteps and murmur of voices, there is the faint lilting of a violin and the muted, rumbling baritone of a cello. Approaching the center of the room, the music grows louder as a string ensemble fills the echoing chamber with classical music. Patients and doctors stop to watch, some still munching on food from the nearby commissary. It feels like an event, but turns out it’s just another lunch hour at the hospital.
“We have pianists seven days a week, including five staff pianists,” says Todd Frazier, the director of the Houston Methodist Center for Performing Arts Medicine and a trained composer. “But we supplement that with about 150 special performances per year.”
Houston has a thriving arts scene to be sure. With some of the most respected fine arts organizations in the country alongside world class museums, independent theater companies and an extraordinarily diverse music culture (thanks to our equally diverse populace), there is something for everyone when it comes to engaging your creative side, or simply being entertained.
But, there is no setting quite as unique as the one here inside the Margaret Alkek Williams Crain Garden, a lovely atrium with plants and streaming sunlight setting the backdrop for the Crain Garden Performance Series, which runs most weekdays during lunch.
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Now, you won’t find metal bands or drumlines here. A certain modicum of decorum is required in a hospital, after all, and the room isn’t well suited to acts with lots of volume, but performances can be rather lively. According to Frazier, even the doctors and hospital staff get involved. “We have some physicians who are really good musicians,” Frazier says. That includes a doctor who plays the tabla and a colleague who joins him on sitar, which only underscores the range of offerings at these weekday performances.
It’s not all that surprising to find an orchestra playing Bach, but you might also catch a string quartet knocking out a Britney Spears tune. The diversity of artists includes Asian dancers, huge choirs, New Orleans-style brass bands and jazz trios. “Music that celebrates a variety of cultures seems to really connect with people,” Frazier said.
This is, of course, only one part of a program that includes some pretty advanced therapeutic techniques for performing artists. Similar to sports medicine, the program supports singers’ vocal chords and ballet dancers’ ankles, treating their injuries with methods unique to their talents. “If a singer has to be intubated, you don’t want to damage their vocal chords or airways,” Frazier explains. “Some of these decisions have saved the careers of some artists.”
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Additionally, the center has an impressive music therapy program, supporting patients with a variety of injuries and illnesses. Frazier himself has a background in how music impacts the brain and focus, particularly in special education programs. But the most visible and public impacts of the program are on display in the atrium during the lunch hour.
As the string section wraps up its Monday morning concert with a dulcet classical composition, patients and family members who have gathered pause a moment before clapping. A few of them spent the last few minutes with their eyes closed, finding some comfort in what is undoubtedly a terribly stressful time. If they can forget, even for a moment, an illness or a sick family member or a struggling patient, Frazier has done his job. “We look for music that relieves anxiety,” he says. “Maybe music takes their mind off their situation and makes them feel rejuvenated.”
It’s a lot to ask, especially from a relatively brief performance in the lobby of a hospital, a place most of us do whatever we can to avoid. But if you do have to be in the Med Center, particularly around noon, a stop at the Methodist lobby might actually make you feel a little better.
This article is part of our annual Best of Houston issue. Check out all the winners here.