“Where did you find all these angels for your choir?”, a woman asks me. We’re crammed into the lift at the Chris O’Brien Lifehouse: the entire SAC Chapel Choir, Lifehouse Volunteer Manager Lorainne Brecard, myself, and our latest fan. She’s a patient at the Lifehouse, following us from floor to floor as we sing on different wards. It’s the first time this year’s choir has performed here, although for the past year or two we’ve been regular visitors, usually singing a bracket of songs and rehearsing a bit in the foyer. Our singing provides a distraction, both for patients, family and staff, from the realities they’re dealing with each day.
This time we have a different experience, starting in the foyer (with its new baby grand piano), then singing in reception at the day surgery, then up to two of the wards, to sing for patients undergoing more complicated treatment. Sometimes it’s a ‘command performance’ to an audience of one, somewhere in the corridor of a ward. I’m touched to see choir members improvise outside their usual bailiwick, providing gentle hugs or holding someone close while they sing. Lorainne often films us on a patient’s phone, so they can revisit the moment whenever they wish.
The relationship between St Andrew’s College and the Lifehouse has been developing quietly. Always under Lorainne’s guidance, we’re now at the point where we’re always welcome, and know some patients by name. Previous choir member Sarah Brown has been bugling at Memorial Day events for the past two years (completely unbeknownst to us at College). The new baby grand piano is available at any time for our students to play, with Tom Hunt being the first College pianist to make his way over, improvising for over an hour in his trademark style, much to the joy of patients and staff. Lorainne and two volunteers attended the recent Gala Concert in our Chapel, and we’re figuring out how to transport some of the gentler acts from the concert over the road in the coming weeks.
I’m amazed at the willingness and empathy of our students, some of whom have stories of their own family’s experiences with cancer. No one tries to pretend that it’s easy, but everyone is keen to keep going. After our second choir visit this year, Lorainne sent a message to the choir, in which she said: “Your visit last Friday was so beautiful, not only were patients moved by the performance, a number of our nursing team were very touched by your performance for the patients, particularly. The Nurse Unit Manager told me that they had “happy tears” because listening to you was so beautiful. In a ward where there can be great challenges and sadness, the beauty of your music was such a gift. We value your contribution very much – it means so much not just to patients but to the staff caring for them as well.”
For me, this is the whole point of being able to make music – whether your audience is 500 people or one person, the most important thing is reaching the person to whom you can make a difference. It took me years to figure out this was important to me. I’m gratified that I somehow have a whole choir of people who, before they’ve hit 21, feel the same way.
- Dr Sarah Penicka-Smith, Director of Music at St Andrew’s College
Photo: St Andrew’s College Chapel Choir with Gail O’Brien (back row in red) and Dr Sarah Penicka-Smith