Healing Hand concerts serve through music

CHARLOTTE -- Even after a decade, Amy Orsinger Whitehead remembers the concert.

Whitehead, a flutist, and a few of her fellow Charlotte Symphony members went to perform at a retirement community. Before they began to play, she noticed that many of the people in the audience were engaged in their own separate reveries. But that soon changed.

"The music made them perk up," Whitehead recalls. Some of the listeners sang along or hummed. The music transformed them into a community enjoying the music together.

That was one of the first concerts in Healing Hand of the Charlotte Symphony, a program marking its 10th anniversary this season. Ten or so times a year, the orchestra sends small groups of musicians to perform in hospitals and retirement communities.

Whitehead is a regular participant in the series, often in a trio with violinist Elizabeth Pistolesi and cellist Deborah Kauffman Mishoe. Their next engagements are at Presbyterian Hospital on Dec. 11 and 15. Naturally, holiday music is on the agenda.

Several times a year, musicians go to the Southminster Retirement Community on Park Road in south Charlotte. They set up in one of the living rooms, but that holds only part of the crowd.

"They pour out into the hallway," said Melissa Dye, Southminster's life-enrichment manager. "Everybody always has a smile on their face."

In hospitals, music gives patients and families a respite from the stresses of illness. At Presbyterian Hospital, volunteer-services manager Marcia Farroch has accompanied Whitehead's trio to their concerts.

"You'll see people wipe their eyes," Farroch says. "It's awesome."

For the players, this is over and above their schedule with the orchestra. While they're paid, it's at a lesser rate than for full-orchestra work. So the number of Healing Hand performances -- which generally cost $460-$480 -- depends on how much sponsorship the orchestra can find, said Meg Freeman Whalen, the orchestra's public relations manager.

The Page and George Bradham Family Foundation, an N.C. group with Charlotte ties, helps support the Southminster visits.

The benefit goes both ways, flutist Whitehead says.

"It's good for our souls," she explains.

During the concerts, Whitehead says, listeners sometimes speak up between pieces. They may say that they used to dance to a tune the musicians have just played, or that a vintage tune used to be their song.

"It brings back important moments -- or maybe everyday moments -- that are nice to remember," Whitehead says.

But the appreciation doesn't depend on anyone making a testimony. Whitehead says she was surprised during that long-ago concert when the music animated the audience as it did. But now that power is familiar to her.

Music sometimes reaches where words can't.

"You can see light across people's faces," Whitehead said. "You can sense that you're reaching them on some level."