Feature: Music sparks virtual connections with the community’s most vulnerable

By Crystal Mackay, MA’05

When David Zheng finished playing the last few notes of a Chopin piece over video chat, the woman on the other end of the call smiled. She told him how much it reminded her of her childhood when her mother used to play piano to her in the evenings. It led to a conversation about her life and a few shared laughs.

The interaction was part of an initiative that Zheng is spearheading along with his classmates Samantha Orr and Alex Hillyer called COVID Performers. It brings live virtual musical performances to older adults living in long-term care homes, palliative care, mental health centres or other healthcare facilities who may be feeling isolated as a result of the pandemic.

Zheng, a second-year medical student at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry, has organized more than 100 student volunteers from medical schools across Ontario to connect with residents through video chats at facilities across the province. The performances vary from piano, violin or cello to flute, guitar or vocals. Some volunteers spend the time knitting or crocheting along with the residents, or just finding things in common to chat about. Along with students at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry, volunteers at other medical schools including University of Ottawa, University of Toronto and Queen’s University have also signed on.

“When the pandemic hit, I was really inspired by the other initiatives that my classmates were involved in. I looked into myself to see what skills I have to try to help in any way I can,” he said.

Zheng has played piano since he was nine years old and received his Associate Diploma (ARCT) from the Royal Conservatory for piano performance at the age of 16. Knowing the power of music to connect people and spark conversation, he saw this as an opportunity to give back to a group of people in the community who are particularly vulnerable at this time. He already had connections to long-term care facilities through volunteering as an undergraduate student.

“That’s the great thing about music, music is a universal means of communication and sparking discussion.”

“I was aware that they’ve had to restrict their usual recreational therapeutic programming, as well as restrict their normal family and friend visits and group activities because of physical distancing measures. I really wanted to find a way to help especially since the elderly are disproportionately affected by social isolation,” he said.

He says the residents are always thrilled with the performances and the student volunteers say that more often than not a musical performance will lead to a conversation, a shared memory or a laugh.

Zheng has been spending his free time learning new musical pieces that he hopes will be nostalgic for the audiences he plays for – songs from the 1930s and 40s, as well as the Beatles, Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole.

“It has been very rewarding because along with organizing the initiative, I also get to perform myself and that's always a beautiful part,” he said. “That’s the great thing about music, music is a universal means of communication and sparking discussion.”

They continue to look for student volunteers interested in performing, and are eager to connect with more facilities and homes who would like to arrange for student performances for their residents or inspire others to start similar music-oriented initiatives. For more information or to get involved please contact COVIDperformers@gmail.com or sign up here.