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FEATURE | Songs In Self-Isolation Delivers Music-Grams To Ease Lockdown Loneliness

By Hye Won Cecilia Lee on July 7, 2020

Clockwise from top left l-r: Gemma Donn (Photo: Arshia Alexander); Morgan Paige (Photo: Ian Chang Photography); Daniel Tham (photo courtesy of Daniel Tham)

With so many unknowns about COVID-19, Toronto has been under rigorous social distancing measures for over a hundred days now since mid-March. We have been living in a drastically different paradigm — in a world where we can no longer touch, hold, or even be there with loved ones, leaving many of us in serious turmoil. In such times, new ideas arise, and Songs in Self-Isolation has been helping families and friends reconnect across the distance through personalized music-grams.

Gemma Donn, a violinist and a 2019 graduate of the Faculty of Music, University of Toronto, has always been interested in many different things, and as a student, she explored the world of science alongside her serious study in violin performance. “When I was at University of Toronto, I took many elective courses such as physiology, psychology, anatomy and chemistry,” says Gemma. Since graduating from her music program, Gemma’s been working hard with a mixed-bag of interests; on any given week, it’s been a full mix of teaching, performing, working and volunteering — and now she is planning to start her Masters of Education at University of Toronto in Fall 2020. However, thanks to COVID-19, everything came to a screeching halt one day; suddenly she was confined to home, with no more teaching in person, no more rehearsals and performances — she felt lost.

Gemma also heard that all hospitals had stopped visits, which broke her heart. “I have been volunteering as a Friendly Visitor at Sunnybrook hospital, and I saw the way that patients’ faces would light up when a visitor or family member would enter the room,” says Gemma. Realizing this profound loss for long-term patients in isolation, she got in touch with Erin Di Lella, Volunteer Coordinator, and Amber Hall, one of the recreational therapist at Sunnybrook just to see what is possible.

Gemma Donn (Photo: Arshia Alexander)
Gemma Donn (Photo: Arshia Alexander)

In the past, Gemma would bring her violin and play for the patients at the hospital; now faced with the new, Erin and Gemma first discussed the possibility of taking requests from staff, and performing songs as a thank-you to the frontline workers. However, when Erin saw Gemma’s group performing a birthday medley, Erin had to ask Gemma for a birthday-gram. As a recreational therapist working directly with patients, Amber is keenly aware of the impact of isolation, especially for the Alternate Level of Care patients, whose lives were already in the limbo, pre-COVID-19. “The ALC patients are waiting for placement into long-term care, rehab, or to be well enough to return home,” says Amber. And this is how it all began: Songs in Self-Isolation (SISI).

Morgan Paige, a classically trained pianist, jumped into the SISI right from the beginning. As an emerging artist, Morgan is currently focusing on contemporary, improvisation, silent film and pop/jazz, and a chance to speak beyond the concert-norm as a minority was a welcome opportunity for her. “What motivated me to pursue music was the lack of popular representation of black female queer pianists, and I wanted to show that someone like me can very well be part of this community,” says Morgan.

Morgan Paige (Photo: Ian Chang Photography)
Morgan Paige (Photo: Ian Chang Photography)

For Gemma, a newbie in video editing, it was a bit of a steep learning curve — it took her an hour and a half to edit a 30-seconds video, trimming each track and syncing them together. But when she saw the reaction video from the patient, she knew that it was right: “She sang along with the video. When I would play violin in the hospital, she’d often conduct alongside me as I played, so seeing her sing along with the video transported me back to that time.”

Soon, Gemma received a list of consenting patients’ birthdays, and knowing many of them personally, it felt natural to invite more musician friends to the project, to customize the videos. “I remembered that some patients had played instruments in the past, and if they spoke any other language beside English,” says Gemma. Soprano Rebecca Gray soon joined in, and they made their first collaborative Happy Birthday video as a trio. “After we made our first Happy Birthday video for a patient, I felt that I had contributed to society in a positive way for the first time since the pandemic has started,” says Gemma.

Amber Hall, who is helping with the delivery of the music-grams, saw much joy from the patients firsthand. “This is a unique experience. We have an Italian patient who even had Happy birthday sung to her in her native language. One patient used play the harp, and Gemma made sure to include a harp player in her birthday song,” says Amber. Once their traditional monthly shared birthday celebrations with music and refreshments for patients had become forbidden, she felt that the patients had lost a valuable social connection, and she is thankful that music, now on an individual level, is bringing back that special connection in enriching patients’ lives.

“When I would play violin in the hospital, she’d often conduct alongside me as I played, so seeing her sing along with the video transported me back to that time.”

Unfortunately, Erin hasn’t been able to see the delivery in person yet. “Because I work from Odette and the patients are at Holland, I was unable to see the reaction of the patients when they received their video,” she says. Erin asked Amber if patients’ reactions could be recorded, and in seeing that footage, Erin realized that they could further incorporate the reaction video with the birthday-gram, creating a unique and beautiful gift for the recipients. These final video-grams are so special in Erin’s eyes. “Despite COVID-19, Gemma, one of our talented volunteers, was able to make a difference and put smiles on the faces of multiple in-patients from a distance. Volunteers are driven by a passion to give back, and Gemma didn’t let isolation or COVID stand her way to doing just that.”

While bringing joy to recipients, Gemma and friends are also experiencing meaningful growth through Songs in Self-Isolation, including meeting new people and working together remotely.

Daniel Tham, a second year Health Science student at McMaster University, has contributed two different talents to the group: music and grant writing. Daniel plays bass and guitar on selected videos, and as a self-taught musician, he has been busy fostering his interests in both health science and music — he now gives free lessons to university students on a weekly basis, and has served as the president of the McMaster Guitar Club.

Daniel’s in-person volunteering was at the McMaster Children’s Hospital, but his initial volunteering experience was a mixed bag of emotions. “A few collaborators and I had recently begun playing guitar at the hospital… typically, our performances were not well-attended, and this made me question my impact and role as a musical volunteer,” says Daniel. But this past fall, a young patient came to Daniel with an unusual request: she asked if they could play any Christian music. Then it all became clear to him.

Daniel Tham (photo courtesy of Daniel Tham)
Daniel Tham (photo courtesy of Daniel Tham)

“Her father was a pastor, and she had not been able to hear any Christian music in a long time,” says Daniel. Coincidentally, Daniel’s father is also a pastor, and Daniel is an active musician with his church worship team. He played a few worship songs he knew from heart, and this was transformative. “After a few songs, her face visibly lit up, and she left the room feeling much more energized and happier than before… I realized music has the power to completely change how people view the world, and I have since been motivated to continue playing music for those who need it the most.”

Daniel met Gemma at an Endoscopic Simulation training course, and his first performance with SISI, a birthday song done in Italian, reaffirmed his belief that music could bring real, meaningful changes to individuals. “We were sent a video of her reacting to the video on her birthday,” he says. “In the video, she shed tears of joy and even began to sing along in Italian!” This difficult period has given Daniel a new appreciation for music beyond his own enjoyment, and he hopes to bring music with him into his future — wherever life takes him, as he is preparing for the MCAT this summer.

“I realized music has the power to completely change how people view the world, and I have since been motivated to continue playing music for those who need it the most.”

Michael Scaffidi is another science-music collaborator for SISI. Michael is finishing his second year as a medical student at Queen’s University, and is currently pursuing his ARCT in composition. Michael started on piano at the age of five, and he first met Gemma in a medical education research lab. They have collaborated prior to SISI in their shared love for music, where Gemma’s string quartet performed Michael’s fugue, using a theme from Star Wars, in a hospital setting.

Michael is currently arranging “Danny Boy” for voice, violin and piano — his first piece for SISI — and he knows that for him, as a future health professional, he will, as he always has, come back to music for solace. “I will be starting clerkship soon, and know that COVID-19 precautions will challenge me and my colleagues in many ways. Whatever these challenges are, though, I always have music to turn to,” says Michael. And having seen the direct impact of music on individual levels through SISI videos, Michael is looking forward to sharing the joy of music in connecting with patients, with the hope of offering them solace at this difficult time.

A non-musician, Yash Verma, a Biology undergrad at the University of Toronto, learned about Songs in Self-Isolation through his research team at St. Michael’s Hospital. “Dr. Grover, my principal investigator, shared a video by Gemma and her group,” he says. “I remember feeling very touched by her initiatives.”

When Yash heard about the U of T COVID-19 Student Engagement Award back in April from his college registrar’s office, he initially thought of constructing a COVID-19 related research project with the lab. However, during a discussion, Nikko, the team’s research supervisor, suggested getting involved with Songs in Self-Isolation (Nikko is also involved in the SISI project) for the award proposal. Having met Gemma previously in a research project, Yash got to work with the group right away, spending a considerable amount of time in proposal preparation. SISI was one of the winners with funding up to $3,000 for the three-month period, and they are currently working further to launch a fundraising platform in an effort to aid charitable organizations as they face great difficulties in finding provisions for sharply increased needs.

“This project was the catalyst that I needed to enjoy and appreciate music again, after spending so much time grieving over how much the music community has suffered due to the pandemic.”

One of the first SISI fundraising participants is Nina Rosekat, who commissioned the Prayer for her mother, with a donation to ArtsCan Circle. “I heard about the project from CTV news and was so touched. I decided to reach out to Gemma through Facebook,” says Nina. Nina’s mother, who suffers from multiple myeloma, is currently in a clinical trial. “She is an absolute success story in the sense that she has battled the disease for 8 years and overcome the odds, multiple fractures, two stem cell transplants and an ICU stint,” says Nina.

But all these intensive treatments mean that her mom’s in serious social distancing practice, with only the exception of medical appointments. Though she has support from her loving husband and a beautiful garden, Nina’s mom is confined to home. Nina and her husband are doing their best to stay connected, as they live in the house next door with two toddlers. They can grocery shop, and are able to see each other occasionally, but it has been very difficult, and they were all deeply touched by SISI’s video. “Gemma and her team were gracious to accept a request, my mother’s favourite song, and seeing my 3-year old dancing to it, and my 1-year old singing along was a memory we will always cherish,” says Nina.

“When I started this project in mid-April, I felt grounded for the first time since COVID-19 started. I felt as though I could actually complete a task I started, and that I could make a meaningful impact if I persevered… at the beginning, it was just an idea that I was trying out, and I didn’t know if anything would come out of it,” says Gemma. The project grew quickly, and she now believes that SISI has potential to reach as far as they want. “The main goal initially was to help people, but it has also helped me. This project was the catalyst that I needed to enjoy and appreciate music again, after spending so much time grieving over how much the music community has suffered due to the pandemic.”

With solid base work, dedicated team members and newly acquired funding, Songs in Self-Isolation hope to reach deeper and wider into the community, as many people still remain in strict isolation, despite phase-1 and 2 openings in Toronto. Interested individuals can contact Gemma and friends here, or through email, for music-gram proposals.

[Update: July 8, 2020. A previous version incorrectly printed Yash Verma’s name as Yashi Verma.]


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