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  • Writer's pictureWorld Half Full

Concert series boosts mental health


Imagine going to a concert at esteemed Carnegie Hall in New York and instead of sitting in a chair, you’re invited to make yourself comfy on soft floor cushions or a yoga mat. The lighting is softer and warmer than usual. Rather than being shushed, you’re encouraged to talk with the person next to you. And at the moment when the first musical notes would normally sound, the host invites you to breathe in and out mindfully.

Welcome to a WellBeing Concert.

“We hung fabric to make the space more inviting and cozy,” says Sarah Johnson, director of Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute (WMI). “Given everything that people are navigating in today’s world, we wanted to intentionally craft a communal musical experience to maximise the health benefits of attending a performance.”

Premiering in early November, Carnegie Hall’s ongoing series of 16 Wellbeing Concerts isn’t only designed to entertain — it aims to deliver tangible health benefits.

A 2019 World Health Organisation report found that making and listening to music was associated with reduced stress, anxiety and loneliness. The report — along with a finding that a significant percentage of Americans who suffer from anxiety and depression don’t receive adequate care — also inspired the series. Some performaces are open to the general public, while others are curated for specific audiences such as health care workers, veterans or those in the justice system.

“We started to wonder, what could we do?” Johnson says. “How could we create an opportunity for people to maximise the potential wellbeing impact of a live musical experience?”

When vocalist Sarah Elizabeth Charles begins singing, some listeners close their eyes to focus on her crystal clear, soulful voice. Charles and her husband, pianist Jarrett Cherner, finished writing their album ‘Tone’ during the pandemic. “[We were] trying to cultivate loving kindness and mindfulness during these trying times,” Charles remembers. “And then sharing that loving kindness outward into the world. We could never have known at the time how well it would fit into this space now.”

Both the artists and the attendees say they experience the WellBeing Concerts quite differently from your typical performance. Instead of watching the artists on an elevated stage, attendees are on the same level and form a circle around the performers. “It feels much more connected,” is how Charles describes the difference. “We’re trying to really hold the space for the audience to have as fruitful of an experience as possible during the concert.”

Carnegie Hall piloted the WellBeing Concerts this northern spring mainly for health care providers and people in prison. The response was so enthusiastic WMI expanded the series.

The first concert of the current season, which began on November 11, was for health care workers at New York City’s public hospitals, because of the “acute challenge for the health care world in the last few years,” Johnson explains. “We’ve all been so fragmented and pulled in a million directions, the events are meant to offer relief.” The audience was capped at 100 people to keep it intimate.

Both Johnson and strategic advisor Ian Koebner take care not to stigmatise or exclude anyone. “We take an expansive approach because we’re all swimming in very stressful, isolating waters, and we can all stand to be supported more deeply,” says Koebner, who also hosted the first WellBeing Concert. At the beginning, he invites the audience to breathe mindfully and introduces a very simple form of mindfulness meditation, though he avoids the word ‘meditation’ so as to not feed into any preconceived notions.

“As soon as I walked into the room, I felt my heart rate going down,” one attendee noted after a performance. “I felt my breathing coming back. And it just continued throughout the event. When I left, there out on the street, everything was a bit brighter and calmer and nicer.”

One nurse said after the event, “I wasn’t aware it was possible to be in a space that felt so peaceful in this city.”

Carnegie’s series isn’t the first to deal with mental health through performance, though. The UK pioneered a program called Arts on Prescription as psychosocial support for patients experiencing loneliness or social isolation. The program has run for more than two decades and shows benefits for mental health, chronic pain and the management of acute and chronic illnesses. 

“Arts in general, and music in particular, can be very therapeutic,” Koebner says. “Reflective group listening in a concert setting can have a positive physiological, psychological and social impact. For instance, the stress hormone cortisol decreases. Researchers have measured a decrease in anxiety and depression.”

Koebner worked for ten years in arts-based conflict resolution before joining Carnegie Hall. A licensed acupuncturist, he has a PhD in healthcare leadership from UC Davis, where he was also director of integrative pain medicine. This career path led him to wanting to “be a partner in addressing the burden of chronic pain and loneliness”. He quotes studies that have found listening to music can “reduce symptoms of depression, increase wellbeing through the creation of social connection and provide an important resource for self-development, recovery and quality of life among individuals with long-term illnesses”.

The concert series is “an artistic exploration as well as a laboratory”, says Koebner. Its impact will be evaluated in cooperation with The Berkeley Social Interaction Lab at UC Berkeley. Under the guidance of psychology professor Dacher Keltner, the researchers study the experience of live concerts in a randomised controlled trial.

WMI has more than 14 years’ experience presenting concerts in diverse and often high-stress public spaces, including hospitals, senior care residences and schools, as well as with people experiencing homelessness. “We want to think about how to support wellbeing concerts outside of the very kind of rarefied air of Carnegie Hall,” Koebner says. 

For instance, WMI has been offering a program called Musical Connections in maximum-security prisons such as Sing Sing. Charles has served as a vocal coach for women at New York’s jail on Rikers Island as part of WMI’s Lullaby Project, writing lullabies with and for young mothers. She calls the experience of bringing her music into prisons “life-changing”. The project explores what role music can play in mitigating stress for expecting families and new parents, proving that music “can spur language development and moderate stress”. It also helped Charles work through her own miscarriage and pregnancy. 

“The programs have an effect on us as well,” Johnson says. “I found the concert really helpful to me personally. It was quite peaceful, lovely and contemplative. We who do this work are changed by it, too. There is the potential for 360 degrees of impact.” 

The response to the first concerts has been encouraging, but the organisers know one performance isn’t enough. “The concert felt very healing,” one attendee said. “But I’m very aware that I am now going back out onto the streets of Gotham.”

Johnson’s team is looking into ways to prolong the impact. “How do you extend the impact of a single event?” Koebner asks. He is helping to create resources for the audience –– for instance, curated playlists attendees can download, and short recorded snippets of the concert he sends out for several weeks afterward to prolong the effect.

At the end of the concert, Charles and Cherner invite the audience to sing along and lead the room with lyrics that include: “Be here and now, living life out loud.”

BOTH IMAGES A Wellbeing Concert, Carnegie Hall, New York City

PHOTOS Fadi Kheir

The programs have an effect on us as well. I found the concert really helpful to me personally. It was quite peaceful, lovely and contemplative. We who do this work are changed by it, too. There is the potential for 360 degrees of impact.

Sarah Johnson

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