Thinking outside the music box: Music goes to the shelters

Waltham News Tribune

Once a month, the Lowell Transitional Living Center becomes a concert hall and its residents the eager audience.

Waltham resident Rebecca Strauss, a classically trained violin and viola player, is one of the founding musicians of Shelter Music Boston, a local non-profit that performs classical music in homeless shelters all around the Boston area.

Shelter Music Boston started out as just an idea. Strauss and her colleague Julie Leven—violinist and founder and artistic director of SMB—wanted to take classical music out of the concert hall and bring it to people who would not normally hear it. This month, the program includes Allessandro Rolla’s Divertimento No. 2, Michael Kibbe’s Malibu Music opus 113, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Duo for Violin and Viola in G Major.

“Our mission is to bring respect and dignity and hope to people who are homeless and struggling through live classical chamber music concerts,” said Carrie Eldridge-Dickson, managing director of SMB.

Breaking down assumptions, barriers

Going into their first performances at homeless shelters and treatment centers, Strauss and Leven worried that the audience would question why two ladies who didn’t understand their lives were performing Mozart for them. Instead, Strauss and Leven found exactly the opposite.

“They were just so kind and appreciative and grateful,” said Strauss. “It took away any assumptions I had about the way someone from a different class or a different part of society would appreciate music.”

Many audience members, whether knowledgeable about music or not, were eager to discuss what they had heard, Strauss said.

That was in 2010. Since then, the organization has hired more than 20 professional musicians and have performed hundreds of concerts in shelters around the Boston area.

“All our musicians are professionals,” said Eldridge-Dickson. “Philosophically, it was part of the founding of the organization that we would have professional musicians who have been educated in music and performance playing the highest quality music for the homeless.”

Bringing music to kids, people in pain

Not only are the audience members been appreciative of the live music, but, Eldridge-Dickson said, some say it has improved their physical health.

“We hear that from our audience members all the time,” said Eldridge-Dickson. “We hear things like ‘My shoulder was hurting when I came in here tonight, but after listening to you the pain is gone. I am going to sleep better.’”

“For some people, the music takes them away from their current situation and gives them some respite from their daily struggles,” said Strauss. “Sometimes the best way to deal with trauma is to have a break from it. The music offers some nurturing for people and makes them happy.”

As the organization has grown, Strauss has taken on the role developing a pilot program to bring SMB to homeless children.

“The idea is for us to start serving that community by creating a program specifically for kids,” said Strauss. “It wouldn’t be exactly the same was what we do for adults. It is slightly more educational and interactive. They need to learn how they can calm themselves down if they are anxious or scared. Music can help them feel safe.”

Through her work with SMB, Strauss hopes to do away with the idea that the value of music is defined by the size of the stage on which it is performed.

“We can make a really big difference with music and art and we don’t have to be on a fancy stage to do it,” said Strauss. “We can use all the resources we have in our artist community to look at the needs of our society and bring music and art to those places. Shelter Music Boston does that really well.”