Making medical music with Anthony Hyatt

Photo by Morgan Kulesza

Anthony Hyatt is in the healing business. And music is the medicine he prescribes. A violin soloist, before the novel coronavirus closed hospitals to visitors, you could find him fiddling in lobbies and waiting rooms or strolling with his strings down the hallways of wards from pediatrics to oncology. If someone popped their head out a door, made a gesture, or a nurse gave the go ahead, he would enter patients’ rooms to play them a private serenade.

“When I go to [the hospital] to play, there are so many unique situations and stories I discover,” he says. “My job is, I come and I offer music.” And when he describes his work as a medical musician, he emphasized that “there is a difference between curing and healing someone.”

The Bethesda native works as an artist-in-residence at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital in the Lombardi Arts and Humanities Program and at the Fairfax Inova Schar Cancer Institute, an outpatient cancer treatment center. He plays across genres — from folk songs to classical music, popular songs and religious hymns representing multiple denominations, plus jazz, blues, sprightly Irish tunes, Guatemalan folk songs, Chinese songs and an El Salvadoran lullaby. And he can offer a Hebrew prayer, too, if asked. He’s rarely stumped by a request.

“As a medical musician — and that’s the term I prefer over artist-in-residence,” Hyatt says, “my goal is to be responsive to the situation. I have to be a bit of a detective and sense what people need — I don’t know their diagnoses, their ages, their ethnic backgrounds and sometimes patients might not be able to speak or they don’t speak English.” He finds a way to reach them via the notes from his violin and his intuition, sensing what someone might need or asking if they want to hear something calming or joyful.

Bringing artists — musicians, visual artists and dancers — into the hospital setting has proven beneficial for patients, their families, and medical teams and staff. Live music can provide solace, assuage stress and anxiety, offer a break from the boredom of being bedridden and even make joy a possibility. This past fall, the National Institutes of Health forged a partnership with The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts called “Sound Health” to study the long-term effects music has on a variety of patients and on the human body’s neurological systems. And NIH’s director Francis Collins is an avid music lover who plays guitar and sings, frequently publically. The National Organization for Arts in Health (NOAH), while just 4 years old, advocates for the efficacy of embedding arts and artists into healthcare settings.

The son of an NIH chemist father and an arts lover and advocate mother, Hyatt, 57, began his violin studies at Bannockburn Elementary in Bethesda. Later, though he went to Grinnell College in Iowa intending to study science, he graduated from the liberal arts college as a music major. He celebrated his bar mitzvah at Congregation Beth El of Montgomery County. Hyatt remains unaffiliated, and lights Shabbat candles most Friday nights.

Medical personnel and staff also benefited from Hyatt’s wandering violin. Together with other artists in the Lombardi program at Georgetown, he provided mini-concerts or accompanied stretch and yoga breaks for doctors, nurses, medical technicians and orderlies.

These days, Hyatt and the team of artists-in-residence are finding ways to use technology to reach patients since they can no longer share their art in person. Hyatt hasn’t entered a hospital since March 10. Instead, he’s created a few videos and is experimenting with playing for patients over the hospital land-line telephones (some aren’t technically savvy, some don’t have tablets or other devices and the hospital’s public WiFi isn’t always that good, Hyatt says).

He recently created a collaborative video with four of the team’s dancers, which is shared on YouTube and the Lombardi program’s website. He’s also working with a group of artists from NOAH, the arts in healthcare advocacy group, to create more accessible online arts programs for hospital staff. He’s concerned that many medical workers will suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis. The hope is that even brief art breaks can help them relieve some of the stressors and allow them to find a sense of calm and happiness from artistic expression.

Although he can’t be visit hospitals in person now, when he was, Hyatt says, “I offered a little prayer … and asked to be used and to be of service and hoped I could be a vehicle for divine light, love and healing vibrations. I prayed to reach the people who needed to be reached.”

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